The Middle East is continuing to attract record numbers of visitors, despite ongoing regional tensions. Proving its critics wrong once again, the Arab world enjoyed a 24 per cent increase in tourist arrivals this year, according to the 2004-05 World Travel Market (WTM) global report.

At the accompanying press launch at the WTM fair in London on 8 November, Western journalists asked how a region plagued by war and terrorism over the last few years could still attract 23 million arrivals, up almost 4 million from 2003.

‘The consumer is looking for a bargain close to home,’ says a spokesperson for international tour operator TUI. ‘In the case of the Middle East, European tour operators are finding that newer destinations such as Oman and Qatar are providing a better service, more comfort and all within a reasonable price bracket compared to traditional catchment areas.’

The quarterly barometer from the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) confirms the positive numbers. The Middle East is the second biggest growth region in tourism this year, with only the Far East recording faster rates of expansion.

Lebanon saw a 42 per cent year-on-year increase in tourists from the Arab world in the seven months ending 31 July, while the overall number grew by an estimated 30 per cent. And while Dubai has announced its third offshore Palm development, its 9 per cent growth in tourist arrivals looks relatively low compared with Bahrain’s 19 per cent rise and Jordan’s 18 per cent increase. Egypt, similarly, saw a 49 per cent year-on-year rise in arrivals in the first eight months of the year.

If 2004 is looking healthy it is partly attributable to poor results in 2003. Tourism in Jordan traditionally accounts for almost 11 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP); 2003 saw the hospitality sector contribute just under 8 per cent. ‘We suffered from misconceived perceptions,’ says Environment, Tourism & Antiquities Minister Alia Bouran. ‘If something happens in Iraq people are more cautious before deciding to visit Jordan,’ says Bouran.

The WTM’s report suggests that, while visitor numbers are on the up, many are still staying away. ‘Although only a small number said improved security would encourage them to travel more often, only 30 per cent said they were comfortable flying to the Middle East,’ the report says.

Bouran this year launched a comprehensive tourism masterplan. The objective is to create more than 50,000 jobs and diversify the country’s tourism appeal by 2010. However, not everybody is convinced these plans are sustainable in such a volatile region.

‘I left Jordan because it is too difficult to do business in the tourism sector,’ says a Jordanian tour operator now based in Qatar. ‘The Palestinian issue, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and worst of all the laws are holding everything back. It is never ending.’

Bouran is adamant that the new National Tourism Strategy will create a friendlier environment for local and international companies to work in. However, after spending 15 years attempting to invigorate business, the tour operator opted for Qatar, where he believes there is a fundamental difference. He argues that the financial backing given by Gulf governments to tourism development is creating a healthy business environment and attracting the right people for the jobs, and in turn the visitors. Along with Kuwait (Failaka Island) and Oman (The Wave), Qatar is developing tourism infrastructure with a view to almost tripling its visitor numbers by 2010 to more than 1 million.

However, if these new markets are opening up to Europe’s travelling public, Syrian Tourism Minister Saadala Agha al-Kalaa is optimistic that his country will have even greater appeal for the European market. Increasingly ostracised on the international arena, the country has nevertheless witnessed a 52 per cent rise in the number of in