Climate change could stifle Middle East’s tourism rebound
After a two-year slowdown, tourism is once again booming in the Middle East. As countries lift their COVID-19 travel restrictions and demand for travel returns, the World Travel and Tourism Council projects that the sector’s contribution to regional gross domestic product will grow more than 36 percent in 2022 to more than $256 billion.
While this is undoubtedly great news for countries where tourism accounts for the lion’s share of revenue, there is an existential threat to this tourism rebound: Climate change. The countries most dependent on tourism are also the countries most affected by the changing weather.
In Jordan, where tourism is one of the top earners of foreign currency and the second-largest private sector employer, accounting for 7.3 percent of pre-pandemic jobs, drought is exacerbating water scarcity.
Searing heat and a historic lack of rain are threatening tourist destinations across Jordan. The Dead Sea, for instance, is shrinking by more than a meter annually, with its shoreline receding and sinkholes growing.
Climate change is also contributing to decreased water levels in the Jordan River. Today, upstream water diversions have turned the river into a muddy trickle.
It works the other way, too. In November 2018, rare torrential rains flooded Petra, Jordan’s prized tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, forcing the evacuation of nearly 4,000 tourists. While there were no reported deaths in Petra, 13 people — including two young girls and a rescue diver — died in other parts of the country. Two weeks earlier, flooding near the Dead Sea killed 21 people, mostly children, when their bus was swept away.
In Egypt, meanwhile, rising temperatures have damaged some of the famed monuments in Luxor and changed the color of archeological stones. Tourism is the backbone of Egypt’s economy and is the largest travel and tourism sector in Africa, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Fortunately, Egypt’s coral reefs, which are popular with divers, have so far been spared climate change’s wrath. But extreme weather conditions are expected to worsen as temperatures climb. Further increases will be life-threatening — to people, flora and fauna.
The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction forecasts a 40 percent increase in the number of weather-related disasters globally over the next decade. At last month’s “A World for Travel” forum, held in Nimes, France, Paola Albrito, the new director of the UN office, estimated that there will be about 560 disasters per year by 2030, and each will be “larger and more expensive” than what we experience now.
Not only will disasters upend the lives of millions; they will also wreak havoc on the tourist infrastructure wherever they strike.
Not only will these disasters upend the lives of millions; they will also wreak havoc on the tourist infrastructure wherever they strike.
Current efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change on the region’s tourism sector are mixed. On one level, countries have committed to change, with several plans and strategies addressing green growth and social and environmental sustainability in the tourism sector.
Jordan, for example, has a five -year Green Growth National Action Plan for the tourism sector, which advocates for greener projects and greener investments. The plan is linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to combat climate change.
The country has made climate-related gains in other areas, too. It has pioneered a 10-year energy strategy for long-term, low-carbon economic growth and, in May 2022, Jordan became the first developing country to build digital tools to track emissions in energy, transport and agriculture, according to the World Bank. Jordan is hoping to reduce total emissions by 31 percent by 2030.
Meanwhile, at the recent UN climate talks in Egypt, regional leaders discussed the need for the industry itself to reduce its carbon footprint if global emission targets are to be met. “The tourism sector requires a reset,” said Khalida Bouzar, the UN Development Program’s regional director for Arab states.
For now, climate change has not put off tourists to the region. The FIFA World Cup, which started in Qatar last week, is expected to attract more than a million visitors to the Gulf state. Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector is expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels next year, while the World Travel and Tourism Council predicts tourism will grow at an average of 11 percent annually by 2030, making it the fastest-growing sector in the Middle East. Even world leaders flocked to Egypt’s tourist attractions after wrapping up the COP27 climate talks.
But before countries get too comfortable in the post-COVID-19 tourism rebound, governments must make the connection between climate change and economic survival. The Middle East has already seen what a pandemic can do to the tourism industry. We cannot afford to be burned again.
• Suha Ma’ayeh is a journalist based in Amman, Jordan. Her work has been published in Foreign Policy and CTC Sentinel. She also reports for The Wall Street Journal and other publications on Jordan and southern Syria.