The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been a hub of culture and travel for centuries, recognized as the birthplace of both Western and Arab cultures (Timothy, 2018). The region is home to several significant religions and contains numerous cultural heritage sites, which serve as crucial tourist destinations and emblematic representations of national, cultural and religious identity (Hall & Seyfi, 2021). Countries in the region that relied on oil exports to drive their economies have realized the need to decrease their dependence on oil, considering the unpredictable nature of global oil prices and the shift towards renewable energy sources (Kladou et al., 2023). Tourism is seen as a key sector for economic diversification, as it can generate significant revenue and employment opportunities in related sectors such as hospitality, transportation and entertainment. By diversifying their economies, countries can mitigate their reliance on oil exports, promoting greater economic stability and growth over the long term (Almuhrzi et al., 2017).
With a market of 389 million consumers and a combined GDP of USD 2.4 trillion, the region accounts for 3% of the world’s economy (UNWTO, 2019). The rise of the middle class in numerous countries within the region, coupled with significant international diasporas, has resulted in substantial international outbound markets for both leisure travel and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) travel. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the region welcomed approximately 90 million international visitors every year, contributing to 6% of the total global arrivals (UNWTO, 2019). Additionally, in some countries, the tourism sector accounted for above or close to 10% of GDP and nearly 7% of employment prior to the pandemic (UNWTO, 2019).
Impacts of Covid-19 Pandemic on Tourism in the MENA Region
The Covid-19 pandemic profoundly impacted the global economy in an unprecedented manner. Among the sectors most heavily affected by the unprecedented restrictions on mobility was the tourism industry. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimated that the pandemic caused a decline of approximately 1.1 billion international tourist arrivals, putting 100-120 million jobs at risk (UNWTO, 2022). The MENA region was also greatly affected by the pandemic, experiencing a significant decrease in the number of tourists visiting the region, which in turn resulted in extensive job and economic losses. The UNWTO reported a 57% reduction in international tourist arrivals to the MENA region in 2020 compared to the previous year, resulting in the loss of around 50 million tourist arrivals. This decline in tourism had a ripple effect on the wider economy, with many businesses in the tourism value chain, including hotels, restaurants, and tour operators, struggling to stay afloat. Moreover, the cancellation of significant events in the region, such as the Dubai EXPO 2020 and the annual Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, significantly impacted businesses and individuals who depended on tourism-related activities for their livelihoods. Many countries in the MENA region heavily relied on tourism as a crucial source of income and employment. Egypt, for example, experienced a significant decline in the number of tourists, with only 3.5 million tourists in 2020 compared to 13 million in 2019, resulting in a loss of approximately $10 billion in tourism revenue. The situation was also comparable in other countries in the region, including Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.
As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic and in light of the declaration by the UN World Health Organization (WHO) on 5 May 2023 that Covid-19 is no longer a public health emergency, it is estimated that tourism in some regions will return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023. This is a hopeful sign for the MENA region, as it suggests that the tourism industry can recover and potentially become a significant boost for the region’s economy.
To achieve a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery, MENA countries need to prioritize certain areas to revive their tourism sector
Rebuilding Tourism in MENA in the Aftermath of Covid-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the tourism industry in the MENA region, resulting in economic losses and job cuts. Nevertheless, this challenging situation has presented an opportunity for the industry to reinvent itself and pave the way for a path to recovery. To achieve a sustainable, resilient and inclusive recovery, MENA countries need to prioritize certain areas to revive their tourism sector. By taking these steps, the industry can chart a path forward for economic recovery:
Targeting Niche Markets beyond the Cultural Heritage Offering
While cultural heritage has traditionally been the region’s primary attraction, expanding the range of tourism offerings to include other growing markets such as wellness, medical and adventure tourism could attract a wider range of travellers and provide further opportunities for economic growth. Wellness tourism, for example, is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, and many tourists are searching for destinations that offer relaxation and rejuvenation. Countries in the MENA region can capitalize on this trend by offering beautiful beaches, spas and natural hot springs for wellness tourists. Additionally, the region has world-class medical facilities that are affordable, making it an attractive option for medical tourists. Furthermore, the diverse mountain, desert and coastal landscapes make the region a perfect destination for adventure seekers. By diversifying its tourism offerings, the MENA region can create more job opportunities and support local businesses, further benefiting the economy.
Fostering Inter-sectoral and Intra-regional Collaboration
Collaboration among different stakeholders and countries in the MENA region is crucial to the post-Covid-19 recovery of the tourism industry. Such collaboration can include joint marketing campaigns, knowledge sharing on health and safety protocols and coordination of border policies to facilitate travel. This can help rebuild trust among travellers and encourage them to visit the region post-pandemic. Additionally, collaboration can lead to the development of cross-border tourism products and packages that combine attractions and experiences from different countries. This can create more appealing offerings for travellers and promote longer stays, which can benefit the economies of multiple countries. By working together, stakeholders can share resources, ideas and best practices to rebuild the industry. Given that the primary international source markets for the region are expected to remain constrained for some time, intra-regional tourism will be crucial for the sector’s recovery. MENA countries can leverage and develop regional tourism across both sides of the Mediterranean to promote cultural and economic development in the region while ensuring that the tourism sector is sustainable and resilient (OECD,2022).
To cater to the needs of post-pandemic travellers and tap into the above-mentioned niche markets, investing in and developing tourism infrastructure such as accommodation, transportation, and technology should be one of the key priorities for revising tourism. This will not only increase the region’s competitiveness and appeal in the highly competitive global tourism market but also ensure that travellers have memorable experiences while promoting sustainable recovery and maintaining and improving the quality of tourism. Examples of such infrastructure investments may include developing new tourist attractions, enhancing transportation networks and regional modes of transportation and investing in digital infrastructure to facilitate online bookings and information sharing.
Prioritizing digitalization can help to ensure the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of the tourism industry
Acceleration of Digitalization
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the digitalization of tourism services, leading to a shift in consumer behaviour towards digital platforms and services. Thus, the countries in the MENA region need to increasingly adopt digital channels to promote and sell tourism services, including automation, contactless payments and services, virtual experiences and real-time information provision (OECD, 2022). Policymakers should prioritize the development of digital infrastructure and services, including investing in technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and mobile applications to enhance the visitor experience. Prioritizing digitalization can help to ensure the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of the tourism industry, while also improving the overall visitor experience.
During times of crisis, domestic tourism can provide a lifeline for the industry and help mitigate the impact of global events
Encouraging Domestic Tourism
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity for the transformation of the tourism industry towards a more responsible and sustainable approach. Despite the focus on international tourism, it is domestic tourism that accounts for the majority of trips and economic contribution, accounting for around 85% of global travel. In 2018, almost 9 billion domestic tourism trips were made worldwide, over six times the number of international tourism trips. Due to the pandemic, there has been renewed attention on domestic tourism, which has been somewhat overlooked in policy and economic discussions. During times of crisis, domestic tourism can provide a lifeline for the industry and help mitigate the impact of global events such as the Covid-19 pandemic, political instability and security concerns. With the growing middle class in some of its countries, the MENA region has the potential to drive economic growth and create employment opportunities by encouraging domestic tourism.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a shift in travel behaviour, with tourists moving away from crowded tourist hotspots towards proximity tourism, resulting in a decline in air travel. This trend could create new opportunities for the travel and tourism sector in MENA countries, as it drives new business models and markets and opens up employment possibilities. In addition, sustainable tourism practices are becoming more important to travellers, which presents an opportunity for the MENA region to promote environmentally friendly practices, invest in renewable energy and safeguard natural and cultural heritage sites. Sustainable tourism can help to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of the area while supporting the local economy and communities. Developing ecotourism and sustainable tourism infrastructure (e.g., green hotels and renewable energy) can also attract environmentally conscious travellers and contribute to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
It is crucial for the region to prioritize environmental sustainability in its tourism policies and practices to preserve natural and cultural heritage, while also supporting local economies and communities
While the lifting of Covid-19 lockdown measures is expected to lead to a resurgence in demand for travel and tourism in the MENA region, the ongoing crises continue to negatively impact businesses and jobs in the industry. Environmental challenges, such as water scarcity and rising seas, pose a significant threat to the success of the tourism sector, particularly for coastal tourism. The scarcity of water and the high cost of desalination processes necessary for water-intensive industries such as tourism could create conflicts with other sectors. Additionally, extreme weather events, like heat waves, floods and droughts are becoming more frequent in the region, affecting both tourism and citizens’ everyday lives. Climate change is increasingly becoming a concern for tourism resources in the region, including cultural heritage. However, policymakers lack sufficient focus on promoting tourism-related adaptation and mitigation. Therefore, it is crucial for the region to prioritize environmental sustainability in its tourism policies and practices to preserve natural and cultural heritage, while also supporting local economies and communities.
In summary, rebuilding tourism in the MENA region post-Covid-19 requires diversifying offerings, developing infrastructure, encouraging domestic tourism, collaboration between stakeholders, fostering intra-regional collaboration and a focus on environmental sustainability and climate change. These efforts can help create a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive tourism sector, which supports economic growth and sustains communities over the long term, particularly for countries that rely heavily on tourism as a way to diversify their economies beyond oil.
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Kladou, S.; Andriotis, K.; Farmaki, A. & Stylidis, D. (Eds.). Tourism Planning and Development in the Middle East. CABI, 2023.
OECD. Navigating beyond Covid-19: Recovery in the MENA Region, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1787/48300c64-en.
Seyfi, S. & Hall, C. M. (Eds.). Cultural and heritage tourism in the Middle East and North Africa: Complexities, management and practices. Routledge, 2020.
Timothy, D. J. (Ed.). Routledge handbook on tourism in the Middle East and North Africa. Routledge, 2018.
UNWTO. Impact assessment of the Covid-19 outbreak on international tourism, 2020. www.unwto.org/impact-assessment-of-the-covid-19-outbreak-on-international-tourism.
(Header photo: Egypt Red Sea | https://pixabay.com/photos/sea-egypt-red-sea-beautiful-view-2704576/)