France is counting on a big increase in the number of visitors it receives each year from the UAE and neighbouring countries in the Middle East. Few detailed statistics are available, but the UN World Tourism Organisation estimates 35 million people will travel abroad from the Middle East between now and 2020. The UAE is listed with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Lebanon among the principal countries from which these visitors will come. According to the latest figures from the French national tourism agency, Atout France, the number of visitors from the UAE to France in 2008 fell by 7 per cent, from 785,000 to 725,000, compared with the previous year. The agency was unable to provide more up-to-date statistics, though travel to France generally picked up in the past year.
The average length of stay in France by Middle East visitors in 2008 was 9.4 days, ahead of visitors from other European countries (6.2 days) and Asian travellers (7.8 days). Paris is the most favoured destination, though Middle Eastern visitors also frequent the chic resorts of the Cote d'Azur. Other information collated by the French shows why Middle Eastern visitors, and not least those from the Emirates, are welcome: their spending power. Atout France says people arriving from the UAE last year spent an average of US$2,127 each (Dh7,812).
The UAE already enjoys close and strengthening political, economic and cultural ties with France, potentially increasing interest in and visits to the European country. The cosmopolitan make-up of UAE society also means that the population includes many expatriates who are already familiar with France. For those who are not, the French police deploy officers with foreign-language skills - including Arabic - to key tourist locations during busy holiday periods. One of their duties is to offer assistance to visitors with little or no French.
It remains to be seen what impact the French government's proposed ban on face-covering garments in public will have on the willingness of Muslims to visit the country. The new law, which has been passed by the National Assembly and goes before the upper house next month, has been strongly criticised by Muslims in France and elsewhere. firstname.lastname@example.org