The usually upbeat Arab News.com was, as usual, upbeat in projecting solid growth for Middle East tourism, even as it writes off 2011 because of home-grown revolutions against Arab dictators.
Quite literally banking on the area’s historic and religious sites, its world-class shopping, infrastructure and growing wealth, the site reports that “the tourism industry is resolutely optimistic.”
Quoting a spokesperson from Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which include the St. Regis and Sheraton brands, Arab News said the U.S. company planned to open 41 more hotels in the region in the next four years.
Calling it a “vote of confidence in the future,” Starwoods’ Neil George, VP of Development, told Breaking Travel News it planned on “building on their presence in Saudi Arabia (and expand) to markets like Morocco, Tunisia, and Algiers.”
George also sited Jordan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as targets for growth.
But what’s missing, as I see it, is a failure to realize that most in the “real” Arab world live on a few bucks a day.
Contrast the ostentatious Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, considered the world’s most luxurious by many, with the poor citizens of the towns and villages in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, even in some places in the Emirates. The plan seems hubristic.
It’s the very profound contrast of the wealthy and the powerful with the poor and dispossessed that created the spark for the present uprisings…and the hope for more equal distribution of wealth.
What’s an even greater disconnect is the sidebar to the Arab News’ report.
The General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), Saudi Arabia’s agency in charge of aviation issues, promises to apply “global best practices to passengers traveling through Jeddah.”
Yet right below the claim, someone asks if anyone in charge reads the posted comments, which consist of complaints of rude, indifferent and crude behavior on the part of airport employees.
Two cautions are in order. Money doesn’t buy a successful tourism program.
The overbuilding of Dubai, coupled with the recession, resulted in a near collapse of the Emirate.
The present plan for more hotels led Euromonitor to warn about another glut of hotel rooms.
More importantly, we suggest that the planned expansion of tourism facilities running into the billions of dollars take into account the source of the recent and ongoing uprisings.
The “Arab World” the officials are really talking about are Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, oil-rich Sheikdoms very removed from the heartland “Arab World” of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine.
Building up the local economy in those countries; providing better health care and education to the people, getting them involved as partners in the travel vision, might just create pride in tourism and not deep-seated resentment.
The Arab World does not need another “world’s tallest skyscraper,” 7-star hotel or fake Abu Dhabi beach.
Its needs are more basic and human. And that is what travel is all about. People. Dignity. Not glitzy buildings.
Image: Dubai Mall