Middle East tourism shows sign of turnaround, UN report says

Regional tourist decline through July slows and expectations for continued improvement is predicted

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The Middle East's tourism decline has slowed and further improvement is expected this year, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) said yesterday. Tourist numbers fell 13 per cent in the first seven months of the year compared with the same period last year, the UNWTO reported, better than the 18 per cent fall for the region through to April. The latest decline was the largest for any region, it noted.

The organisation sees a broad improvement ahead, including in the Middle East. "I think the trend will follow the global trend," said Taleb Rifai, the secretary general of the UNWTO. "There obviously is a slight improvement in consumer confidence. We expect softening of negative growth when the August figures come through." Globally, there was a 7 per cent drop in tourism this year to July, an improvement on the 8 per cent decline in the first four months of the year.

The UNWTO still forecasts that international tourism will fall by between 4 and 6 per cent this year. Mr Rifai said the sharp fall for the Middle East was largely a result of its rapid growth last year, when tourist arrivals rose faster than anywhere else, surging 18.2 per cent on the previous year. UAE data for the second quarter had not been provided to the UNWTO yet, but the country experienced growth of 3 per cent in the first quarter.

"It is not fair to say that the Middle East is the worst-performing region," said Mr Rifai. "The majority of the countries are doing better than the world average."Declines in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt had dragged down the average, he said. As the liquidity situation improved globally and interest in investment increased, investments would be geared towards more environmentally sustainable developments and Dubai would have to follow this trend, Mr Rifai said.

Tourist arrivals to Europe were down 8 per cent in the first seven months of the year, while the Americas were down 5 per cent and the Asia-Pacific region was down 6 per cent. Tourism in Africa increased 5 per cent. Hotel guest numbers in Dubai increased to 3.85 million in the first half of this year from 3.68 million in the same period last year, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.

However, data from the first quarter suggests that guests are staying for shorter periods, while revenues have dropped substantially. Abu Dhabi is aiming to attract 1.5 million guests this year, the same as last year. rbundhun@thenational.ae