The Tourism Geography of the Middle East

Our defi nition of the Middle East differs from that of the UNWTO by including Iran, and excluding Libya. The UNWTO also regards Israel as part of Europe, but not Palestine, which makes little sense geographically. We include the countries of South-West Asia and the Levant, the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean (with the exceptions of Turkey and Cyprus). Vast petroleum resources and the Arab – Israeli confl ict have brought the Middle East under the international spotlight since the Second World War, culminating in the Gulf War of 1990 – 1991 and its sequel the Iraq War in 2003. However, these are but recent episodes in a history of trade, migration and conquest, which goes back at least to the third millennium BC. The Middle East is strategically located at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and the Far East – and at the interface of three continents –Europe, Asia and Africa. The component countries are similar in much of their physical geography. Similarities in religion, language, architecture, food specialities and other aspects of lifestyle, plus a shared historical experience link almost all of the countries in the region, together with those of North Africa.


As far as the cultural similarities are concerned, you should be aware that:

● All but two of the countries in the region (Israel and Iran) are Arabic-speaking.

● All of these countries (except for Iran) at one time formed part of the Ottoman Empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). During much of the twentieth century, Britain exercised various forms of control over most of the countries in the region while France was active in Syria and Lebanon. Events in the new millennium have confi rmed the USA as the dominant power in the Middle East.

● The Middle East is predominantly Muslim in religion, except for Israel and Lebanon. However, the Muslim world is as divided on sectarian lines as Christendom, with the Sunni branch of Islam dominant in most Arab countries while the adherents of Shia are more numerous in Iraq and Iran.

● There are substantial ethnic as well as religious minorities in most countries of the region (Iraq is a classic example), while the Kurds, ‘ a nation without a state ’ are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Western perceptions of Islam have been strongly infl uenced on the one hand, by historical memories of the Crusades and the threat posed to Europe by the Ottoman Empire, and on the other, by highly romanticised images of the region created by European writers and artists in the nineteenth century. More recently, unfavourable publicity in the Western media has been a reaction to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Although it is true to say that, in this secular age, religion plays a greater role in everyday life in Muslim countries than in most other parts of the world, the infl uence of Islam does in fact vary greatly in strength from country to country. Only a few governments, for example, impose sharia law based on the Koran, rather than Western legal systems. Attitudes towards the status of women and towards foreign tourists also range from the strict (e.g. Saudi Arabia) to the relatively liberal (Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)). We should take into account the following aspects of Islam as they infl uence the tourist experience and business practice:

● The obligation of Muslims to pray fi ve times a day with special emphasis on Friday (the Muslim Sabbath). The mosque with its distinctive minaret forms a dominant feature in the skyline, but as fi gurative art is discouraged by the Koran, the decorative features of traditional architecture tend to be limited to abstract patterns or inscriptions in Arabic.

● The requirement to fast between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan, the fi fth month of the Muslim year. As this is based on a lunar calendar, the timing of Ramadan varies from year to year.

● At least once in a lifetime, Muslims should make the pilgrimage or haj to the holy city of Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed. The haj takes place during the 12th month of the Moslem year, resulting in a mass movement of people that is concentrated both in time and space. There are also secondary pilgrimages known as umrah that can be undertaken throughout the year. The pilgrim routes extending to all parts of the Muslim world became important for trade, and were therefore well supplied with inns (known as khans, fonduks or caravanserais). Some of these traditional types of accommodation still survive (although the camel caravan has long since been replaced by motorised transport).

Another important cultural feature of the region is the contrast between the cities and the countryside, where settled and nomadic lifestyles appear to have changed little since biblical times. Even in the cities, the older districts have a seemingly chaotic street pattern while the colourful souks and bazaars retain many traditional features. These are essentially covered markets with whole sections devoted exclusively to a particular trade or type of merchandise. Traditional domestic architecture is characterised by rooms opening off an enclosed courtyard, allowing privacy for the extended family and protection from the sun. The major cities have well laid-out, modern districts similar to those of Europe –Tel Aviv is a good example here –very different in character from the adjoining Arab town of Jaffa with its maze of twisting, narrow streets.


There is no clear physical break (the Suez Canal and Red Sea hardly count) and, as we have seen, no distinct cultural boundary between North Africa and Asia. Most of the Middle East region forms part of the arid climate zone, and irrigation is essential. Agriculturally productive land is restricted to a few areas that in turn have attracted the great majority of the population, which is concentrated in these areas at densities similar to or exceeding those of Western Europe. They comprise:

● The coastal plains adjoining the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas, which enjoy relatively good rainfall;

● A narrow strip along the river Nile in Egypt and

● The alluvial plains of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which link up with the Mediterranean coastal plain in Syria to form the so-called ‘ Fertile Crescent ’ . To the east of the coastal strip, mountain ranges and high plateaux prevent rainbearing winds from penetrating further into the interior. Often the dividing line between the desert ‘ wilderness ’and the cultivated area is very distinct. Not surprisingly, water supply and distribution is a major problem in the Middle East, and this precious resource is the subject of local and even international disputes. Most of the region is characterised by extremes of heat in summer, and even the Mediterranean coast can be oppressive. In winter, the weather is usually mild or pleasantly warm, with the important exception of some mountain areas that experience heavy snowfall. Conditions are particularly severe in Kurdistan, where temperatures are comparable to those of Russia. Cold, overcast weather is not uncommon –even as far south as Amman and Jerusalem which are situated at quite high altitudes –in contrast to the sub-tropical warmth and sunshine of the Red Sea coast.


Considering its location and resources, the Middle East region accounts for a relatively small share of world tourism –almost 3 per cent of arrivals. The countries of the Middle East are close enough to the inclusive tour markets of North-West Europe to have developed a tourism industry based on sun, sea and sand. This is a logical extension of the coastal resort developments of Mediterranean Europe, facilitated by improvements in air transport. However, the response to this opportunity has been uneven, with some countries such as Dubai investing heavily in tourism in an attempt to diversify the economy. Most countries with the potential to enter the market have only done so since the 1980s. Long before the expansion of mass tourism, Israel and Egypt had based their tourism industries on the attractions of the Holy Land and the relics of ancient civilisations. More recently, the oil-based prosperity of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states has attracted a large business travel market. There is also a considerable volume of travel between countries in the region, involving business tourism, returning migrant workers, visiting relatives, pilgrimages and health tourism. Contrary to popular belief in the West, only some of the countries in the Middle East have become affl uent on oil resources; thus, foreign exchange earnings from tourism are needed to even out regional imbalances. The population, as in most developing countries, contains a high percentage of young people and tourism is seen as a means of providing much-needed employment. In fact, since the 1980s, economic development has not kept pace with population growth, with a consequent decline in living standards. With only modest progress in education, telecommunications and access to information technology, most countries in the region are ill-equipped to meet the challenges of globalisation. Nevertheless, foreign investors as well as national governments have provided much of the infrastructure needed for international tourism, including good roads, a large number of airports of international standard, and hotel development in the major cities and coastal resorts. You would expect external transport links to be effi cient as the region is a crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia, and its airports are important as staging points for business on the long-haul routes between Western Europe and the EAP region. Although most tourists visiting the Middle East arrive by air, movements within the region are predominantly by road. The main exception is the Arabian Peninsula, due to the vast distances and diffi cult terrain. Throughout the Middle East, rail networks are poorly developed, and there are few international services. Given the abundance of cheap oil, an ever-growing demand for car ownership, even in the poorer countries, and a lack of environmental awareness, this situation is not likely to change.


The Middle East has many strengths as a destination region, with opportunities for further development, but these are constrained by a number of serious problems. We can summarise the tourist resources of the region as: ● A wealth of cultural attractions, due to the fact that this region gave rise to the world’s earliest civilisations and three major world religions –Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Successive invaders, including the Greeks and Romans in ancient times, followed by Crusaders from Western Europe defending the pilgrim routes to the Holy Land, have all left their mark. Some of the best known of these sites can be visited on a Mediterranean cruise. However, overland cultural tours, taking in several countries, have not developed to the same extent as in Europe, due to the political situation in the region.

● A generally favourable climate for beach tourism, although in some countries this is restricted by cultural and religious attitudes. A growing number of tourists now visit the region purely for the sake of recreation and relaxation. Resorts have developed to meet their needs, but with the exceptions of Israel and Dubai, facilities are generally not of the same standard as those of the Western Mediterranean.

● Mountain ranges provide relief from the summer heat in the cities, and here a number of health resorts meet the domestic demand, such as Kasab in Syria and Taa’iz in Saudi Arabia.

● The mountains in the north of the region also provide opportunities for winter sports. At present, ski resorts have developed to meet the needs of the small domestic market and are generally not well-equipped by international standards.

● There is also scope for adventure holidays in the more accessible mountain and desert areas.

● Although some countries pay lip service to ecotourism, in practice it has made little progress, except in Israel and Jordan. The main threats to tourism are twofold:

● First, the political situation has been a major factor in preventing the region realising its tourism potential. Since the Oslo initiatives in 1994, tourism has ebbed and fl owed to the region depending upon the prospects for peace. The region is still torn by internal unrest –often provoked by religious fundamentalism –and since 2001, by the war on terrorism, culminating in the Iraq War in 2003. Terrorism by groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories has resulted in much negative publicity. Most governments in the region have a poor or indifferent record on human rights. In consequence, tourism has suffered, despite the region’s accessibility and its wealth of natural and man-made attractions. The Gulf War of 1990 – 1991 for example, not only disrupted tourism throughout the Middle East, but disturbed world tourism fl ows, although the actual hostilities were highly localised.

● Second, the unique appeal of the region lies in its antiquities and cultural sites. These need careful management and have a limited capacity to receive visitors. This implies that there is a limit to the numbers of tourists that the region can absorb if these attractions are to remain available for future generations. The heritage is also under threat from the widespread traffi cking in artefacts from archaeological sites, and from industrialisation, where dam-building by Turkey on the upper Euphrates threatens sites downstream in Syria.