What do you think about traveling to the Middle East and North Africa?
Before you jump to the immediate reaction of, “It’s not safe to travel there,” consider this. The U.S. city of Chicago had 650 murders on its streets in 2017, after an even worse year in 2016. Surely that scared away vacationers and business travelers, right? Nope. They set a new record last year with 55 million people coming to the city.
Mexico just announced the dubious distinction of having more murders last year on its soil than at any point in history. They also announced they set a new tourism record, with around 30 million visitors basking in the sun at its beach resorts and exploring its historic cities and monuments.
Thankfully, Americans are getting better at reading a map and maybe, just maybe, using logic instead of their caveman brain to analyze what they hear on the TV news. It’s worth remembering that drug gang violence has very little to do with what travelers will encounter. Just as you probably won’t find yourself in the worst neighborhood in New Orleans at 2:00 a.m. (where there were 157 homicides last year), you probably won’t in another country either.
But still, the fear of terrorism is even stronger than fears of other violence, so the region continues to stay well below it’s potential. The whole Middle East region gets fewer tourists added together than just the one country of France. Here’s how a report from the World Economic Forum summed it up:
…Perceptions related to terrorism have worsened for at least half of the countries in 2017 compared with two years ago, with the notable exceptions of Lebanon and Egypt, where perceptions have improved but still remain poor.
Here’s the most interesting stat to me from that report though: “While some countries rank low on security indicators, countries such as Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar rank among the 10 safest economies globally, with little terrorism incidence.”
The Top Destinations
Where are people flying to in the Middle East and North Africa? Well if you look purely at visitor numbers, there’s one factor you have to remove from the data: the Haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Ticket prices for Saudi Airlines take a huge jump during that time, then go back down to normal when it’s just oil workers passing through. That event alone attracts some 2 million pilgrims, so it and ongoing visits to holy sites skew the numbers for a country getting very few non-Muslim visitors—just petrol industry titans, weapons dealers, and politicians.
We got some data from Wego.com, a popular booking engine for that part of the world. Here’s where they got the most bookings for flights and hotels last year:
1) Cairo, Egypt
2) Dubai, UAE
3) Amman, Jordan
4) Beirut, Lebanon
5) Muscat, Oman
6) Tunis, Tunisia
7) Algiers, Algeria
8) Marrakech, Morocco
Why am I talking about this? Because three of those eight are in the last edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations and all three will be in there again. Cairo, Amman, and Marrakech are in three of the region’s best bargain countries for travelers. You probably don’t just want to hit the capital cities though, right? You’ll probably want to get out of Cairo after a few days, you probably wouldn’t go to Jordan to hang around Amman, and Marrakech is definitely having some overtourism problems.
So I was interested to see the second tier of places booked on Wego, ones that are a bit less popular in the same countries. For the Cheapest Destinations, that would be Aqaba in Jordan, Aswan and Dahab in Egypt, and Rabat in Morocco.
Many people wrote off Egypt when the Arab Spring hit and the country still hasn’t recovered. It got around 8 million tourists last year, which is better than in some years past, but still way down from the pre-revolution days, when 14 million people came. It was still a bargain then, so hotel prices are basically stuck at where they were a decade ago. If you look at Wego.com for Aswan or Luxor, you’ll find a whole long list of hotels going for less than $60 a night, including chain ones like Iberotel and Mercure. You’ll even find full-service hotels with a pool for under $20 a night in some cases. This one below is $18 double—with breakfast!
The Nile river cruise operators were saying in travel trade stories last year that they were happy because occupancy “was up to 50% now.” You’ll still find plenty of deals because no matter how you look at it, that’s still half full.
Jordan has been doing a terrific job getting press coverage and despite the nasty neighbors, has seen visitor numbers inch up during tough times. It’s a stable, relatively safe place to visit and they have been developing The Jordan Trail to get intrepid travelers into the countryside and interact more with the residents instead of just “doing Petra” and heading out. Still, prices remain good across the country, with plenty of budget hotels and good values at the mid-range level.
Morocco has been the brightest spot in North Africa, seeing the kind of double-digit growth that the UAE countries have, but without the benefit of so many air connections via well-run state airlines.
Which country in the region saw the biggest increase last year? That would be Israel, which saw a 25% bump in visitors to 3.6 million. The United States sent the most tourists, but here’s a fun fact: a slim majority of Israel’s foreign tourists are Christians and the majority of those are Catholic.