IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2024

Content

CONTENTS

Previews

READ ONLINE AHEAD OF THE PRINT

Syria’s Uncertain Future

Growing Public Discontent in Turkey: A Breaking Point for Autocracy?

Kais Saied’s Tunisia: A “New Republic” with Old Authoritarian Tactics

Libya 2023: A State of Chronic Impasse

Energy and Maritime Borders in the Eastern Mediterranean

Electoral Processes and Change in Mauritania: From the Institutional to the Informal

Lebanon’s Tipping Crises Converge

The Mediterranean in the Face of the Climate Emergency and the Increase in Extreme Weather Events

Corruption in the Western Balkans: An Unresolved Issue for the Accession Candidates

Serbia: The Dilemma between European Accession and Alliance with Russia

The West Fast Losing Influence in the Sahel

New Twists and Turns in the Sahel Security Conundrum: Rural Jihadist Insurgencies, Military Coups, Urban Patriotism and the Turn towards Russia

Mediterranean Port Hubs: Connectivity in Today’s Agitated Waters

Economic Impact of the Gaza War

Investing in the Mediterranean: Strategies for Infrastructure Development

Tourism Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean: Overtourism, Geopolitical Conflicts and Sustainability

Sport and the Gulf: When Saudi Arabia Leads the Way

The BRICS+ Takes All? Not Yet, But Maybe Soon

The European Pact on Asylum and Migration: An Existential Challenge?

What Does the EU’s Future Eastward Enlargement Mean for its Relations with Mediterranean Countries?

Digital Cooperation in the Mediterranean: Opportunities, Challenges and the Future

Algeria: Taking Stock of Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s First Term

The Arab-Israeli Conflict from Oslo to the Gaza War

The US’ Role Since 7 October and the Implications for US-Middle East Relations

Russia and China in the Gaza Crisis: Trying to Beat Washington at Its Own Game

North Africa and the European Union: Between Economic (Inter) Dependence and Diversification of Alliances

Morocco and the Management of Pending Challenges

image

Tourism Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean: Overtourism, Geopolitical Conflicts and Sustainability

Waleed Hazbun

Professor of Middle Eastern Studies
University of Alabama, USA

The region of the eastern Mediterranean – stretching from Greece, across the Levant to Egypt – continues to play a central role in the international tourism economy. The monuments of Ancient Egypt, the pilgrimage sites of the Holy Land and the Greco-Roman ruins found across the region have long drawn visitors. These sites, along with cosmopolitan cities like Athens, Istanbul and Beirut, and, of course, the sandy beaches along the shores and islands of the Mediterranean, Aegean and Red seas drew over 7% of international tourist arrivals in the years before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unlike any previous crisis, Covid-19 shut down international travel, shuttered businesses and brought about a near collapse of tourism economies in the region and beyond. Between 2019 and 2020, the economies of the eastern Mediterranean experienced a 70% to 85% drop in tourist arrivals. By 2021, however, while the global tourism economy struggled to recover, most of the tourism sectors of the eastern Mediterranean rebounded and the region attracted over 12% of global tourist arrivals. By 2022, many states were close to their pre-pandemic tourist arrivals and with tourism demand remaining strong, by 2023 they had rapidly surpassed their 2019 tourism levels.

The rapid bounce back and the sustained
demand intensity has strained the capacity
of tourism infrastructure and driven up higher prices.

As a result, pandemic restrictions are no longer the major challenge for tourism in the eastern Mediterranean. Rather, the unleashing of pent-up demand as well as the resilience of diverse networks of tourism flows have highlighted a different set of pressing concerns across the region. In some cases, such as Greece, the rapid bounce back and the sustained demand intensity has strained the capacity of tourism infrastructure and driven up higher prices. This “overtourism” is leading to changes in the tourism experience, while making domestic access to tourism more difficult. It also highlights the drawbacks for all states, even when successful, of promoting tourism as an engine of economic growth. Meanwhile, several tourism economies across the region continue to be impacted by geopolitical conflict. The civil war in Syria led to the ruin of its tourism sector, while the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reshaped flows of Russian tourists. Most recently, since October 2023, the Israel-Gaza war has restricted Israel’s international tourism sector, debilitated the Palestinian economy and impacted Lebanon and the region. Lastly, while many tourism experts during the pandemic had suggested the global pause in tourism and travel offered an opportunity to refashion tourism development practices to meet sustainability goals, instead pent-up demand has continued to drive flows and, under pro-growth tourism policies, a growing number of locations have become subject to even more intense forms of tourism development, which are transforming the natural landscapes and built environments of the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, tourism’s expansive carbon footprint in an era of climate change contributes in the short term to excessive heat and wildfires, which impact tourism and pose a major longer-term challenge for economies and planners across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

Coping with Overtourism

In 2019, Greece, Türkiye, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine all had record-breaking levels of tourist arrivals. While Covid-19 drastically cut back tourism flows, as the pandemic receded the dynamics of the global tourism economy, with increasing demand for tourism and growth-oriented policies in many destinations, led to the most rapid expansion of tourism flows ever witnessed in the eastern Mediterranean.

The rebound has been especially intense in Greece. Always a vital component of its economy, the tourism sector played a critical role in sustaining the country through its severe economic crisis and recovery in the early 2010s. As pandemic restrictions were lifted in Europe, tourist arrivals rebounded and quickly set new records. While the boost to the economy has been welcomed, the country’s expanding tourism infrastructure has come under strain. This flood is not only a product of pent-up demand and the attraction of Greece’s rich beach and heritage tourism offerings, but recent transformations in global tourism including low-cost flights, the role of social media, work flexibility and new booking methods have made tourism more accessible to more people at more times throughout the year.

Overcrowding at tourist sites, traffic congestion, strains on tourism infrastructure and rising prices in Athens and the islands have not prevented the sustained growth in tourist arrivals. Moreover, more visitors are arriving not only during the peak summer months at a country’s best-known destination, but also at off-peak times and to other locations across the country. As a result, observers of the sector have noticed this saturation leading to structural changes. Tourism developers and operators are catering more to upscale luxury markets and “VIP” experiences, prices have rapidly increased and real estate development is booming. These trends are eroding the quality of the tourism experience for many and risk damaging the Greek tourism image and landscape. They are also displacing lower- and middle-income tourists and leaving many Greeks unable to afford a summer holiday by the sea.

In the summer of 2023, these trends led to a popular reaction, referred to as the “beach towel movement,” which opposed the over-commercialization of beach fronts by private businesses and sought to restore full public access. The Greek government responded with efforts to enforce existing laws. More critically, this protest movement highlighted the urgent need for broader discussions about how tourism is impacting the Greek economy, society and physical landscape. 

TABLE 1 Tourism in the Eastern Mediterranean

International Arrivals
 2010201520162017201820192020202120222023
Cyprus2,1732,6593,1873,6523,9393,9776321,9373,2023,846
Egypt14,0519,1395,2588,15711,19612,8763,6197,96711,62514,906
Greece15,00723,59924,79927,19430,12331,3487,37414,70527,83632,700
Israel2,8032,7992,9003,6134,1214,5528313972,6753,010
Lebanon2,1681,5181,6881,8571,9641,9364148901,4661,670
State of Palestine5224324009299851,110170123362n.d.
Syrian Arab Republic10,970n.d.1,0431,2911,8022,424479661n.d.n.d.
Türkiye31,36439,47830,28937,60145,76851,19215,89429,92550,45356,693
           
East Mediterranean Total79,05879,62469,56484,29499,898109,41529,41356,60597,619112,825
Change from Previous Year  -12.6%21.2%18.5%9.5%-73.1%92.4%72.5%15.6%
World952,0001,196,0001,241,0001,329,0001,401,0001,464,000407,000458,000969,0001,300,000
East Med Share of World8.3%6.7%5.6%6.3%7.1%7.5%7.2%12.4%10.1%8.7%
Source: UNWTO (2010-2022). 2023 values were collected from news reports. n.d. = no data

While the post-pandemic era of extraordinary growth might be unique in the history of tourism, the dynamics of overtourism felt in Greece reflect broader trends in the global tourism economy where overall demand continues to grow, while tourism destinations have limited tools to control or manage these flows. These experiences in Greece and elsewhere beg urgent questions for eastern Mediterranean economies seeking to continue to promote tourism development as an engine of economic growth.

The broadening of tourism markets beyond
western Europe and North America and the
expansion of regional tourism, such as from
the Arab Gulf states, has added resilience
to their tourism sectors.

Navigating Geopolitical Conflicts

The tourism economies of the eastern Mediterranean have long suffered disruptions from wars, political violence and geopolitical tensions. The progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process in the early 1990s offered the possibility of fostering regional cross-border “peace” tourism, but these hopes were dashed within a decade due to the collapse of the peace process and attacks targeting tourists in Egypt and elsewhere. Nevertheless, many eastern Mediterranean states developed robust tourism sectors, learning to rebound from periodic crises through better crisis marketing and the diversification of their product. The broadening of tourism markets beyond western Europe and North America and the expansion of regional tourism, such as from the Arab Gulf states, has added resilience to their tourism sectors.

Over the past decade, however, the region has been impacted by several prolonged conflicts and crises. With over 10 million visitors in 2010, Syria had great potential for tourism development, but the government repression of protests began in 2011 and the subsequent slide into civil war ruined those prospects for the foreseeable future. For a while, the war and Syrian refugee flows also impacted tourism patterns in Turkey and Greece. Egypt’s tourism sector was also disrupted by its 2011 uprising, although the sector has gradually been rebuilding. Most recently, the Israel-Gaza war broke out in October 2023, and fighting across the Israel-Lebanon border has restricted Israel’s international tourism sector, starved the Palestinian economy and impacted regional travel. The 7 October Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli response led to an immediate reversal of a robust tourism sector recovery in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. Many international flights to Tel Aviv, Beirut, Cairo and other airports were suspended. Across Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, travellers cancelled their trips. While the tourism sectors in Israel and its neighbours have long navigated the periodic moments of crisis involving wars and political violence, the Israel-Gaza conflict has been one of the longest, most intensive and broadest geopolitical challenges to tourism in the region.

Since so much international tourism to Israel comes from North America, it has been highly sensitive to perceptions of instability in the region. Domestic tourism and a government-funded effort to house Israelis displaced from war zones in the south and north helped sustain some hotel businesses. Meanwhile, the Palestinian tourism sector has suffered a catastrophe. The fact that Israel controls the West Bank economy and most visitors to the Palestinian occupied territories are day trippers means the Palestinian tourism sector is also impacted by the lack of visitors to Israel. Monthly visitor numbers to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which were growing throughout 2023 until October, dropped to 1% of previous flows, causing massive losses of income and jobs. This collapse hit Bethlehem particularly hard where, over the Christmas tourism season, Palestinians cancelled many celebrations in recognition of the victims in Gaza. In this context, the tourism sector in Palestine might need to rely more on “solidarity tourists” who visit to witness the experience of Palestinians under occupation and demonstrate political support for them.

While the tourism sector in Syria has remained moribund, during the summer of 2023, international tourists and Lebanese diaspora visitors injected over $5 billion into the economy. This influx was critical for an economy that has suffered one of the worst financial crises in modern history. With the exchanges of fire across the border between Israeli forces and the armed Hezbollah group beginning in October 2023 and fears of a wider regional escalation of the conflict, airline traffic into Beirut became irregular and visitor numbers dropped, leaving many hotels with single digit occupancy rates. Meanwhile, with their distance from the conflict and more diverse source markets, the tourism sectors of Türkiye and Greece have been less impacted by the war.

Beyond the immediate region, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reshaped flows of Russian tourists, which had been particularly critical to Türkiye, Cyprus, Egypt and Greece. With the imposition of European sanctions on Russia, the once robust Russian tourist flows to Greece and Cyprus saw a dramatic drop. In contrast, by continuing to welcome and accommodate tourists from Russia, Türkiye and Egypt have been able to cultivate the reduced Russian market, especially as they remain more affordable than long-haul destinations. The shifting pattern of Russian tourism and the decline of tourism in the Levant might possibly reflect an emerging trend towards geopolitical divisions and conflict, defining and constraining tourism flows over longer periods than the periodic crises of the past.

Sustainable tourism would require the systemic
transformation of tourism economies, including
a radical change in tourist consumption habits,
tourism business practices and the goals
of destination management and planners.

Searching for Sustainability

Tourism in the eastern Mediterranean is particularly vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. Mediterranean tourism often involves exposure to the sun in natural landscapes including islands and coastal beaches, water-based recreation, and visiting outdoor heritage parks and ruins. Scientists report that the Mediterranean region is warming 20% faster than global averages. Some of these effects were likely witnessed in the summer of 2023 when fires broke out on the Greek island of Rhodes, forcing evacuations of tourists. And due to an intense heat wave that same summer, for safety reasons, Greek officials had to limit the hours tourists could visit the Acropolis in Athens. Following a year of devastating fires, heat waves, and floods, Greece expanded and rebranded its accommodation tax as a “Climate Crisis Resilience Fee” to help address the costs of dealing with future disasters.

The impact of climate change on regional tourism economies cannot be ignored. The eastern Mediterranean is expected to increasingly suffer from warming temperatures, periodic heat waves on land and in the sea, and extreme weather events. Some have suggested that in two or three decades, summer temperatures will be above the threshold for human comfort, while the region’s tourism resources will be impacted by coastal erosion, sea level rises, limited freshwater availability and the degradation of natural resources.

With growing global environmental awareness, many regional tourism officials, NGOs, and private sector businesses have been increasingly concerned about the possible erosion of the economic value of tourism in the eastern Mediterranean caused by climate change and environmental degradation. In recent years, Greece, Türkiye, Cyprus, Israel and to some degree Egypt have promoted “sustainable tourism” as part of their tourism development efforts. These efforts have mostly focused on the mitigation of the environmental impact of tourism by advocating best practices for visitor management, efficient energy use, reduced water consumption, and, in some cases, better waste management and recycling. Some states have developed new environmental regulations (or tighter enforcement of existing ones), while others have also developed sustainable tourism certification programmes to incentivize private firms and cater to shifting consumer preferences for “green tourism.”

A broader view of sustainable tourism, articulated by organizations such as Plan Blue and the “Interreg MED Sustainable Tourism Community,” more ambitiously advocate for reducing the environmental impacts of tourism, as well as for tourism to show more respect for the sociocultural authenticity of host communities and better conserve the built and living cultural heritage. Realizing such a vision for sustainable tourism, however, would require the systemic transformation of tourism economies, including a radical change in tourist consumption habits, tourism business practices and the goals of destination management and planners.

Rethinking Tourism?

During the Covid-19 pandemic some tourism experts suggested the global pause in tourism and travel might offer an opportunity for tourism-dependent states to refashion their tourism development practices. Considering the lack of governance over most aspects of international tourism, the fragmented nature of the sector in most states and the diversity of tourism markets and consumer tastes, any such redirection would face major obstacles. Before the pandemic, tourism had become more accessible to more populations across the globe and more locations have become subject to diverse forms of tourism development. Moreover, as the pandemic ended, pent-up demand from Europe and North America became critical to economic recovery, as most states across the eastern Mediterranean implemented pro-growth tourism policies. The diversity and dynamic nature of tourism networks help explain the resilience of these flows when faced by disruptions from health crises, as well as war, political violence and geopolitical tensions. At the same time, policymakers, the private sector and tourists across the eastern Mediterranean must begin to consider the drawbacks of pro-growth tourism policies and their economies’ reliance on these flows. International tourism is estimated to contribute between 8% and 11% of global carbon emissions, with about half of this accounted for by transportation. Even with a shift to more “sustainable” practices and possible technological advances, eastern Mediterranean tourism will not be able to escape the impacts of global climate change. Meanwhile, any effort to reduce flows will require constraining both tourist mobility and income from tourism, limiting access to sites and/or reducing numbers by making tourism only affordable for the wealthy. Facing the choice of these tradeoffs will likely be critical to addressing the future tourism challenges across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

Bibliography

Cañada, Ernest. (ed.) Tourism in The Geopolitics of The Mediterranean. Barcelona: Alba Sud Editorial, 2019.

OECD. OECD Tourism Trends and Policies 2022, Paris: OECD Publishing, 2022.

Kalyvas, Stathis N.   “A summerless Greece?” Kathimerini (English Edition), 31 August 2022.

Plan Bleu, State of Play of Tourism in the Mediterranean, Marseille: Interreg Med Sustainable Tourism Community Project, 2022.

Valente, Giorgia. “Israelis and Palestinians Grapple With Slumping Tourism After Almost 7 Months of War.” The Media Line, 5 May 2024.

World Tourism Organization. International Tourism Highlights, 2023 Edition – The impact of COVID-19 on tourism (2020–2022). Madrid: UNWTO, 2023.

World Tourism Organization. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through Tourism. Madrid: UNWTO, 2023.

Additional Information

Institute of SETE (Greek Tourism Confederation), https://insete.gr/.

World Bank, Tourism Watch, www.worldbank.org/en/topic/competitiveness/brief/tourism-watch.

World Tourism Organization, Tourism Statistics Database, www.unwto.org/tourism-statistics/tourism-statistics-database.


Header photo: Passenger cruise ship Sky Princess leaves the French Mediterranean port of Marseille. August, 2023. (Photo by Gerard Bottino / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)