The Middle East and Africa (MEA) region is one of the world’s most diverse, from its political landscape to the socioeconomic development in each country. Similarly, when it comes to attracting tourists, every country in this vast area can offer a unique selling proposition whether an unparalleled experience in untouched natural landscape or iconic millennia-old cultural monuments.

The travel and tourism industry already plays an important role in most of the MEA region. But despite solid growth of 7% in Africa and 8% in the Middle East and north Africa region in 2018, there is immense potential for the MEA region to boost its market share of 5% to 6% of the international tourism market over the coming years.

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Certainly, the political instability, regional conflicts and lack of basic structural aspects such as hospitality infrastructure and connectivity play a vital role in overall limitations of many countries in the Middle East and Africa. But recent examples show two very important lessons.

First, that implementing easy and doable steps can have a huge impact on the tourism sector and can also have a ‘domino effect’ on other economic sectors. For example, Ethiopia has had an impressive 48.6% boost in its tourism industry by relaxing visa regulations and improving its transport infrastructure. Hence, hotels in Addis Ababa have the highest average daily rate in Africa, making the capital city one of the most attractive FDI destinations for hotel projects.

Second, using digital solutions and start-ups in the overall optimisation strategy of the tourism sector can be of great advantage. Recently I visited Saudi Arabia for the first time. Only six months ago, the visa procedures would have been extremely time-consuming and complicated. This time, after 10 minutes of online registration and further a five-minute approval time, my e-visa was sent directly to my phone.

Reaching Dammam, my fears of chaotic taxi rides were gone when I saw a huge booth for Careem, the regional car-booking startup champion, by the airport exit. Five minutes after ordering my ride I was warmly received by a friendly Saudi citizen in perfect English and we had a great discussion during our ride to my hotel. The entire trip would have been unimaginable just a few months ago, both from a Saudi and from my personal perspective. 

Mazdak Rafaty is managing partner of Ludwar International Consultancy and SME adviser to the joint Emirati-German Chamber of Commerce. E-mail: m.rafaty@lic-consulting.com