Tourism Could Use An Arab Spring Break

Tunisia and Egypt managed to topple their authoritarian leadership through a largely peaceful civilian revolution, ushering in an era of new optimism for democracy and human rights. However, the revolutions have come at a steep price, as they have hit the tourism industry in both countries hard, signaling potential greater economic woes than what preceded them. In the interest of political stability heading into each respective election, this sector must rebound soon.

In Tunisia, tourism accounted for 7% of the country’s GDP and for 450,000 jobs. Following the revolution, tourism decreased by 45%. Despite the country's sandy white coastline, historical attractions, and fascinating culture, Europeans are cancelling or postponing their trips. In Egypt, tourism accounts for around 6% of the GDP, generating $13 billion last year, but tourism decreased by 45% in the first quarter of 2011. Hotel and restaurant staff, tour company employees and independent tour guides, and taxi drivers are just some who have taken a major, direct hit from these dramatic losses.

Many tourists are worried about the continuing unrest, as Tunisian and Egyptian protests still continue and the Libyan conflict sends refugees across its borders. However, regardless of these circumstances, this may be the best time to visit the two states. Tourist-starved hotels and restaurants are slashing their prices significantly, and civilians are rolling out the red carpet to Western tourists in an effort to show that things are as safe and hospitable as ever. If there were any pent-up frustrations directed at Westerners before, a lot of that has been alleviated after being redirected and unleashed at their own government (unless, of course, you are from Israel).

Regardless, Westerners are trending towards Europe for their vacations instead. Though this is a major boon for some European countries that also could use the economic boost that comes from tourism, such as Portugal and Greece, it is nearly crippling Tunisia and Egypt. This effect could spell disaster for economies that depend on the industry, especially as they are also trying to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after decades of authoritarian rule and economic stagflation. The tourism industry is key to economic recovery in each country, and further economic stagnation or even collapse, could inevitably halt the establishment of a legitimate democratic polity.

To promote its image, these countries may need to look to Western countries or international bodies (such as the UNWTO, which recently signed a partnership agreement with Tunisia) for help. Though things may eventually rebound, especially if successful democratic elections are held and the street protesting dies down, each country will most likely still continue having difficulty in trying to revamp its image and welcome back Western tourists. The region was already suffering from a perception of volatility before the revolutions and now must look to campaign hard and diversify more to bring them back. Both states realize this, as Tunisia has been doing some recent clever advertising in the West, and Egypt’s Minister of Tourism is campaigning in France, one of the region’s biggest tourist markets.

If they can’t rebound soon, and Westerners don’t realize the error of their ways in avoiding these fantastic countries, Tunisia and Egypt may be looking at a very volatile economic road heading into their historic elections. Though most would never trade their newfound freedom and potential new democracy for more tourists, they are still starving for the income they generate. The tourism hit may end up being the most dangerous repercussion of the Arab Spring.

Photo Credit: Rafa