Three out of the top five fastest-growing tourist destinations for 2017 are in the Arab world, according to the latest statistical report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The number of international tourists visiting the Middle East also grew by 10.4 per cent in the first four months of this year compared to the same period last year, says the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. The region now receives approximately 54 million international tourists a year.
While tourism continues to grow globally – destinations worldwide received 369m international tourists in the first four months of this year – 6 per cent more than the same period last year – the rates of growth in the Middle East are third only to South Asia and North Africa, where tourism grew by 13.9 and 17.8 per cent respectively. Tourism accounts for 1 in 10 jobs globally and 10 per cent of GDP.
The Middle East figures come after a 4 per cent decline last year, and mark a resurgence in confidence in the region despite ongoing instability. “Destinations that were affected by negative events during 2016 are showing clear signs of recovery in a very short period of time, and this is very welcome news for all, but particularly for those whose livelihoods depend on tourism in these destinations,” says UNWTO secretary-general Taleb Rifai.
The Middle East figures are particularly impressive given that data from Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest tourism destination, is still pending. Among the countries that have submitted data, “remarkable” figures are shown in Palestine, which received a massive 58 per cent increase in visitors, and Egypt, which is up 51 per cent year-on-year. Strong growth of 19 per cent is shown in Oman, and “robust” growth of 13 per cent in Lebanon, and 9 per cent in Jordan. In North Africa, Tunisia makes the top five fastest-growing tourist destinations globally with arrivals up by 32.5 per cent. Further to a UN resolution adopted at the end of 2015, which recognised the importance of international tourism “in fostering better understanding among peoples everywhere, leading to a greater awareness of the rich heritage of various civilizations, bringing about a better appreciation of the inherent values of different cultures, thereby contributing to the strengthening of peace in the world”, this year has been designated the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Rifai said that while he welcomed the continued development of tourism, “with growth comes increased responsibility to ensure tourism can contribute to sustainability in all its three pillars – economic, social and environmental. Growth is never the enemy, and it is our responsibility to manage it in a sustainable manner.”
After two years of negative growth, the occupied territories experienced a surge in visitors in the first four months of this year, 57.8 per cent up on last year, which saw a total of 400,000 international arrivals. The opening of Banksy's Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem earlier this year and the designation of Hebron's old city as a Unesco World Heritage Site may have raised international awareness of the destination.
International arrivals to Egypt recovered strongly from the crisis of the past two years with a 51 per cent spike in the first part of this year. Political upheaval, the downing of an aircraft over the Sinai desert in 2015 and repeated attacks on Coptic Christians have all put visitors off, but the UNWTO says improved security and promotional efforts contributed to the rebound. After a peak of 14.1m tourists in 2010, numbers dropped to 5.2 million in 2016. Given the results so far this year, the total for 2017 is on course to reach 8 million.
3 Northern Mariana Islands
Close to Guam, this American commonwealth archipelago in the Pacific Ocean has 22 tropical islands with idyllic clear water, sandy beaches, mountains and a population of just 55,000. Despite their isolation the islands received a total of 531,000 visitors last year and have have enjoyed a 37.3 per cent increase in visitors on this figure in the first four months of this year. However, the ongoing stand-off between the US and North Korea may mean that the rest of this year is not quite so busy.
With arrivals up by 35 per cent this year, the "Game of Thrones effect", which has been cited as a factor behind an increase in annual visitors to Iceland from 489,000 in 2010 to 1.79m last year, shows no signs of letting up. This followed the country's financial crisis of 2008 to 2011, and the enormous disruption caused to air travel by the 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. The country had been always appreciated for its wild landscapes, including dramatic waterfalls, glaciers and thermal lagoons, and as a place to view the Northern Lights. The capital Reykjavík is increasingly visited by architecture buffs and music festival goers.
Tunisia suffered similarly to Egypt following unrest related to the Arab Spring and terrorist attacks on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a beach resort in Sousse in 2015. Gradually, visitors have begun to return, and the UNWTO says that a 33 per cent rise in visitors in the first part of this year continues a recovery that started last year. Again, like Egypt, the country's wealth of world- class tourism sites such as Tunis Medina, El Djem Amphitheatre and the southern island of Djerba, combined with extensive beaches and low prices mean that provided security is maintained, it is only a matter of time before visitors return. After receiving 5.7m tourists last year, a steep drop from the 7.8m who visited in 2010, the country is on course to receive at least 6.5m this year.