For most media commentators, tourism would be considered an irrelevance as reporters discuss the human misery inflicted on southern Israel and Gaza and the military and political ramifications of the current deadly exchanges between Israel and Hamas.
Since the commencement of the Arab uprisings which began in Tunisia in December 2010 which subsequently engulfed Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and the current bloody civil war in Syria, there has been one common theme. The predominantly secular dictatorships that were ousted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and Assad’s secular Ba’athist regime in Syria have been replaced or are under challenge by Islamist dominated groups. This has now begun to manifest itself in Jordan which until recently had been relatively insulated from regional anti-regime uprisings despite it becoming a haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing political conflict in Iraq and Syria.
For the tourism industries in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, the uprisings were catastrophic during 2011. Millions of jobs were lost and the economies of the four countries have been significantly impacted. The Jordanian tourism industry has also suffered a significant downturn during 2011 and 2012 as part of the collateral perceptual damage to Jordan resulting from the problems experienced in Syria especially and to a lesser extent in Egypt. Although tourism arrivals in Egypt and Tunisia have begun to recover during 2012, unrest in Sinai and the continuation of residual inter-communal and political unrest in Egypt continue to hamper Egypt’s attempt to position itself as a safe tourism destination, especially for the lucrative European and American markets.
While tourism to most of the western half of the Arab world was in decline during 2011-2012, tourism numbers to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank enjoyed significant growth during this period. Despite the political stalemate which has existed between Israel, the Palestinian Authority in recent years, violence between Israel and the PA-controlled West Bank has been minimal.
In 2011, tourist numbers to Israel exceeded 3 million and the West Bank welcomed over 2 million tourists. During 2012, until the outbreak of the past week, tourism arrivals to Israel and the West Bank consistently exceeded the strong levels of 2011. By contrast, Gaza has not benefited from this trend and in fact most source countries urge their citizens to avoid travel to the Hamas dominated Gaza enclave. Hamas’ determination to impose a radical and repressive Islamist regime on the people of Gaza and its utter rejection of Israel and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its apparent tolerance of other extremist groups in Gaza who have fired missiles at Israel in “defiance “of a Hamas cease fire with Israel are major contributing factors to Israel’s decision to respond in force to provocations (in the form of over 700 missile attacks during 2012 on southern Israel prior to last week’s outbreak).
Clearly, prolonged continuation of intense Israeli-Hamas violence will add to the already toxic mixture of instability in the Middle East and will also impact heavily on tourism to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Egyptian Sinai. Tourism to Israel has a flow-on effect to the number of western tourists who visit tourist and religious sites such as Bethlehem and Jericho in the West Bank, Petra, and Christian sites such as Bethany in Jordan and Mt. Sinai and the Red Sea resorts in Sinai. While Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President, Morsi, publicly rails against what he terms as “Israeli aggression” against his Hamas friends in Gaza, Egypt actually has its own powerful vested interest to keep Gaza quiet.
The Hamas regime has become a destination for weapons being sold from conflicts in Libya. While some of these have been aimed and fired against Israel (which may not bother Mr. Morsi) they have also been used by extremist forces to deadly effect against Egyptian soldiers in Sinai, have armed criminals who have kidnapped western tourists in Sinai, and have created widespread instability in the Sinai area. As Egypt works hard on the international stage, (most recently at the World Travel Market in London) to restore its tourism industry, it needs an escalated conflict in Gaza like it needs the proverbial hole in the head.
Any long-term observer of events in the Middle East will know that the conflicts in that complex region operate on multiple levels. The new Egyptian government’s ideological sympathies for Hamas may be real enough, but at the realpolitik level, Egypt, despite its rhetorical hostility to Israel, still maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, it remains heavily reliant on US aid, and also its own national interests require a measure of stability in Gaza because of its concern that the extremism in Gaza can easily move across Gaza’s porous border with Egypt and undermine Egyptian authority in resource -rich Sinai.
While tourism may not be a top-of-mind issue in the news media’s reportage of the Israel-Hamas conflict, tourism is a key element for economies (Israel, West Bank, Jordan, and Egypt) which will all suffer if the fighting is not stopped quickly. One thing is almost certain, behind closed doors, Hamas’ leaders will be placed under extreme pressure by its Arab and Turkish brothers to enter into a ceasefire with Israel. While the leaders of Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia will publicly condemn “Israeli aggression” (free of any comment or context about the provocations which led to Israel’s military strikes against Gaza), they all know that ongoing conflict is as harmful to Arab interests as it is to Israel. Tourism, which is the economic weather vane of global stability, is now facing severe stress in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Egypt as a result of the current outbreak of fighting.