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War-Inflicted Slowdown Ends Robust Year for Tourism in Middle East

War-Inflicted Slowdown Ends Robust Year for Tourism in Middle East

Amid security concerns brought on by the Israel-Hamas conflict, international travel has shuddered to a halt in Israel and is falling in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, which erupted in early October, has halted international tourism to Israel and severely blunted travel to neighboring countries in a ripple effect spreading across the entire Middle East. While the slowdown in international visitors is only one of the war’s economic repercussions in the region, it poses a significant threat to the economies of Egypt, Jordan and other nations heavily dependent on tourism and has swiftly reversed a banner year of travel in the Middle East.

The war has affected all segments of the travel industry, with international travel operators scaling back or postponing excursions, cruise lines redeploying ships and airlines dramatically reducing service. And many travelers, heeding government warnings and their own worries, are increasingly wary about visiting the region, prompting waves of cancellations.

Local tour operators fear what a protracted war would do to a promising and growing industry.

“We foresaw the Middle East evolving into the ‘New Europe’ with the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement and Saudi Arabia’s integration into the tourism system,” said Khaled Ibrahim, a Cairo-based consultant for Amisol Travel Egypt and a member of the Middle East Travel Alliance. “We all hope that this war does not escalate and shatter the hopes that people — Arabs, Israelis and Iranians alike — have been holding onto.” Amisol Travel in Egypt has received only 40 to 50 percent of its typical bookings, he said, for the months between February and September 2024.

Hussein Abdallah, general manager of Lebanon Tours and Travels in Beirut, believes that “all of Lebanon is 100 percent safe,” but said he hasn’t had a single booking since the war started, prematurely ending a “very good year” for the tour business. Now, he said, tourist sites like the Jeita Grotto and the Baalbek Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that normally receive thousands of visitors daily, are empty.

“Demand for most Middle Eastern countries is worsening,” said Olivier Ponti, a vice president at ForwardKeys, a data-analysis firm that tracks global air travel reservations. In the three weeks after Oct. 7, flight bookings to the Middle East dropped by 26 percent compared to the bookings made for the same time period in 2019. And inbound tickets to Israel fell below negative 100 percent, compared to the equivalent period in 2019, as cancellations exceeded the number of new tickets issued.

The Israel-Hamas conflict has also “dented consumer confidence in traveling elsewhere,” Mr. Ponti said. According to a ForwardKeys analysis, flight bookings to all regions of the world slumped, dipping 5 percent in the immediate weeks after the war, compared to the corresponding weeks in 2019.

The war came at a time when tourism in the Middle East was on a robust uptick from the height of the pandemic. From January through July of this year, the number of visitor arrivals to the Middle East was 20 percent above the same period in 2019, making it the only region in the world to surpass prepandemic levels, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization.

International visitors have long been drawn to Egypt. The country’s tourism officials had hoped for a record 15 million visitors for 2023.Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Just a week before the war, Ahmed Issa, Egypt’s top tourism official, told The Associated Press that there was “unprecedented demand for travel into Egypt,” with about 10 million people visiting in the first half of this year. The government, hoping for a record 15 million visitors in 2023, had been seeking to increase the number of hotel rooms and available airplane seats, in efforts to encourage increased private investment in tourism.

Now, the U.S. and Canadian governments are discouraging travel to Israel, Egypt and Lebanon. The U.S. State Department has recommended that American citizens leave Lebanon immediately while flights are still available. For Jordan, both the United States and Canada advise visitors to exercise additional caution.

Air service into Israel has been more than halved, with a little more than 2,000 flights scheduled this month compared to the approximately 5,000 flights that flew during November 2022, according to data from Cirium, an aviation analytics firm. Major U.S. carriers, which suspended regular service to the main international airport in Tel Aviv soon after the fighting began, have not resumed flights.

Airlines have also suspended flights to neighboring countries. The German airline Lufthansa paused flight service to both Israel and Lebanon. Wizz Air and Ryanair, budget carriers based in Europe, have temporarily stopped flying to Jordan.

Sightseeing at the Amman Citadel in Jordan. The Middle Eastern nation is highly dependent on international tourism. Muath Freij/Reuters

Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, geographically among the nations closest to the conflict, are also highly dependent on tourism. The sector contributes between 12 and 26 percent of total earnings from abroad to these three nations, according to a recent report from S & P Global Ratings, an international credit rating provider.

“These countries, immediate neighbors of Israel and Gaza, are more vulnerable to a slowdown in tourism, given concerns about security risks and social unrest amid high external vulnerabilities,” according to the report, published Nov. 6. “Further deepening of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or a serious escalation in the West Bank could lead to a new wave of refugee flows that would burden economies in the region.”

In 2022, tourism accounted for about 3 percent of total earnings from abroad into Israel, making the nation considerably less reliant on the sector than neighboring countries. But international travel put some $5 billion into state coffers and indirectly employed about 200,000 people, according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Many cruise lines and tour operators have canceled trips or revised itineraries that included Israel through the remainder of the year and it’s unclear when departures will resume. Intrepid Travel, a global tour company that offers more than 1,150 trips on every continent, shelved 47 departures to Israel this year, a company spokesperson said.

While Israel is a “fairly small destination” for Intrepid, the chief executive, James Thornton, said, that’s not the typical situation for other Middle East countries.

Normally, “Morocco, Jordan and Egypt would be in our top five destinations globally,” he said, adding that cancellations to these countries have spiked since the war began. About half of Intrepid’s customers who had booked trips to Egypt and Jordan scheduled to take place before the end of the year have since canceled or rescheduled, he said.

Late fall and winter is usually the peak season for Middle East cruises, but several major cruise lines have canceled all port calls in Israel through next year and pulled their ships out of the region.

Earlier this month, Norwegian became the first major line to cancel all 2024 sailings to and from Israel, saying that it would take time before people felt safe returning to the country even after the war ends. Royal Caribbean has also removed Israel from all of its 2024 itineraries and redirected two of its ships in the Middle East — Jewel of the Seas and Grandeur of the Seas — to the Caribbean, with departures planned from the United States. MSC Cruises, which has canceled Israel port calls until April is also skipping Aqaba, Jordan and Egypt on some of its itineraries. It will also redeploy two of its ships.

Some travelers, concerned for their safety and booked on cruises still scheduled to depart countries bordering Israel, have attempted to cancel or postpone their trips. Some have been unsuccessful in receiving refunds.

Rebecca Tarlton and her husband are booked on a 12-day cruise along the Nile River with Uniworld, scheduled to depart Dec. 30 from Cairo. Emails to their travel agency and the cruise line, requesting to cancel their trip and rebook on another future cruise, have gone nowhere, she said. Now, a lifelong dream could be a steep financial loss: The trip, which cost about $15,000 in total, has already been paid in full.

“We thought it would be really cool to go to,” said Ms. Tarlton, 69, of Hilton Head, S.C. “We are going to decide this weekend. We’ll bite the cost — it’s really a function of our unease, our anxiety.”

Other travelers are considering shelving trips planned for next year. Kristin Davis and her husband, Jason Glisson, of Fredericksburg, Va., have long wanted to travel to the Middle East. They intended to go to Egypt and Jordan in March, a second attempt at visiting the region after their planned honeymoon in Egypt was derailed by the Arab Spring anti-government protests that began in 2010.

The couple’s travel agency has been sending encouraging videos about traveling to these countries, with the messaging that it’s safe. But Ms. Davis said she worries about being a target for anti-American sentiment.

“It’s definitely a bucket list trip for us. It’s probably the top place that my husband has ever wanted to see,” said Ms. Davis, 42. “I felt comfortable going until this happened. Egypt will still be there. We have waited this long.”

With additional reporting by Ceylan Yeginsu.

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