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Too little, too late? Tourism sector revives in Middle East

After two years of pandemic-induced closures, popular holiday destinations in North Africa are slowly coming back to life. Tourism makes up a vital part of national income in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan and as such, also helps maintain political stability. (Also read: Britain’s airports, airlines and ports see surge of jubilee holidaymakers)

“When there is no tourism, the primary livelihood for the population here, that generates a lot of anger and frustration,” Saied Boukidour, a caterer from Kalaat M’gouna in southern Morocco, told DW.

Most of the inhabitants of his small city, famed for its castles and rose plantations, are involved in tourism one way or another. As yet, the downturn has not caused any political unrest, according to Boukidour. But it has impacted local people’s “social status and their livelihoods. Prices have risen and the needs of families are increasing,” said Boukidour, whose business caters to tourist groups coming through the town.

Changing jobs or leaving altogether

Things are picking up again, he said, and his phone has started ringing. But the recent uncertainty during the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine mean some locals are still thinking about changing jobs entirely, even though that’s difficult in Kalaat M’gouna, which has little other work to offer. “This feeling also leads people to think about emigrating,” Boukidour said.

Studies have found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when borders were closed and tourists could not enter the country, foreign remittances — money being sent into the country by expats working elsewhere — helped plug the foreign currency gap left by tourism. And it has also made emigration seem more attractive, Boukidour noted.

Tourism a foreign currency ‘lifeline’

Over the past few decades tourism has become an increasingly important national earner, bringing billions into countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan.

“Tourism revenues are lifelines for these countries,” Basem Aly, an analyst at Control Risks, a global risk monitoring consultancy, told DW. “Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are not major industrial states. The tourism sector represents one of very few sources of foreign currency. And the more tourism revenue generated, the less likely their governments will ask the [International Monetary Fund] for loans,” he said.

According to the OECD, pre-pandemic tourism accounted for up to 15% of Egypt’s gross domestic product, or GDP. It made up to 10% of Morocco’s GDP, 12% of Tunisia’s and up to 19% of Jordan’s. Those numbers all plummeted during the pandemic.

Official records show that the tourism sector employs millions of people in each of those countries — for example, around 3 million in Egypt and about half a million each in Morocco and Tunisia. But those official numbers account only for people directly employed in the sector.

There are actually many more locals working in tourism-related jobs. They may be involved in what’s known as the informal sector as waiters, taxi drivers, guides or souvenir sellers. Or they may be working in a business dependent on international visitors but not directly linked to tourism, like making handicrafts, catering or transport.

“The distress felt by the tourism sectors in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan is amplified by the industry’s crucial role in sustaining a large number of informal jobs,” a 2020 Control Risks briefing stated in an assessment of how the pandemic was impacting tourism in the Middle East.

“The informal sector plays an important economic and social role in these countries, absorbing large numbers of labor market entrants who are not able to find formal employment … or acting as an overspill for workers who have lost their jobs during recent crises,” it said.

‘Ominous sign’

Those in the informal sector were worst-hit by the pandemic’s impact on tourism, as they were often living without savings and couldn’t access government aid, the briefing argued. Given that many of the demonstrations and the political unrest of the so-called Arab Spring, starting in 2011, were driven by frustrations about unemployment, “the demise of their countries’ tourism sectors should be an ominous sign to the respective governments,” Control Risks concluded.

Over the past two years, regional governments did try to reduce the pandemic’s impact on this all-important sector.

In Morocco, tourism industry staff received about $200 (€187) a month from the government, provided their employers kept on at least 80% of staff. In Jordan, tour companies were exempted from various fees and offered loans. Some countries promoted more domestic tourism; others tried to appeal to new markets, pushing medical tourism or holidays to eastern Europeans.

Happily, since earlier this year, the tourism sector in those countries has been experiencing something of a resurgence.

Moroccan authorities reopened airports to foreigners in February and now say they expect numbers for the year to be down only about 25% on pre-pandemic figures from 2019, when the country had 13 million visitors.

Although Tunisia has already counted more than a million visitors since January, numbers there are not expected to be as positive as Morocco’s. Tourism Minister Mohamed Moez Belhassine told local media his office expects only about half of the 9.4 million visitors Tunisia had in 2019, before the health crisis hit.

Political uncertainty in Tunisia could cause a problem, researchers at The Economist magazine’s business intelligence unit suggested late last year.

“Tourism sentiment is likely to take much longer to recover than in other countries including neighboring markets such as Egypt and Morocco,” they argued. If protests against Tunisian President Kais Saied’s power grab continue to grow or become violent, this will put even more of a damper on Tunisia’s international tourism, they said.

Impact of Ukraine war

There may also be some other obstacles to an ongoing recovery. Another wave of COVID-19 infections would stall a comeback. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine also has an impact.

“The Ukrainian and Russian markets are also very important [in Egypt], and now Ukrainian tourists are completely gone,” Alaa Akel, chairman of the Egyptian Hotels Association, complained. Tourists from those countries previously made up about 40% of the country’s beach tourists, he noted. “And I don’t think Russian tourists will come this summer. Nobody knows when the war will end.”

Mahmoud Radwan, a receptionist at a hotel in the popular Egyptian beach resort town, Hurghada, pointed out another problem: “Even if they [Russians] do return, another problem will arise. Egypt does not accept payment in rubles,” he added.

Russian tourists also account for around 7% of Tunisia’s visitors. In fact, Tunisia’s tourism authorities recently said they want to encourage Russians to visit despite the war, and private airlines have been organized to bring them to the country.

At the same time, Control Risks analyst Aly remains comparatively optimistic. “The social and economic problems mentioned in [the 2020 briefing] will be less of a concern in 2022,” he told DW. “Improved prospects for tourism in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt will reduce the threat of protests despite increases in living costs,” he concluded.

With contributions from Abdessamad Jattioui in Morocco

Edited by: Timothy Jones

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