Rarely does one find the diverse countries of the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region in the same situation. In a time of falling oil and commodities prices, however, all MEA countries appear united in one goal: attracting tourists. With 1.18 billion international travellers in 2015 – a 4.4% increase from the previous year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization – global tourism continues growing and is a critical job and foreign currency generator for many countries.
Despite offering unique destinations and tremendous growth potential, the African tourism market suffers from crime, terrorism, political insecurity and health concerns. Terrorist attacks have put traditional favourites such as Egypt, Tunisia and Kenya on warning lists in many Western countries, resulting in an 8% decline in north Saharan Africa’s tourism sector. The oil-dependent Gulf Co-operation Council countries managed to maintain their continuous growth, however, with a 12.8% rise in 2014. Indian and Chinese visitors have filled the gap left by the Russian tourists suffering from current economic crisis.
The general outlook for 2016 is largely based on hoping that the MEA region undergoes a period of peace and stability. However, ease of travelling within neighbouring countries, more flight connections and investment in basic infrastructure are just a few solutions that could facilitate tourism and growth in African countries.
In the Middle East, all eyes will be on Iran as it slowly starts to re-connect to global tourism. After decades of sanctions and isolation, the country is aiming to attract 20 million visitors by 2025. Already, tourists from 58 countries can enter the county with a visa on arrival. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has just sealed a deal for 114 Airbus planes to renew its ageing airline industry. Foreign investors such as the German giant TUI and France’s AccorHotels are lining up to invest in this promising market, which needs a total of $25bn in the next 10 years. But one should not forget the potential of more than 80 million Iranians who are quite eager to travel and see the world – that is, of course, if they are welcomed accordingly.
Mazdak Rafaty is managing partner of Ludwar International Consultancy and SME adviser to the joint Emirati-German Chamber of Commerce.