“Islamic Tourism” - A Long Term Strategy of Tourist Industries in the Arab World After 9/11?

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Ala Al-Hamarneh

 

a.al-hamarneh@geo.uni-mainz.de

 

www.geo.uni-mainz.de/al-hamarneh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Center for Research on the Arab World

CERAW

Institute of Geography

University of Mainz

55099 Mainz

Germany

 

 

www.ceraw.uni-mainz.de

www.geo.uni-mainz.de

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Islamic Tourism” - A Long Term Strategy of Tourist Industries in the Arab World After 9/11?

 

Introduction

            It was one of these curious moments in history. On the very morning of 11.9.2001 just a few hours before the terror attacks in the USA, a new bilingual Arab/English tourist magazine was presented in Damascus at an international conference organized by the UNESCO on cultural tourism: namely, “Islamic Tourism”, a London based “quarterly magazine of tourism in the Islamic world”.[i] The magazine itself is neither theoretic nor scientific. It is rather oriented to a board public, with easy-to-read reports and lots of pictures. The main new aspect is the “Islamic-shaped” language of the magazine. This is even more interesting than the choice of topics and locations, which are all located in Muslim countries or connected to Muslim locations worldwide. The publisher, Abdel-Sahib Al-Shakry, explains what the meaning of “Islamic” in the context of tourism in nine points, which can be summarized in three main blocks: first, the revival of Islamic cultures and the spread of Islamic values; second, economic benefit for Islamic societies; and third the strengthening of Islamic self-confidence, identity and beliefs in the face of negative stereotyping in comparison to other cultures and lifestyles.[ii] While counterproductive binarisms like “Islamic capabilities” versus “popular arts” or “attacks from other cultures” versus “spiritual beliefs of Muslims and Arabs” are openly mentioned, the positive and progressive open-minded elements and attitudes are revealed. For example, the intention of Islamic-tourism is “not to replace existing tourist activity in our [Arabic/Muslim] areas but to open up new and exciting opportunities for growth, as well as to market a new type of commodity for which we are convinced there is an urgent need” or that Islamic tourism “will restrict sectarian and disagreement among Islamic schools of thought and opinion, and among people generally”.[iii] The magazine takes a part in reflecting the discussions about an “Islamic” tourism that started before September 2001, but which have new dimensions and intensity after the attacks.

 

Concepts and Visions of “Islamic Tourism”

 

The various suggested ideas, models and comprehension of what an “Islamic” tourism could be are reflected in three major concepts: economic, cultural and religious-conservative concepts.

 

1. The Economic Concept

The economic concept for Islamic tourism is an extension and expansion oriented concept which focuses on the importance of intra-Muslim and intra-Arab tourism in terms of inclusion of new tourist markets and tourist destinations. Its precept understands the intra-Muslim tourism either as new markets to be integrated in the existing tourism strategy, or as a possible re-placement of the floundering and problematic European and North American markets after 2001. The economic concept is the most wide-spread and widely discussed in the Arab and Muslim worlds at different levels. It considers the Muslim countries as one of the emerging tourist markets of the future with huge economic, demographic and destination potentials[iv]. In the strategic working papers and recovery recommendations of the World Tourism Organization (WTO), Recovery Tourism Committee (RTC) and in many other official treaties as well as in workshops and symposia discussions, the economic concept is to be found in at least one of its numerous modifications.

The importance of the intra-Arab tourism was clearly to be seen after the huge crash of the international tourist markets after 9.11. On the one hand, countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and UAE were able right quickly to re-cover from the crisis due either to their ability to attract more tourists from Arab countries or to their less dependence on European and American Markets. One the other hand, countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen, which are totally dependent on the European markets had collapsed (Table 1). Of course the further terror attacks in Jerba and Casa Blanca as well as the Moroccan-Spanish conflict on the Laila-Island and the unstable security situation in Yemen have massively strengthened the negative trends.[v]

 

Table 1

Change of Tourists’ Numbers in some Arab countries after 9.11

(in Percent to 2000-2001 Numbers)*

 

 

2001-2002

2002-2003

2003-2004

(Author’s Estimates)

Lebanon

30%

36%

40%

Syria

25%

32%

35%

UAE

20%

25%

30%

Bahrain

5%

8%

10%

Egypt

-6%

-5%

5%

Yemen

-20%

-55%

-60%

Tunisia

-55%

-40%

-30%

 

Morocco

-20%

-35%

-35%

* Sources: WTO, National Statistic Departments and Tourism Authorities in Arab countries, various issues of “Islamic Tourism”, “Al-Musafir”, “al-Iktisad wal Amal”

 

While the main “recovery effect” came from the shift towards more Arab and Muslim tourists in the structure of the international income tourists (Table 2), the Arab and Muslim countries have being trying to re-direct their strategies towards more intensification of the intra-Arab and intra-Muslim co-operation and co-ordination in tourist sector. The Islamic Conference for Ministers of Tourism (ICMT) and the Arab Counsel of Ministers of Tourism (ACMT) are examples of such intesification. The first meeting of the ICMT took place in October, 2000, in Iran and the second meeting in October, 2001, in Malaysia. The third meeting is Riyadh, in October, 2002, presented a new quality in the history of the ICMT. Fifty seven country were present at the meeting and the adopted “Riyadh Declaration” presented indeed a pragmatic and future-oriented working program. The main points of the declaration aims to ease the visa, investment and cash-flow restrictions in and between the Muslim countries. Joint marketing, financial support, experts’ meetings, revival of Islamic cultural heritage and common codes of behavior are on the agenda as well.

Table 2

Change of Arab Tourists‘ Numbers in some Arab Countries

(in Percent to 1999-2000)*

 

 

2000-2001

2001-2002

2002-2003

Syria

4%

34%

42%

Lebanon

5%

38%

40%

Egypt

-3%

18%

24%

UAE

3%

12%

12%

* Sources: WTO, National Statistic Departments and Tourism Authorities in Arab countries, various issues of “Islamic Tourism”, “Al-Musafir”, “al-Iktisad wal Amal”

 

The inclusion of new markets and the development of new tourist destinations are the major elements of the economic concept. Turkey, Iran and the middle Asian countries are becoming important export tourist markets to UAE and Egypt. The Arab golf countries are becoming important export tourist markets to Malaysia and Indonesia. Traditional Arab-, and Muslim-oriented destinations are booming (Cairo, Beirut, Bahrain) and new ones aim to place themselves on the Arab and Muslim tourist maps (Sharjah, Ain Sukhna, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur).

 

2. The Cultural Concept

The cultural concept for Islamic tourism includes visions and ideas that outline the inclusion of Islamic religious-cultural sites in tourism programs with “pedagogical” and self-confidence-building elements. It tries to encourage a re-orientation inside the tourist destinations towards less consumption and “western-culture” loaded sites towards more Islamic historical, religious and cultural sites. The re-discovering by tourism authorities and tour operators of second ranging marks of Islamic cultural heritage, such as shrines, tombs, old battle sites, ancient pilgrim routes etc., and including them in special tourism programs, is one of the examples of the new development.[vi] A very special place in this concept is played by the new “tourist” interpretations of pilgrimage and the efforts to merge religious and leisure tourism in joint programs. Saudi Arabia is developing a new strategy for tourism that is based on a new interpretation of pilgrimage that includes leisure activities besides the traditional pilgrim visits to the holy sites.[vii] Tourism promoters in other Muslim countries are offering or working on similar programs. Islamic sites such as Mu’ta and Mazar in Jordan, Qum in Iran, Islamic missionary routs in Oman, various shrines in Morocco, old mosques in Bosnia and the historic cities of Samarkand and Bukhara are already addressed in tourist promotions programs in Arab and Muslim countries.[viii] The cultural concept attempts to revive the Islamic and Arabic cultures in the discourse of tourism as a counterpart to the process of cultural globalization dominated by “McDonaldization” or “Cocalization”. According to Al-Aidi, “marketing national Arab tourism as Arab in character and dominated by Arab features, with its own tradition and costumes, is also convenient for the requirements of Arab tourist”.[ix] The cultural “Arabization” and/or the “Islamization” of tourism are only to be understood as a reaction of the (much) weaker part in the aggressive process of cultural globalization, to define and to protect one’s own culture and cultural heritage. The challenge is whether the tourism industry is indeed capable and skilled enough to implement such a task or even to contribute to a solution. Kevin Meethan suggests that tourism will globally “commodificate” the national cultures into exotic and “consumptional” goods, and doing this it will help saving them.[x]The commodification of native and national cultures is one of the most controversial topics of understanding tourism in the era of the aggressive neo-liberal globalization.

 

3. The Religious-Conservative Concept

 

            The religious-conservative concept for Islamic tourism has not yet been theoretically articulated. But various opinions and remarks in the discussions on the future of tourism in the Arab and Islam worlds as well as some practices of hotel’s managements indicate that articulations and implementations are just a matter of time. The whole idea is based on the conservative interpretation and understanding of Islam. Merging elements of the extremely conservative Islamic lifestyle with the modern tourism industry could indeed present new tourism options, spaces, and spheres. Excluding the fundamental isolationistic views which reject practically any tourism activities beyond pilgrimage, the religious-conservative concepts may be described as “community tourism”. Islamic resorts and hotels as well as Islamic destinations and programs are shaping some tourist activities; Islamic resorts funded and owned by Islamic finance institutions, alcohol-free accommodations, no in-door disco/nightlife hotels, gender-segregated fitness and sport facilities, conservative in-door dress-codex, availability of prayer-rooms on site, women floors and “Islamic” entertainment programs. Many elements of this concept are indeed implemented in the domestic tourism in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Nevertheless, the luxurious hotels and resorts, where the share of international tourism is significant, are less controlled and have a more liberal atmosphere even in these both countries. For a benefit oriented hotel business, the implementation of elements of the conservative-religious is just an adjustment to a new market segment and to new demands (praying room in JW Marriot/Deira, dry law in the hotels in Sharjah, planned women floor in Pearl Movenpick/Dubai Media City, female hours in spa are widely speared, alcohol free restaurants). For a growing conservative intra-Arab and intra-Muslim tourism market, the implementation of a religious-conservative concept in tourism planning as an extra-option, as an insertion into the existing main-stream tourism could indeed have a positive economic and social effect. The exclusion of a noteworthy and growing group of population from the tourism market, leads to the alienation of the tourism industry by the religious-conservatives. Being under durable “lifestyle” pressure in liberal and “west-style” tourism locations, if religious-conservative families and individuals ever decide to vacation in such locations, it could lead to the negative affects of “never again” or simply “frustration”. The discussions in Saudi Arabia about opening the country for international tourism and about tourism with Islamic values are steps in the right direction. Here, though, one must not lose sight of the fact that other types of tourism, for liberal-Muslims and non-Muslims, must be an option as well. The example of Dubai/Sharja is interesting in this context; Dubai is an international, liberal, shopping-, events- ,and leisure oriented destination, while Sharja, a city located just a few kilometers to the north, has an alcohol-free accommodation rules and a more conservative cultural and leisure tourism concept.

 

Conclusions

 

            The effects of the September 11th on the strategies of tourism development in the Arab world have to be seen in the discourses of international and regional politics, security and stability issues as well as the social development and economic growth in the MENA region. International tourism will keep facing numerous crises and problems as long as militarism and terrorism dominate in the region. Various marketing and promotional campaigns will serve to relieve the pressure on tourism sectors. International and regional co-operation and co-ordination at different levels provide an institutional background for crises management. Nevertheless, the core problem of the tourism industry in the region has a structural character; namely, a very weak domestic tourism and not enough developed intra-regional tourism.

            The terror attacks in New York and Washington exposed the structural weakness of the tourism industry in the MENA region, in terms of planning concepts and one-sided out-of-region dependency. Alternative scenarios for crises situation did not exist. Only the spontaneous reaction of the Arab and Muslim tourists of avoiding European and North American destinations and to spending their holidays in the region saved many national tourism industries from collapse. The in-region promotions and marketing tactics later introduced were literally “riding the wave”.

            The various concepts for “Islamic tourism” have a real chance, only if the intra-regional political situation and the intra-regional co-operation in travel and visa issuance improve considerably. Security and stability are the “magic” recipe for new investments, innovative tour programs and structural correction. “Islamic tourism” has a chance to succeed only as a part of multiple concepts for tourism developments. Intra-Arab and intra-Muslim tourism may indeed contribute to stabilizing the national tourism industries. The cultural concept and the religious-conservative concepts have the ability to play a positive role mainly as an insertion segments and supplement options in the tourism landscape.

 



[i] <www.islamictourism.com> (19 April 2003).

 

[ii] A. Sharky, Finally-at Last! A Magazine for Islamic Tourism and Here Why, Islamic Tourism, No. 1, Autumn (2001): 77.

 

[iii] A. Sharky, Finally-at Last, 77.

 

[iv] A. Al-Hamarneh and C. Steiner, Islamic Tourism in the Arab World After 9.11, Comparative Studies of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, No. 32, Spring (2004)

 

[v] A. Al-Hamarneh and C. Steiner, Islamic Tourism in the Arab World After 9.11, Comparative Studies of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, No. 32, Spring (2004)

 

[vi] <www.islamictourism.com> (19 April 2003).

 

[vii] Meetings in Saudi Arabia. To Draw Up Framework for Tourism Sector, Islamic Tourism, No. 3, Spring (2002): 70.

 

[viii] R. Al-Ansari, Suggestions for Developing and Promoting Tourism in the Historical Islamic Cities, Islamic Tourism, No. 3, Spring (2002): 52.

 

[ix] A. Al-Aidi, The Future of Arab Tourism, Islamic Tourism, No. 1, Autumn (2001): 58-59.

 

[x] K. Meethan, Tourism in a Global Society, (New York, Palgrave, 2001): 174.