How will Israel-Gaza war affect summer travel to Mena region?

Flight bookings to Israel plummet more than 60% as Gaza war enters sixth month

The arrivals hall at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, Israel. Tourists have stayed away since the war began. Getty Images
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The Israel-Gaza war continues to affect demand for travel to the Middle East and North Africa, with forward ticket bookings to the region down 6 per cent in the second quarter as the conflict enters its sixth month.

Airlines, airports and hotels are preparing for the typically busy summer peak tourism season, to capitalise on the strong appetite for travel following the Covid-19 pandemic.

But demand for travel to some countries in the Mena region has dropped, with flight bookings to Israel plummeting by an annualised 61 per cent in the second quarter of 2024, according to data from January to March 6 by travel data analysis company ForwardKeys.

"Israel has been the hardest hit in terms of inbound travel, with a sharp drop in inbound tickets issued directly after the conflict began," Olivier Ponti, director of intelligence and marketing at ForwardKeys, told The National.

Israel has been the hardest hit in terms of inbound travel, with a sharp drop in inbound tickets issued directly after the conflict began
Olivier Ponti, director of intelligence, ForwardKeys

"Year-to-date tickets issued remain 61 per cent below last year’s volumes, as airlines continue to drop connections with Tel Aviv and delay any potential return date."

Countries close to the conflict have also recorded fewer inbound international travellers.

Flight bookings for travel to Lebanon in the second quarter fell 33 per cent year on year, with bookings to Jordan and Egypt down 31 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively, according to the latest available figures by the Spain-based flight ticketing data company.

"Destinations in the region are clearly more impacted by the ongoing crisis, suggesting the traveller sentiment towards safety significantly influences their choice of destination, with a marked preference for destinations perceived as more stable and secure," Mr Ponti said.

The war, which started when Hamas launched a deadly attack into southern Israel on October 7, shows no signs of ending.

Israel has since carried out a relentless bombardment and ground offensive that the Gaza Health Ministry says has killed more than 31,800 Palestinians, most of them women and children.

After the war broke out, many major global airlines suspended flights to Tel Aviv owing to security reasons. Demand for travel to Israel also fell as safety concerns kept international visitors away and bookings cancellations spiked, according to ForwardKeys data.

Gaza war protesters block traffic at San Francisco airport

Gaza war protesters block traffic at San Francisco airport

While some airlines, such as Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian, Air France, flydubai and Etihad Airways, have since restarted flights to Tel Aviv, others including Emirates have extended temporary halts on services into Israel.

Last year, three million tourists visited the country, slightly up from 2.7 million in 2022, the Israeli Tourism Ministry said in January.

December was the worst-performing month of the year with only 52,800 tourists, compared with more than 300,000 a month earlier in the year.

Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon

In Egypt, the country received a record 14.9 million international visitors last year.

While numbers in the fourth quarter were up 8 per cent annually, they still fell short of expectations due to the Gaza war, Egypt's Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa said this year.

Meanwhile, the outlook for Lebanon's vital tourism sector is marred by uncertainty due to the conflict on its southern border between Israel and Hezbollah.

There have been fewer international tourists in Lebanon this winter, following a strong performance in the summer before the war, Amin Salam, Lebanon's Minister of Economy and Trade, said last month.

Countries including the US and the UK have also advised their citizens to reconsider their plans to travel to the crisis-riddled country.

In the last summer season, tourists and Lebanese diaspora injected $5 billion to $7 billion of cash into the country's economy, but it is unclear if they will come to the country this summer, he said.

Travel and tourism is a vital lifeline for Mena economies reliant on the foreign currency that international visitors bring into the country.

It creates jobs and pays the wages of workers in industries such as aviation, tourism, hospitality, transport and F&B.

In Lebanon, if tourism revenue falls by 10 per cent to 30 per cent due to the war, that would cut the country's gross domestic product by a tenth, S&P Global said in a November 2023 report.

In Jordan, a 70 per cent drop in tourism revenue could cut its GDP by 8.5 per cent, the agency said.

Travel demand to the GCC

Meanwhile, demand for travel to GCC countries, which are further removed from the conflict and seen as safe and secure, continues to grow albeit at a slower rate, the ForwardKeys data shows.

Ticket bookings for international arrivals into the UAE in the second quarter are up 18 per cent year on year while those for Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar are higher by 7 per cent, 11 per cent and 86 per cent, respectively, the data shows.

The UAE, the Middle East's business and tourism centre, has recorded a strong recovery and growth in its aviation sector following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dubai International Airport handled about 87 million passengers in 2023, a growth of 31.7 per cent year on year, as it edged past the 86.4 million recorded in 2019.

In 2024, the airport expects to receive 88.8 million passengers, revised upwards from its November forecast of 88.2 million. This would put it within sight of its previous record of 89.1 million in 2018.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi's five commercial airports collectively handled 22.9 million passengers in 2023, a 44.5 per cent increase compared with 2022, state-owned operator Abu Dhabi Airports said in February.

Changing traveller sentiments

The Israel-Gaza war has prompted travellers to reconsider visiting Mena markets that are hardest hit by the conflict, with the data suggesting that they are showing more interest in other regions.

"Analysing the destination choices of travellers from the markets most impacted by the ongoing conflict suggests that travellers may now be showing increased interest in European destinations such as Spain, Greece and Portugal," Mr Ponti said.

"These destinations have experienced the largest percentage point increase in demand year-to-date compared to the period before the conflict."

Among those travelling to the Mena region, there has also been a shift towards more "last-minute" bookings, with tickets issued having an average lead time of 42 days, according to ForwardKeys data.

While bookings with short anticipation windows (0-29 days) have increased slightly, bookings for medium (30-89 days) and long lead times (more than 90 days) have decreased compared to last year, Mr Ponti said.

This suggests a preference for "more flexible and immediate" travel plans among tourists, which is likely due to uncertainties surrounding the conflict, he added.

Updated: March 19, 2024, 1:08 PM