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How to ‘waive’ goodbye to the Mideast’s tourism slump

On a list of 10 worst passports in the world, Arab passports occupy five spots

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

As June quietly rolls in, holiday season begins. The Middle East is an unappreciated touristic hub that offers the holy triangle of tourism: history, culture and shopping. Yet in light of the recent events, namely Arab cities making their way into the headlines in either a socially negative light with regards to alcohol and sexuality, or with regards to security, when it comes to the wars in the region, the strength of the region’s tourism industry is being questioned. Namely, the tourism industries in Egypt and Tunisia have suffered, with Egypt’s falling by as much as a third in 2013. The key to reviving the tourism industry in the Middle East could lie within its own residents.

Reviving the industry

Middle Eastern passports are not the easiest to travel with. In fact, on a list of 10 worst passports in the world, Arab passports occupy five spots. But it’s not just traveling to Europe that’s difficult with an Arab passport – travelling within the Middle East is equally, if not more difficult.

In the current setup, GCC-member countries have waived visa requirements for other GCC-member countries, but in order to blow life into the region’s tourism industry, perhaps members of the Arab League can also waive visa requirements for fellow members of the league.

Of course, visa waivers means that the tourism industry needs to be heavily regulated; this includes limiting time tourists spend in a particular country whilst on vacation, providing a proof of address, and giving notice to travel with sufficient time to security-screen incoming tourists. If an individual is not a security threat, and they’re only visiting a country for a limited number of days, what harm is there in allowing them in?

Waiving visa restrictions means that the region’s tourism industry will not only flourish, but may even have the ability to be regionally self-sustainable.
The cultural issues, associated with the Middle East, that may put Western tourists off from visiting the region, are much less of an issue to people from within the region. Not only do they understand the actual cultural constraints that come with certain countries in the region, they also realize that the image painted in the media is not always true.

Let’s not forget how strong women in the industry are

Images of belly dancers at Desert Safaris in Dubai often find their way to my Facebook homepage throughout the summer, when friends choose to visit the UAE. The same friends who post these photos are ones who ask me if I had to cover my hair during my annual visit to Dubai. If I had a penny for each time someone asked me if I’m forced to cover my hair when I visit the Middle East, I’d own a palace. But I will insist that my palace be built in the Middle East, because despite public opinion, women in the Middle East are not as oppressed as foreign media makes them out to be. I am as comfortable roaming the streets of Dubai, Rabat, and Beirut, as I am when I roam the streets of London.

A fair and honest picture of women in the region needs to be painted. This same painting needs to be communicated clearly to the world as it could encourage even more foreign tourists to the region. After all, women make up 50 percent of the world’s population, and therefore 50 percent of the market of people who at some point in their life will need a holiday.

Indeed, the Middle East is no Ibiza. It’s not a market for tourists who want to party, but it is a market for tourists who want a great experience filled with incredible food, and the holy grail of tourism: history, culture, and shopping.

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Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.