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A Rebirth For The Middle East?

Saudi Arabia couldn't be more different than the smaller Gulf states. Whereas Dubai and Qatar are budding information capitals, Saudi Arabia is arguably the most closed society in the world. Religious tourism in the form of the hajj to Mecca generates billions of dollars annually for the kingdom, but only Muslims are allowed to visit Mecca and Medina; the country itself was only officially opened to non-Muslim tourists in 1998. In 2000, the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism was formed, headed by Prince Sultan bin Salman, an outward-looking royal who traveled on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985.

"The first Arab in space knows how to talk to Westerners," says Professor Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont. "But there are still so many obstacles. You have to get sponsorship from the Saudi government to visit. The Saudis want tourism, but under very controlled circumstances."

"The Supreme Commission for Tourism is not selling tourism," says Brid Beeler, who runs Oakland, California-based Worlds Apart, which takes groups to the kingdom. "They're looking at different forms of tourism to see where the potential is." So far, the Saudis are planning to promote snorkeling, handicrafts, natural history, and archaeological sites. "The pre-Islamic Nabataean ruins in Madain Saleh are essential," says High Country Passage's Voll.

Indeed, the kingdom has become more eager to meet the needs of foreign tourists. "Just in the past year the country paved a road between the seacoast and Madain Saleh," says Voll, "which means it could be an overnight trip from a cruise ship." Carolyn McIntyre, regional director for the Middle East at Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco-based group that runs tours to the kingdom, adds, "The Saudis are also opening up cross-border tourism, from Jordan to Saudi Arabia."

Saudi Arabia's fledgling tourism industry might eventually come to look like Jordan's, in fact. Jordan has one internationally famous attraction, Petra—"which is comparable to Madain Saleh," says McIntyre—and also draws visitors to its capital, Amman, and a collection of national parks. But there are important differences between Jordan and Saudi Arabia: at present Jordan has no major problems with domestic terrorism, and King Abdullah maintains close ties to the United States.

The Saudis' relationship with the U.S. government, however, is best described as strained; the country's reputation with the American public is considerably worse. And State Department warnings that discourage all but essential travel to the kingdom (newly issued at press time) don't help, either. Still, there's reason for the Saudis to persevere. For even if hard-liners don't agree that opening the kingdom to foreign influences is imperative for its political health, the country needs the new job opportunities a tourist industry would create: about 53 percent of its population is no more than 20 years old.

Egypt, for its part, is already much more dependent on tourism than Saudi Arabia or Dubai. For thousands of years travelers have been coming to see its man-made glories; today tourism is Egypt's leading source of revenue.

And yet the nation has long had a strange relationship with the idea of foreign visitors. Egyptians are sensitive about their country being perceived negatively by outsiders, and many believe that Egyptians haven't done enough themselves to change that perception. Several Lebanese restaurateurs in Cairo told me recently that there's little training in Egypt's service sector, and little tradition of serving people well. The Lebanese, coming as they do from a community historically dependent on trade, embrace the idea. The Egyptians, whose experience of foreigners includes 2,300 years of occupation, have not as yet.

Cairo once had the sort of élan many still associate with Beirut. Europeans and Arabs remember well when Beirut was called the Paris of the Levant. Over the past few years travelers have started to return, attracted by the city's growing number of stylish nightclubs and restaurants. This won't happen soon in Cairo. Egypt's fundamentalist turn throughout the 1980's and 90's virtually destroyed the remnants of its liberal heyday.

Militants in Egypt have held that the presence of foreign visitors defiles Muslim customs and peoples, thinking that led to the massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor in 1997. But the effect of Luxor was to turn most Egyptians against the militants, with many people's daily bread cut off because foreigners were scared away.

The government responded by routing domestic militants and tightening security, and tourism picked up a little more than a year after Luxor. Today the country's rebound, following declines attributed to 9/11 and the war in Iraq, is slightly misleading. Rooms are filling up, but not with Americans. And, as Four Seasons' Corinthios notes, "the Americans stay longer, and live larger."

In order to win them back and keep Europeans coming, Egypt is diversifying its image, learning from Dubai and promoting more unexpected experiences, such as Red Sea snorkeling and eastern desert safaris. The country isn't deemphasizing its pharaonic monuments or the city of a thousand minarets—it's just proving that this is a place to visit more than once in your life.

Given the complex nature of the Middle East, it's no surprise, as the Egyptian guide Haggag says, that Americans don't know the region well. But if the past is any indication, the events that have kept travelers away are exactly what will bring them back.

Although Americans are not generally regarded as the world's most intrepid travelers, Geographic Expeditions already has a long waiting list for its first trip to Iraq next year. The United States and the Middle East are now becoming a part of each other's history, and, someday, Americans will no doubt want to see the places they are reading about in the newspapers and watching on TV. This is why, as Corinthios says, "the British continue to come to Egypt. It's because of their history there."

The British know the Middle East well because of their past colonial enterprises. Whether or not America's involvement in the region is, as many Arabs fear, a reprise of Europe's imperial projects, it is true that Egypt's role in British history is one reason that the British now come east. And it is the headlines, the images in the U.S. media from Baghdad, Basra, Ramallah, and Cairo, that will eventually, invariably, inspire Americans to make their own separate peace with the Middle East. And the sooner the better. For just as political and cultural issues will need to be resolved to bring Americans back in greater numbers, so long-term understanding, and the coexistence of Arabs and Americans in a globalized economy, depends on travel.

LEE SMITH divides his time between Cairo and Brooklyn and is writing a book on Arab culture for Scribner.


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