The UAE and Saudi Arabia ranked among the top 10 tourism destinations worldwide that have seen the strongest growth in international visitors this year compared with 2019, according to travel analysis company ForwardKeys.
The analysis of international tourist arrivals by destination countries in 2023, including forward bookings for the fourth quarter, reflected the continued recovery of the global tourism sector following the pandemic.
The Middle East and Africa region was particularly well-represented among the top 10 global performers.
Saudi Arabia was fifth in a global ranking of international arrivals in 2023, returning to pre-Covid levels for inbound visitors and buoyed by Hajj pilgrims, investment in marketing the country as a tourism destination and efforts to diversify its economy, the Global Travel Trends report by ForwardKeys showed.
The kingdom followed the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico and Greece in the top five, which was dominated by “sun and beach” destinations.
The UAE ranked 8th on the list, with tourist arrivals this year just 7 per cent shy of pre-Covid levels, thanks to an influx of tourists from the US and Russia and strong air connectivity that has particularly helped lift more Chinese travellers into the country.
Egypt ranked the world's 10th top-tier tourism destination globally, with international arrivals in 2023 estimated to be 10 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, partly because of the return of Russian travellers to the country and also because it returned to tourists' bucket-list as a historical destination.
Data on international tourist arrivals across the world showed “significant differences” between regions, Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at ForwardKeys, said at a press briefing on Friday at the World Travel and Tourism Council's global summit in Rwanda.
“Africa and the Middle East was the only region worldwide which is switching from recovery to growth in the fourth quarter,” he said.
The region's international tourist arrivals year-to-date were 14 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, but are set to grow 2 per cent in the fourth quarter, the report showed.
The global recovery in tourism arrivals will also accelerate towards the end of the year.
Globally, inbound tourism this year is 27 per cent behind 2019 levels, but the recovery is set to accelerate in the fourth quarter to 13 per cent below pre-Covid levels.
Fuelling the global travel recovery are outbound travellers from the US and Canada visiting other parts of the world, the data showed.
Israel-Gaza war impact
The outlook for travel and tourism in 2023 is an “expression of cautious optimism” because of the Israel-Gaza war, which has been raging for nearly a month, and the continuing Ukraine war, Mr Ponti said.
“There is an impact over the last few weeks. We've started to see this with [travel] cancellations, not only to Israel but also to a number of neighbouring destinations,” he said.
“Destinations that were going strong, like Egypt and Jordan, there is a negative impact of this war,” Mr Ponti said, pointing to a rise in booking cancellations.
“But there is also a delayed impact, which is all those new bookings either not happening or going to other destinations,” he said.
“It's very similar to other crises we've seen: either the crisis is short in duration and the impact will be limited in time because people will forget typically within a month and bookings start to come back,” he said.
“But if the situation is prolonged, then the perception of tourists change, and it's seen as a region that's not safe and that damage is much worse.”
Regional travel outlook in 2024
Destinations in the Middle East have a “key role to play” in changing foreign visitors' perceptions about the region and the geopolitical nuances within it, Mr Ponti told The National on the sidelines of the event.
“They should make clear that the region is not a one size fits all. There are different countries in different situations and the risk is that the further away you are from a destination, the more likely you are to aggregate this as, 'this is the Middle East, there's a war there, so I'm not going',” he said.
Despite the Israel-Gaza war, destinations in the Middle East “have some good cards in hand” in terms of strong air connections with the world and diversified tourism offerings, he said.
Dubai has established itself as a leisure destination, while Saudi Arabia is pouring “massive” investments into its tourism sector that will generate more visibility for the country and the wider region, Mr Ponti said.
“There is a lot of energy and lot of efforts that are going to pay off and I don't see why 2024 would not be a successful year if the conflict in Israel doesn't spill over,” he said.