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The Middle East: Mecca for Tourism

Alicia Rizzo

Waleed Hazbun

Photo: Michelle Woodward

 

With its pristine white sand beaches, stunning ancient ruins, gleaming skyscrapers, and luxurious resorts, the Middle East has become one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world.

Despite the region's association with political violence and hostility to outsiders, international tourism has grown steadily. In 2005, international tourism arrivals topped 800 million people, and they spent more than $680 billion.

In Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), Waleed Hazbun examines how—despite many challenges—tourism in the Middle East has become a leading source of hard currency, embraced by policy-makers and entrepreneurs as an engine of economic growth and a means to promote economic liberalization and global economic integration.

"Tourism is a sector that draws in many different aspects, from local culture to history to economics to public policy," says Hazbun, an assistant professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences. "It brings together very local issues, like how land is used, and the global, like how a country finds its place in the growing competitive global economy." The book grew out of Hazbun's dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It includes case studies of three of the most popular tourist destinations in the region, which have encountered tourism in different ways:

Tunisia: Beginning in the 1960s, this North African state transformed its shores to gain a position within the Mediterranean economy for beach tourism. "Tourism has become a pillar of the Tunisian economy as the state relies on it to project images of openness and stability in its efforts to attract foreign investment, promote economic liberalization, and seek closer integration of its economy into European and American markets," Hazbun says.

Jordan: A territory rich in religious and cultural heritage sites, such as the ancient Nabatean city at Petra that was built around 100 BCE, this state is key in the history of Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. Noting the peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel in 1994, Hazbun says, "The government that wanted to sign the peace deal sold it to the population that tourism could be a source of economic growth."

Dubai: Located along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, Dubai rose in international prominence as an urban experiment and as a tourist destination following 9/11. "Dubai is unique," says Hazbun. "Here is a place that has created all of these superlatives—tallest building, indoor ski slope, largest shopping mall. There has been this massive transformation. Some people say it represents a place that has gone to an extreme because it is so unrelated to the environment, to local history and culture. Dubai is more so reflected in terms of global tourism, global real estate, and global capitalism."

One of the themes in Hazbun's book concerns how authoritarian governments in these countries extract the most benefits from their tourist sites. Tourism generates considerable income, vastly increasing the resources a government can distribute. What's more, governments derive a positive "external image that helps foreign relations and gains investments in other sectors," Hazbun says.

When he started work on this research in the mid-'90s, few people cared about tourism as part of the global political economy of the Middle East. That has changed as more international tourists continue to visit the region and more scholars begin examining the impact of their travel.

"Today it's very common to see stories about small Middle Eastern countries in the New York Times Travel section," Hazbun says. "When I began I never dreamed there would be that kind of presence."

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