Last week saw a lone wolf jihadi causally stroll onto a tourist-packed beach in Port el Kantoui, Tunisia and, with deadly effect, open fire with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. Thirty-eight people are known to have lost their lives but my comments are not about who did it, why he did it, nor even about how such an atrocity can be prevented in the future. It’s about the immediate effect on tourism in Tunisia and its knock-on effect in other Muslim countries in the region known as the Middle East and North Africa, MENA.
If we start at the south-east end of the Mediterranean and work our way westward along the coast we pass through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and finish at Western Sahara and Mauritania on the westernmost coast of Africa. In the past, many of these countries have been popular holiday destinations much sought after by those in the northern climes of Europe: Sharm El Sheik, Hurghada, Marsa Alam in Egypt; Tripoli in Libya (travel currently not advised); Port el Kantoui, Hammamet, Yasmine Hammamet in Tunisia; Timgad, M’zab Valley, Belzma national park in Algeria (travel currently not advised); Agadir, Marrakech in Morocco; and so on. Moving east and north of Egypt, we find Israel, Iraq, Iran and Syria, all nowadays very doubtful choices for a family holiday.
The tourist destination popularity of many MENA countries changed dramatically with the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions that was sparked by a self-immolation in Tunisia and rapidly spread to Egypt, Jordan, Libya and more recently to Syria and Iraq. The Middle East is in turmoil and nobody has a solution because there is no solution. The closing down of Egypt, Libya, Algeria and now, potentially, Tunisia as tourist destinations has had an enormous impact on the tourist industry in these countries. I don’t want to throw a lot of statistics at you but here are some headliners. Egypt has suffered a 37% decrease in visitors since the 2011 revolution, 14.7M (11% GDP) in 2010 down to 9M the following year . Libya has had no tourism industry since the 2011 civil war that ousted Colonel Gaddafi. Even before the war, tourism was not a major part of Libya’s economy – a trivial 180,000 visitors in 2007 for example . Although not so popular as Egypt, Tunisia has received a fair share of tourists; 6.9 M in 2010 (8% GDP)  but reduced after the revolution and who knows what now will happen to its tourism industry? Algeria’s tourist industry is similar to Libya – virtually non-existent . Politically stable and governed by a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, Morocco is the exception. The Moroccan government has invested heavily in tourism infrastructure and has a vibrant tourism industry with an income representing around 20% GDP.
(5 July, 2015. Since publishing this blog, an interesting summary of the impact on tourism caused by acts of terrorism has appeared on the BBC website. If you are interested, follow this link.)
I suspect that despite reassurances from Tunisian government and tourist industry spokespersons, the Tunisian tourism industry will now take a dive. What family man, or woman, in their right mind, will want to take a family to Tunisia? What young couple will want to risk being in the line of fire of an armed jihadi? What retired couple will want to die violently on a Tunisian beach or at a cultural site rather than from natural causes somewhere else?
We have a situation where almost all of the Middle East and the North Coast of Africa has become a no-go area for casual visitors. This has impacted not only tourism but just about every other aspect of a country’s ability to develop: trade, infrastructure development, supply of basic services, cultural development, and, most importantly, advancement in religious thinking (essential to any country whose main religion is based on 14th century dogma). Since 2011 and the Iraq war, MENA has become one giant fermenting enclave of Islamic unrest and political instability. The whole area is like the surface of the sun or a molten volcanic magma – constantly erupting with no ability to predict the size, location and ferocity of the next eruption.
It would be ironic if last week’s beach slaughter in Tunisia initiates a second Arab Spring given that the first came out of an event in that same country four years ago. But, the nature of this second Arab Spring cannot be predicted, nor its outcome. We live in extremely dangerous times.