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The only way is up for the Middle East with tourism leading the way

Source: Travel Blackboard



The Middle East: it is a Janus-faced region of the world. It holds a reputation around the world for being war torn and the home of terrorism, but it is a place that has also been seeing some of the most outstanding tourist growth that has been seen in the world in the past decade. Despite the constant threat of nuclear attack from Iran, the ongoing tension between Israel and Lebanon and continued terrorist attacks, travel and tourism to the Middle East in 2006 is expected to have generated around USD148 billion, and this figure is expected to double in ten years.

One of the most prominent drawcards of this region is Dubai. Visitors continue to pour into the oil rich city which is said to be the fastest growing place on earth. It currently looks like one big construction site, but once the projects are done, visitors will be able to see the results of the USD1.58 billion government budget surplus in 2005. The massive shopping malls galore are not the only drawcard for this city – there is the attraction of year-round sunshine, key conferences such as CITEX and Cityspace and its close proximity to Europe means that it is a sunny holiday destination that does not require a whole day spent on an aircraft. Of course there are the token tourist attractions such as the world’s tallest tower, the largest shopping mall and other excessively large buildings that would bring visitors to this region.

But what the Middle East is really trying to establish themselves as an international sporting destination. This has been spurred on by Bahrain’s role as the long standing host of the Middle Eastern leg of the Formula One Grand Prix and Doha’s hosting of the Asian Games in December. As the Middle East is building itself up to be a place where international sporting events are hosted, it seems that the countries within are also competing against each other to become the Middle East’s sporting capital.

As Bahrain International Circuit’s manager of sports marketing and sponsorship Hisham Abu Al Fateh commented: “The Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix is the Middle East’s only F1 race and we want this event to be a shining example of the region’s emergence as a hub for motor sports”, while the plans for the Dubai Sports City were unveiled earlier this month making it the world's first ever fully-integrated purpose built sports city.

Either way, this competition between cities will do great things for the region’s attempt’s to refocus its wealth away from the oil industries and into the rapidly expanding tourism sector. They have seen the potential of world-class sporting events as a drawcard for travellers from around the world. This will not only change the nature of Middle Eastern politics, but will also make a shift in the way that the rest of the world perceives the historically war torn region.

It was predicted by the World Tourism Organisation that the region will see an average annual growth rate of 6.7% - a number that is the highest in the world and a number that will see 68.5 million international visitor arrivals by 2020.

Despite these exciting numbers, some forward thinkers are already questioning the sustainability of this growth rate. Many in the industry are already looking at eco-tourism and more environmentally-friendly practises. This fear will be exacerbated as the already skyrocketing numbers of luxury hotels increase, demanding a greater number of trained staff and affecting the chance that natural habitats have to regenerate and grow.

It seems that the Middle East’s reputation as an exotic and unexplored destination overrides any tourists’ fears of terrorism or danger. This should prove to be the biggest drawcard for countries in this region attempting to make their mark in the tourism industry, and while it looks like they can only go up, this region should be careful not to miss the mark and focus on development that will destroy their biggest attraction – the beauty and culture of their land.

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