By Staff writer
International tourism arrivals increased 4.5% to 236 million for the first four months of 2006, according UNWTO statistics, and results by region reveal that the Middle East and North Africa were key growth drivers
The global tourism industry was bombarded with barriers to growth in 2005 and the first quarter of 2006; terrorism, natural disasters, health scares, exchange rate fluctuations, escalating fuel prices and economic and political uncertainties were just some of the threats.
Despite these impeding factors, international tourist arrivals have remained buoyant, according to the latest UNWTOâ€™s World Tourism Barometer reports, hitting the 236 million mark from January to April, representing 4.5% growth or 10 million more than in the same period of 2005.
On a month-by-month basis, growth is estimated at 4% for both January and February compared with the same months the previous year.
The March count was down 1% due to the fact that in 2005, Easter fell in March, compared to April this year.
However, strong demand over the Easter 2006 period resulted in an 11% increase in tourism arrivals in April.
Africa and the Middle East reported higher than average growth at 11% each and Asia Pacific also fared well, posting an 8% hike. Arrivals into Europe and the Americas were more moderate, with just under 3% growth achieved.
The MENA regionâ€™s growth was led by Lebanon at 49%, a result that reflects the rapid recovery of a country whose burgeoning tourism industry was dealt a major blow last year when former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, was killed in a car bomb attack.
The first signs of the countryâ€™s revitalization came in December and January when tourism arrivals increased due to Christmas, New Year and Eid al-Ahda.
They compare favourably to the 11% year-on-year slump in arrivals witnessed in November, as revealed in the UNWTOâ€™s World Tourism Barometer for 2005.
Bahrain has also exceeded expectation for the first four months of 2006, reporting 30% growth, which can be partially attributed to the Grand Prix in March.
In third and fourth place were Morocco at 17% and Dubai at 7%.
Jordan grew 5% and Egypt 3%.
The Sharm El Sheik terrorist attack in April impacted Egyptâ€™s short-term growth rate, but the Egyptian Tourism Authority is confident that it will double visitor numbers from 8.6 million in 2005 to 16 million in 2014.
â€œPast experience suggests that consumer confidence tends to recover quite quickly [from terrorism attacks],â€ said UNWTOâ€™s 2005 report.
â€œThe Egyptian governmentâ€™s swift and confident response to the Luxor attacks of 1997, for example, enhanced the image of the country and motivated tourist to return.
The same was true after the bomb attacks in Taba Heights in October 2004.â€
The healthy arrivals figures posted for January to April follow the upward trends reported for 2005, when international tourism arrivals exceeded all expectations, hitting the 808 million mark, representing 5.5% growth or the equivalent of 42 million arrivals.
Of these, 18 million arrived in Europe, 11 million in Asia Pacific, 7 million in the Americas, 3 million in Africa and 2 million in the Middle East.
â€œAlthough growth was more moderate [than in 2004, when 10% growth was achieved], it was still almost 1.5 percentage points above the long-term average annual growth rate of 4.1%,â€ the report said.
Results by region reveal Africa recorded the highest growth in arrivals at 10%, the only region to surpass 2004 growth. In hot pursuit, Asia Pacific and the Middle East reported 7% growth each, followed by the Americas at 6% and Europe at 4%.
The Middle East reported the strongest average annual increase over the past five years.
Since 2000 it has averaged 9% each year, compared to 7% for Asia Pacific, 5% for Africa, 2.3% for Europe, less than 1% for the Americas and a world average of just over 3%.
â€œDubai is without a doubt, one of the tourism success stories of recent years,â€ said the 2005 report.
â€œIt recorded a 7% increase in arrivals through September 2005 following 9% growth in 2004 and it looks as though the destination is a long way from reaching its maximum potential.â€
Investment in tourism accounted for 28.5% of total capital investment in Dubai last year, not including major infrastructure projects such as the US $4 billion airport expansion, the report added.
However, competition from other Gulf States is increasing, particularly as many, including Qatar and Bahrain are expanding their airports to cater to the anticipated growth in international business and leisure travel arrivals.
In addition, Doha will benefit from the coverage it receives when it stages the 15th Asian Games in December.
Syria is also planning to raise its profile by revitalising five key archaeological sites and areas of the Mediterranean coast.
On a global scale, anecdotal evidence suggested leisure tourism outperformed business tourism in 2005, driven by the dominance of low-cost airlines, the UNWTO said.
This trend is set to blossom in the Middle East where Kuwaitâ€™s Jazeera Airways and Sharjah-based Air Arabia are becoming increasingly popular, with the latter launching new routes on a monthly basis.
â€œBut business tourism, and especially the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) sector has definitely picked up in many regions,â€ UNWTOâ€™s panel of experts noted.
This is certainly true in the UAE where existing MICE specialists are expanding and new events management ventures are setting up shop in a bid to cater to pent-up demand.
Both inbound and outbound MICE business is booming.
â€œIncentive travel is increasingly being combined with business meetings to justify costs, save on tax and maximize employee motivation,â€ the panel added.
The cruise market is also booming according to data from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which reveals a 5.7% increase in worldwide passengers to 8.3 million for the first three quarters of 2005, compared to the same period in 2004.
Looking to the future, the UNWTOâ€™s panel of experts are â€œbullishâ€ that â€œbarring unexpected eventsâ€, the May to August period will see international tourism growth rates exceed the 4% long-term average.
â€œThere are currently three major factors that could affect this positive trend.
These are terrorism, higher oil prices, especially for aviation fuel, and the threat of an avian flu outbreaks,â€ explained UNWTO secretary general, Francesco Frangialli.