Tourism in the Arab World can mean more than Sun, Sand and Beaches

February 11, 2013


Tourism is potentially a ‘win-win’ sector to promote recovery and employment in the Middle East & North Africa.

  • Tourism is a key source of economic growth in the Arab world.
  • The tourism industry has not yet reached its potential for job creation, especially among youth, women and in local communities.

This page is about outcomes of the MENA Tourism Workshop help in Tunis and DC.

With its world-class combination of cultural and natural attractions, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has long held a powerful allure for tourists. It has made tourism an important source of revenue and growth. In 2011, the industry contributed an estimated US$107.3 billion, representing 4.5 percent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product, and accounted for 4.5 million jobs, almost seven percent of total employment.

Even with this prominent position in the region’s economy, tourism could be doing much more. It could provide more employment, especially for excluded segments of society such as women and young people. Tourism could also be a greater source of revenue for local communities.

Like many other sectors, tourism has also suffered as a result of the recent political turmoil in the region, and the ongoing economic instability in Europe. Tourist arrivals declined by 9% to 72 million in 2011, a decrease of 6.6 million.

These two factors pose significant questions for the role of tourism, as the region attempts to recover while responding to the demands of the ‘Arab Spring’ for more economic opportunities and social inclusion.

How can MENA leverage its unique historical, geographic, and cultural assets to promote growth through tourism? How can tourism strategies in the region promote public-private partnerships, creating jobs and economic linkages, particularly for the large numbers of unemployed youth in the region?

These questions were explored at a workshop held in Tunis, Tunisia on December 3rd and 4th, organized by the World Bank MENA Financial and Private Sector Development Unit of the World Bank jointly with Environment and Urban Departments, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Investment Climate Department, the Investment Climate for Industry and Competitive Industries practices, and the Government of Tunisia. Key government counterparts from across the region were in attendance, as were academics and colleagues from partner international organizations, such as the African Development Bank). Sessions throughout the workshop presented tools and approaches needed to develop MENA’s tourism sector at both the strategic (policy-planning) and operational level.

Tourism Strategies to maximize direct and indirect benefits of the sector to the country

Participants agreed on the need to develop tourism strategies that invest in the full spectrum of ecological, historical, and religious assets the region has to offer. This implies moving away from the “sun, sand, and sea” approach many countries in the region have adopted towards offering experiences that weave beaches with historical sites, culinary and artistic offerings, and natural wonders. Interestingly, a few attendees highlighted the need for MENA to move from “externally driven” to “internally driven” cultural tourism that focuses on strengthening local standards and image building in skills development. Providing value-added services that accurately meet demand will help attract higher value tourists and foster repeat visitors. These offerings must be backed by strategic investments in infrastructure (roads, facilities, and accommodation), and a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and helps ensure revenues generated go to benefit local communities.

Tools to Promote Informed Decision Making in the MENA Countries

Throughout the workshop a variety of tools were presented to help regional policymakers move from strategy to program development. Khadija Bchi from the Ministry of Tourism in Morocco presented a national compatibility model that uses empirical data on labor, tourist volumes, and macro-level growth to simulate impacts of tourism policy changes on the economy. The model, developed over a two-year time period with assistance from the World Bank, is a good example of how econometric analysis can be used to assess policy implications in the sector.

World Bank and IFC colleagues discussed working with client countries on scoping and feasibility analyses, tourism investment preparation, and regulatory reform and licensing. These tools have been put into practice in a project to restore the Medina (old quarter) in Fez, Morocco. The project combined investments in tourist infrastructure (restoration of historic buildings, traffic management) with enhancing access to sanitation and emergency public services. It has significantly increased tourist traffic to the area- the Medina is now the 2nd most visited sight in Morocco. Residents of the Medina report significant increases to basic urban services and tourism-related employment opportunities.

Tourism Skills and Capacity Building to Increase Participation of Youth and Women

Promoting employment of youth and women in MENA’s tourism sector remains an important policy goal. Given the variety of jobs tourism creates across skills levels - from facilities maintenance to curators, architects, and city managers - and the sector’s ability to promote economic development in rural communities at the local level, the sector is well placed to employ youth and women in the MENA region. However, there remain challenges as in much of the region there is a preference for women to stay at home, and in some communities a culture of wariness around working in tourism. Governments will need to implement policies that provide women and youth the skills and training required to take advantage of employment opportunities in the sector, particularly in rural areas, where literacy and formal education may be low. Investments in tourism school and foreign language programs for women and youth are two priorities moving ahead. The World Bank Education for Employment (E4E) Initiative for Arab Youth aims to do just that, providing youth with skills that are relevant to the marketplace. E4E has identified tourism as a priority sector in the MENA region.

Development of tourism segments and public-private linkages to integrate tourism into local, national and regional economy

In many countries in the region the public sector dominates tourism strategy and operations. Panelists discussed the need for governments to liberalize the sector, allowing smaller entrants to come into the market and offer products to a broader and more diverse set of clients. For example, working with smaller entities to ensure accommodation options extended beyond that of large hotels in central areas. A unique model in Jordan was highlighted whereby the government has accredited the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature – a non-profit organization – to manage the country’s ecological sights to much success and strong linkages to local communities.

Conclusion – Unique Opportunities

While challenges facing the tourism sector are many, reform offers a unique set of winning propositions, including job creation, community empowerment, and stability and regional integration during challenging economic and political times.

Overall, the event allowed a comprehensive outlining of critical competitiveness and strategic issues facing the tourism sector in MENA. Leaders affirmed a fresh commitment to assist MENA countries reap the full economic and cultural benefits of enhancing sustainable tourism. Participants committed to forming a regional working group that will share best practices and further align strategies and tools to enhance the sector.