Levant tourism hit by fears of Gaza war spillover

Peak season bookings for Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, particularly by westerners, show signs of decline

Eighty per cent of hotel bookings by visitors to Petra in southern Jordan have been cancelled since the Israel-Gaza war broke out, according to a travel agent. Reuters
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Bedding workshop owner Farid Salam was about to start fulfilling a $75,000 order from a hotel in Amman when it called to cancel because of heightened regional sabre-rattling linked to the war in Gaza.

“They no longer expect the customers to justify the investment,” Mr Salam said. “Almost every other corporate hospitality client of mine did the same.”

The Israel-Gaza war is undermining tourism across the Levant at the start of the high season, which runs from October to late May.

The sector is a major foreign currency earner in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, all of which border Israel and are under varying degrees of economic pressure.

The bloodshed in Gaza and speculation of a regional war have affected all three countries to different degrees, but they share a dim outlook, according to industry insiders.

Tourism in the fourth country bordering Israel, Syria, has been moribund for more than a decade of civil war.

In Cairo, the presence of thousands of tourists at the pyramids and at the National Museum masks a shaky picture for tourism overall.

Most had previous bookings and opted to continue with their journey so as not lose their money, travel operators said.

“Many are holding off on making new bookings to visit Egypt until the situation is resolved,” said Zaki Reda, the owner of a travel office in Cairo’s Giza district.

He said there had been some cancellations, mostly by groups from Germany, Britain and France, while bookings from China, Russia and other Asian countries were mostly fulfilled.

“We're somewhat worried but thus far, the slowdown has not been so serious,” he said.

In Jordan, the scene is more stark.

Jerash, the kingdom's largest Roman site, has had only occasional visitors this week compared with the hundreds of European tourists who usually arrive each day, residents said.

The ancient urban site north of Amman was one of a league of 10 cities in the Levant, called the Decapolis, that were established or expanded by the Romans as a defensive line to protect their possessions in Palestine.

A small group of fewer than 10 westerners was being escorted by police as they walked through the Cardo, the main street in the ruins.

In 2009, four foreigners were stabbed here by a man of Palestinian origin who Jordanian authorities said was inspired by militant groups.

“It is safe but the state is not taking any chances,” a vendor at Jerash said.

To the south, in the Nabataean city of Petra, the main destination for mass tourism, a travel agent reported that 80 per cent of hotel bookings had been cancelled, and that two thirds of western visitors to the site had been lost.

In the adjacent governorate of Aqaba, Jordan's only sea outlet, cruise ships have stopped coming, she said.

“The longer the war, the more empty Petra will become," the agent said.

Tourism, which officially includes expatriates visiting their homeland, brings in billions of dollars to Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

It accounts for a significant proportion of foreign currency inflows that have helped to mitigate tough economic conditions.

Lebanon is reeling from financial collapse that started four years ago. Egypt suffers from a foreign exchange crisis and high inflation, while Jordan’s economy has been stagnant for the past decade, with unemployment at about 23 per cent, according to the state.

In Beirut, nightlife districts in the east of the city have grown quieter for the past three weeks as deadly clashes continue at the southern border of the country. The tensions have escalated between Hezbollah, a close ally of the Palestinian militant group Hamas whose October 7 attacks in Israel triggered Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip.

Large numbers of western residents have left Lebanon, diplomats said. Numerous foreign embassies, including those of the United States and Britain, have urged their citizens to leave.

Several foreign airlines have suspended services to Lebanon while the national carrier, Middle East Airlines, has cut flights by more than half.

Scores killed in Israeli strikes on Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza

Scores killed in Israeli strikes on Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza

Passenger traffic through Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport, which is known for its limited capacity and long queues at immigration, has been relatively light.

“It was pretty empty,” said Pat, who arrived at the airport this week.

He said he was among only a few passengers standing in line at immigration for visitors with foreign passports.

“Ninety per cent of people have postponed their trips,” Christine, a travel agent in Beirut, told The National. “No one wants to take the risk.”

A hotel manager in Beirut, who requested anonymity, said that about 200 people had cancelled bookings for October and November.

"We were expecting a lot of business trips, meetings, conferences and events for international organisations, all of which have been postponed," he said.

"This is a significant crisis."

Updated: November 02, 2023, 6:19 AM