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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Chinese and Russians shore up Middle East tourism

The Mideast region as a whole drew 58 million foreign tourists in 2017, a 4.8 per cent rise on the previous year

Tourists visit Salah Al Din citadel in the Red Sea resort town of Taba, 450 kilometres east of Cairo in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, on January 19, 2018. Khaled Elfiqi / EPA
Tourists visit Salah Al Din citadel in the Red Sea resort town of Taba, 450 kilometres east of Cairo in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, on January 19, 2018. Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

Chinese and Russian visitors boosted Middle Eastern tourism last year following a 2016 slump as Europeans gave the area a wide berth on security fears, according to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO).

The Mideast region as a whole drew 58 million foreign tourists in 2017 — a 4.8 per cent rise on the previous year — the Madrid-based WTO said in its latest figures released midweek.

Extremist attacks on tourist sites in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey in recent years particularly hit the industry.

But "over time, people forget and return", said Jalel Gasmi, head of Granada Travel Services, a tour operator attending the Fitur international tourism gathering in the Spanish capital.

Despite the annual rise, Marcus Lee, heading the Welcome China agency, said the sector could not rest on its laurels.

For Chinese visitors, security "is the first thing they ask about" beyond visa regulations and often poor flight connections in the Middle East, said Mr Lee.

Security concerns aside, Mr Lee said rising purchasing power means the Chinese tourist takes a different approach compared to 20 years ago when, "for example … coming to Europe they wanted to see ten countries in ten days".

"That's no longer the case and we are concentrating on one country over ten days," said Mr Lee.

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In the case of Egypt, tourist numbers soared 55 per cent last year, even as European numbers dipped, with Chinese and visitors from Egypt's neighbours taking their place.

Visitor profiles have changed since military man Abdel Fattah El Sisi came to power in 2014 and especially since the 2011 overthrow of longtime Hosni Mubarak.

Before then, "the European market, including Russia, accounted for almost 80 per cent [of tourists] but now, 52 per cent," said Hesham El Demeiry, head of the Egyptian tourist authority, adding Chinese and Indian visitors rose from 5 to 12 per cent while tourists from Egypt's neighbours doubled their share from 15 to 30 per cent.

Turkey, meanwhile, is back in business after the fallout from the July 2016 coup saw visitor numbers slide by a third, before a similar rise last year.

Ankara is out to keep on attracting more visitors from Russia — whose tourists poured in during 2017 — as well as neighbours including Iran and Ukraine.

The downside, according to Turkish tour operator Ahmet Okay, is that the newcomers are likely to spend fewer tourist dollars than their EU or US counterparts.

Tunisia is also on the way back thanks to a surge in Russian and Chinese visitors with a 23 per cent rise in visitors last year over 2016.

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