Recent turmoil aside, the Middle East is a region of contrasts, politically and economically.
THE overriding impression from my hotel room in the Israeli city of Tiberius, bordering the Sea of Galilee, is one of tranquility.
We arrived in Tiberius on the anniversary of Israel gaining independence in 1948. Naturally it was a public holiday and families were enjoying a day out in the May sunshine on the western bank of the historic sea, which is fed by the Jordan River.
Yet only 200 kilometres away there are lives being lost on the streets of Syria, following the major upheaval in Egypt, which resulted in that country’s long-running leadership being overthrown.
These events are proving to be a tragedy for the Middle Eastern economies, which rely so heavily on tourism, especially during the northern spring. That’s ahead of the intense heat of summer, when the number of overseas visitors to the region’s many tourist attractions tails off.
For example there was only a trickle of visitors when we visited Petra in southern Jordan to see what has now become one of the ‘seven new wonders of the world’. There were few tourist coaches in the parking area, when normally at this time of the year the drivers would be competing for parking space.
And when we climbed the almost 1,000 steps to the monastery, one of the region’s highest points, the local merchant disclosed that the purchase of a traditional bracelet from his shop was the first sale of the day. And that occurred around 2pm.
The impact on the local economies has been significant. For instance Jordan, with a population of almost 6.5 million, has an unemployment rate of 11 per cent. In neighbouring Israel, it is 8.5 per cent. That makes Australia’s sub 5 per cent figure look extremely good.
The reduction in the number of big-spending tourists, essentially because of the recent political instability in the region, makes it easier for those who are there to get around. And the environment is essentially peaceful. In fact the Jordanian Tourist Police officer assigned to our group fell asleep on one trip. And he was late arriving the next day.
But there are always reminders that the situation could change quickly. For example, border security continues to be tight. Heavily armed troops are on patrol. And soldiers with sub-machine guns walk down the aisles of tourist buses, which are inspected underneath as well, to ensure they haven’t been fitted with explosives.
And Israeli fighter aircraft were exercising overhead during our visit to some of the attractions bordering the Sea of Galilee.
In addition, menacing four-wheel drive vehicles with sub-machine guns mounted on their roofs are parked close to checkpoints just in case things get out of hand. To confirm that this security is not just for show, unrest broke out in Jerusalem on the Friday after Independence Day was celebrated, as the Palestinians took their turn in observing ‘Disaster Day’. This was to show their hostility for the creation of Israel on what they consider to be their territory.
Friday afternoon is a traditional time of protest in the region. It is the equivalent to Saturday in Australia, and is the start of the weekend. Young Palestinians were out on the streets of Jerusalem in force, stones were thrown and, naturally, the police were called in. Westerners were advised to stay off the city streets after dark.
The net impact has been bad for the economies of the host countries and good for the tourists.
Our tour was originally due to start in Cairo. But when civil unrest erupted in Egypt earlier this year, the advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was for Australians to stay away. And even though subsequent reports indicated the local travel industry was getting back on its feet, with the popular cruises resuming on the Nile, we decided to err on the side of caution.
Damascus was then selected as the entry point for our Middle East sojourn. But the same thing happened there. Unrest turned into bloodshed in the capital of Damascus, and neighbouring cities, and that plan was dropped.
Even though DFAT was urging caution, it was easy to feel safe in Jordan under the leadership of King Abdullah II, who was educated in the US and is a graduate of Britain’s Sandhurst Military College.
One of the genuine surprises for a first-time visitor to the region is the proximity of the nations. At one point in Israel you can see both sides of the nation, and into neighbouring Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as well. It’s too cosy for some. The closeness of the countries can be initially difficult to grasp, especially for someone from Western Australia. But it explains the importance of the region, and the close interest of the major powers.
For example the US is a major benefactor of Israel. According to our guide, the US kicks in almost $US 5billion annually to the Israeli budget. While foreign aid in many cases has an altruistic motive, it would be hard to deny that the US has a big dose of self-interest accompanying its significant contribution. Of course the power of the Jewish lobby in the US must also be acknowledged.
But Australians continue to be well looked after, provided they follow sensible procedures in such a volatile area. And the tourism industry continues to function efficiently – perhaps even more efficiently because of the reduced numbers.
There are some quirky aspects. When our group ventured onto the Sea of Galilee, the hosts hoisted our national flag. The group snapped to attention and burst into a rendition of Advance Australia Fair. On our return a Canadian group filled the boat and the process was repeated for them. And the same for a team of Chinese visitors.
The fragility of the economies contrasts with the robust nature of Australia’s export industries – especially on the east coast – hit hard by the natural disasters of early this year.
The significance of tourism is illustrated by the tax regimes in Israel and Jordan. Jordan has a flat income tax rate of 15 per cent, but special provision is made for visitors. A goods and services tax of 26 per cent applies in hotels. Obviously the guests just happen to be – in the main – cashed-up tourists. It wouldn’t work in Australia, but it does in low-cost countries with some of nature’s wonders.
This year is shaping up as a tough one for the economies that make up the Middle East. They can ill-afford the drop off in tourism that has marked the first half of the year.
But there is an upside. Those who venture into this extraordinary area, steeped in history, are able to get a better appreciation of what makes it tick without being swamped by fellow tourists jostling for the best deals and vantage points.