Dubai booms as Arab Spring batters Mideast tourism

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The revolts that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and spread across the Middle East and North Africa had a devastating impact on tourism, but not everyone in the region lost out.

While recovery from the turmoil has been at best tentative, at worst non existent, places where the Arab Spring has not reached have been unexpected beneficiaries.

The smattering of tourists at the pyramids outside Cairo is almost outnumbered these days by souvenir sellers as a continuing political crisis overshadows Egypt’s new democracy.

Further east, meanwhile, the lobbies of the grandiose Atlantis resort on Dubai’s artificially created Palm archipelago are packed with visitors.

Worries over possible militant attacks or a regional conflict involving Iran deter some, particularly Americans, but many others say they feel secure in Dubai in a way they would not elsewhere in the region.

"It’s wonderful and it feels very safe," said John Macleanan, 69, a retired engineer from Australia’s Sunshine Coast visiting Dubai for the first time. "I could live here, although I don’t know that I could afford the accommodation."

Even as visitors abandoned much of the Middle East in 2011, dealing a severe blow to countries like Egypt, 10 percent more of them headed for Dubai’s beaches and shopping malls.

Cushioned from pro-democracy protests by wealth and a small indigenous population, Dubai has used its Emirates airlines and strategic location midway between Europe, Africa and Asia to persuade transit passengers to spend at least a couple of days.

The emirate reported more than 5 million visitors in the first half of 2012, the latest available figures show.

There is no breakdown between tourists, business visitors and transit passengers, but hotel occupancy rates regularly exceed 75 percent and more rooms are being built, a stark contrast to 2009 when Dubai teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

"Dubai is back, there’s no doubt about it," says one Western diplomat on condition of anonymity. "And it’s not just back, it’s clearly benefiting from the chaos elsewhere in the region."

As conflicts broke out in Libya and Syria in 2011, fledgling tourism industries there were all but wiped out.

Tourist visits to Bahrain, where pro-democracy protesters clash regularly with police, have almost dried up, pushing the national Gulf Air airlines to the brink of bankruptcy.

In Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, a marketing campaign targeting European holidaymakers in particular resulted in a 30 percent rise in the number of visitors in 2012 compared to the previous year, with almost 6 million arriving.

But that remains 10 percent below the figure for 2010.

"What has happened to tourism in the Middle East is that it has become very polarized," says Nadejda Popova, senior tourism analyst at consultancy Euromonitor.

"You have the countries such as Egypt which have really suffered, and then you have the United Arab Emirates."

Oil-rich Abu Dhabi, capital of the seven-member UAE, saw its visitor numbers top 2 million for the first time in 2011 and hopes they will have increased by another 10 percent in 2012.

Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia, whose oil wealth has helped it avoid political unrest, reported a big increase in visitor numbers in 2012, mainly religious tourists and pilgrims from increasingly wealthy Muslim populations in the Gulf and Asia.

Last year, Saudi officials told local media they expected some 18 million people to pass through the country, many on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Egypt, meanwhile, has been perhaps the hardest hit.

Tarek Yahia, 30, says he knew when he protested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 that the uprising would have a knock-on effect on his income.

But the English-speaking tour guide - who has both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in Egyptian history - says he never expected it to be so great.

"This year, there hasn’t been a high season at all," he said, adding that for many days in the last two years he has had no work. "You would never have seen it this empty before. People had to queue just to get a photo."

Before the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the sector made up more than 10 percent of gross domestic product, employed some 10 million people and accounted for a quarter of foreign currency earnings.

Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou said the number of visitors rose 17 percent in 2012 - but remains 22 percent below pre-revolutionary levels. He did not give total figures but a Reuters calculation based on 2011 numbers showed that would mean around 11.5 million visitors.

Egyptians angry over a perceived anti-Islamic video trashed part of the U.S. Embassy late last year, and protesters also returned to Cairo’s streets, angry over a new constitution introduced by President Mohammed Mursi.

"We did better than anyone expected despite all the problems we had," minister Zaazou told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference earlier this month.

He was speaking before the latest round of unrest, which saw dozens killed in cities along the Suez Canal.

Increasingly, visitors fly into locations such as Sharm el-Sheikh directly for often entirely self-contained package holidays. Museums and other attractions in central Cairo are left all but deserted and even those who visit the pyramids or Valley of the Kings near Luxor do so on fleeting coach trips.

Giza postcard seller Nasser Roby, 39, says he has been forced to cut back from 3 to 2 meals a day. He says he voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in last year’s elections - but that whether he will do so again depends on the economy.

"It is good that we got rid of the old government," he said. "But life has become very difficult."

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