There’s no dearth of people who take vacations primarily to indulge in adrenaline-pumping activities.
There’s no dearth of people who take vacations primarily to indulge in adrenaline-pumping activities (think rappelling, bungee jumping, river rafting, etc). But now, another crop of travellers is emerging—those who get a thrill out of visiting conflict-ridden zones. And playing host to this new type of traveller are countries like Egypt, Turkey and Israel, which are finding innovative ways to attract and sustain tourist footfall despite being ravaged by internal and border conflict.
Take, for instance, Egypt. Home to the Giza Necropolis, the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence, the country used to attract close to 14.7 million tourists from all over the world around 2010. But within a year of the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, that number plummeted to nine million. Overrun by protesters and burdened by a dysfunctional government, the country’s tourism took a serious hit. But lately, it seems to be bouncing back and tourists are undeterred by conflict in the area. In 2017, in fact, the country welcomed close to 4.3 million tourists, as per Ismail A Hamid Amer, regional director, Egypt tourism. “The question of the affect of the conflict is outdated… what is relevant now is the recovery. We are trying to reach the same average in tourism we once had,” Amer says.
Their efforts are bearing fruit. As per London-based World Travel & Tourism Council (a forum for the global travel and tourism industry), things are slowly looking up for the tourism industry of Egypt.
Its neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Israel, which have their own history of conflict, are also actively working on improving tourist footfall. Their first course of action has been to dispel the common notion that their country isn’t safe for tourists. Judah Samuel, director, marketing, Israel’s ministry of tourism, says such fears are unfounded. “Israel is one of the safest countries in the Middle East. The conflict lies outside, not within,” he says, emphasising that tourism from south Asian countries, especially India to Israel, has seen a 31% increase in the last year alone in spite of only one airline connecting the two countries.
As far as the tourism industry of Turkey is concerned, the last few years have been nothing short of tragic. The country saw its 40 million annual footfall in 2015 plunge to 24 million post the failed coup by a militant faction against the government in 2016. Turkey, which had held the title of the sixth most-visited country in the world till 2015, as per the World Travel & Tourism Council, saw several bombings, casualties and a state of emergency in 2016. The country is also affected by the border it shares with Syria. “Even though terrorism is an issue in Turkey, it’s also a global one,” says Alaattin Özyürek, Turkish coordinator, West Mediterranean Development Agency, an organisation responsible for the social and economic development of the West Mediterranean region. “We may be fighting heavily on the border against the Daesh, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and People’s Protection Units, but those areas are nowhere close to the tourist spots,” says Özyürek.
Turkey’s tourism industry is now attempting to match its glory days. Around 32 million people visited the country in 2017, as per the country’s tourism ministry, which expects to surpass the number this year, says Özyürek.
But what are these countries doing to attract tourists? They are capitalising on the changing trends in tourism. They are repositioning themselves as destinations that offer myriad attractions to the millennial traveller.
The days when one travelled to Israel essentially for pilgrimage are long gone. Today, the country has repositioned itself as an adventure destination for those interested in going backpacking. Not just that, it has also found favour as the country of choice for destination weddings, as per travel trend reports by online travel agencies. It is also trying to offer tourists more than a tour of its mosques and museums. In an attempt to appeal to new-age tourists, the country is working towards finding better ways to show the unique aspects of its culture. “Popular as a pilgrimage destination for three religions, the tag of being the ‘holy land’ is just one aspect of Israel… it can be as much of a leisure holiday destination as any,” says Samuel of Israel’s ministry of tourism. Stressing on the seriousness with which they approach security, he says, “There’s no compromise whatsoever, be it for our citizens or tourists.”
To cash in on this new and diversified market segment, Egypt, too, has tapped into the demand for destination weddings majorly from countries in the Gulf and even India, says Amer of Egypt tourism. “We offer Egyptian-themed weddings—with authentic costumes and location—organised within heritage sites such as pyramids and temples,” he says, adding that these are, however, put in place only after getting permission from the authorities.
Turkey, too, is not far behind. Antalya, located in Turkey’s southern Mediterranean region (also known as the Turquoise Coast after the colour of its water), is another name on the wishlist of those looking for a destination wedding. This is not surprising, given that Antalya is a resort city filled with beautiful beaches and yachts. “We have constructed close to 2,500 hotels in the city, 400 of which are five-starred. Our occupancy is even higher than all of Spain,” says Özyürek of West Mediterranean Development Agency.
The effort seems to be paying off. If early tourist bookings are any indication, Antalya and all of Turkey might soon be flooded with tourists, as the country’s tourism ministry has recorded a 50% increase in pre-bookings for this year compared with 2017.
While all these countries are prepared to put on a show, a common point of concern among all of them is ease of access. Take, for instance, the fact that only one flight connects India and Israel, which flies between Mumbai and Tel Aviv thrice a week. The Israeli tourism ministry would like Air India to commission more frequent flights. “If you offer tourists a cheaper ticket to Tel Aviv, why wouldn’t they choose to come here instead of, say, London?” says Samuel, adding that they are encouraging several international airlines to boost connectivity whether as stop-overs for long-haul flights or direct flights from state capitals.
Another hitch, as put forward by Özyürek, seems to be the facilitation of visas. As per him, Turkish tourism policies work on a reciprocal approach. “If Turks are being asked for a visa from a certain nation, we would also issue visas for the same,” he explains, putting into focus the need for several countries to develop a better e-visa system that could prove to be mutually beneficial for all stakeholders.
Clearly, be it for leisure, pilgrimage or adventure, conflict-ridden countries are going all out to welcome tourists, ensuring them a good time and a safe trip.