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UAE holidaymakers shun 'unsafe' Middle East amid summer of strife

Trips to Turkey and Lebanon are being cancelled while Malaysia, Indonesia and Europe are taking over from the traditional holiday destinations because of safety fears, say travel agents.

DUBAI // Holidaymakers from the UAE are cancelling summer breaks to traditional destinations in Turkey and Lebanon and heading to the Far East because of safety fears.

A travel advisory warning GCC nationals not to visit Lebanon and recent violent demonstrations in Istanbul is making many people rethink their holiday plans, say travel agents.

"Local travellers usually go to the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, and also Turkey," said Murad Saket Mansoor, general manager of Abu Dhabi-based travel company Arabian Nights. "For those countries, bookings have dropped tremendously.

"Turkey used to occupy 8 to 12 per cent of our leisure travel. This year it's not even 1 or 2 per cent. We have had lots of cancellations because of what has been happening."

He said the company was making up for this drop by increasing the number of holidays being booked to other regions.

"The entire focus in our office has changed," he added. "We have growth in the Far East and Europe.

"What we have lost to Turkey, we have gained in Malaysia and Thailand. Malaysia in particular is very popular among the local community, being a Muslim country."

The UAE has had a travel advisory in place since May last year warning nationals that it was unsafe to travel to parts of Lebanon.

Turkey became a cause for concern in early June after a peaceful protest against development in Istanbul's Taksim Square spiralled into a widespread demonstration against the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Travel advisories have also been issued by the UK and Egypt, with each country warning its citizens to stay away from demonstrations. A travel alert issued by the US expired on June 5 but was not renewed.

So far, the UAE has not issued any travel notices for Turkey, but that has done little to allay the fears of residents. A spokesman for the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office in Dubai declined to comment on whether or not it was safe to travel to the country.

Premjit Bangara, a manager at Dubai-based Sharaf Travel, said he had received dozens of enquiries from people who had already booked to go to Turkey. "We haven't had a lot of cancellations, but we're getting a lot of calls from clients who are reading the news and asking 'how safe is it to go?'" he said. "There's certainly a lot of concern."

He said the company had seen more interest in Malaysia and Indonesia, with the latter in particular seeing a 6 to 8 per cent growth in bookings. "Indonesia is a modern Islamic society," he said. "The culture is very similar."

Gaurav Sinha, a UAE-based travel industry analyst, said the hesitation over Lebanon and Turkey was situational, as the demand was still there.

"There's still a considerable interest for markets like Lebanon and Turkey, but conversions are lower," he said. "That basically means that people are apprehensive to travel to markets that are normally fairly buoyant during the summer period.

"People are seeking alternatives due to the unrest. There's a lot more travel toward Europe. The financial crisis has made places like Greece and Italy extremely affordable. People are choosing those countries as alternatives within the same budget they would normally have for Lebanon."

Mr Mansoor said Ramadan this year had also changed holiday patterns, with more people not leaving until the end of the summer.

"It used to be that locals would leave for holiday early, come back for Ramadan, and then leave again after Eid," he said. "This year, because there is a short gap between the end of school and the start of Ramadan, people are waiting until after Eid to leave.

mcroucher@thenational.ae

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