Regional tourism a casualty in Israel-Hamas conflict

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said 29 people had been killed in the first hours after the pause in hostilities ended at 0500 GMT. 
The ruins of the desert city of Petra in Jordan. (Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI/AFP)
The ruins of the desert city of Petra in Jordan. (Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI/AFP)

Tourists are abandoning the Middle East region due to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, putting at risk nations like Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, whose economies depend heavily upon international tourism. 

In Petra, the jewel of the Jordanian desert, where 900,000 tourists visited last year, "you will see few numbers of visitors" although there were thick crowds at the start of October, said tour guide Amer Nezami.  

"Combo tour trips that include Jordan, West Bank, and Israel stopped completely, and dozens of reserved tour trips were cancelled, especially groups from the United States," Nezami, 46, told AFP.  

At the front desk of the Petra Palace Hotel, Safi Nawafleh confirmed that the major hotels saw a 25 to 50 percent drop in reservations since the outbreak of war and said "some small hotels have no guests".  

Fighting began on October 7 when Hamas militants broke through Gaza's militarised border into Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240, according to Israeli authorities.  

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and unleashed an air and ground military campaign that the Hamas government says has killed more than 15,000 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians. 

During a seven-day truce that began last Friday, Hamas freed 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners, and more aid entered Gaza, where about 80 percent of the population is displaced and short of food and water. 

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said 29 people had been killed in the first hours after the pause in hostilities ended at 0500 GMT. 

Before the October 7 attack, the Middle East was enjoying a boom in visitors, posting the biggest gain among global regions during the January-July period with arrivals exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 20 percent, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

But "the war has dried out travel demand to Israel" and it "has a ripple effect on neighbouring destinations, with countries in the Middle East suffering from a heavy decrease in new bookings," said Olivier Ponti at ForwardKeys, a company that analyses travel trends. 

Some sun and sea travellers are passing up Turkey and Egypt for southern European destinations like Spain, Greece and Portugal, he added.

Impact depends on duration

At the beginning of November, S&P Global Ratings said that Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, which are direct neighbours of Israel and Gaza, would suffer the most from the drop in tourism.

It noted that tourism accounted for 26 percent of Lebanon's foreign receipts last year. The figure was 21 percent for Jordan and 12 percent for Egypt. For Israel, the figure was only three percent.

"Since the war between Israel and Hamas, several tour agencies in Egypt have reported cancellations of around half of the bookings for November and December, particularly from European travellers," noted S&P. 

It added that several airlines have suspended flights to Lebanon, where Hezbollah militants have been trading artillery fire with Israeli troops across the border.

On Tuesday, EasyJet warned that the conflict would impact its earnings as flights to Egypt, Israel and Lebanon (two destinations suspended) represent four percent of its capacity.

MSC has cancelled the winter operations of its cruise ships Orchestra and Sinfonia, which were due to ply the Red Sea and put into Israel's Mediterranean port of Haifa.

For the moment, S&P doesn't foresee a considerable decline in tourism to Turkey, due to its geographical distance from the conflict, or a major impact to the United Arab Emirates, where tourist arrivals are above pre-pandemic levels.

But "much will depend on how long the conflict lasts and whether it will spill over into the broader region", said S&P.

Suleiman Farajat, an advisor in the Jordanian prime minister's office, said that if the conflict continues "the upcoming tourism season will be in danger."

But if it ends soon, he expects it could return to normal by September 2024.