COVID comedown: Arab region faces torrid tourism conditions amid climate reckoning

Tourists get their papers processed upon arrival at Teminal 3 at Dubai airport, in the United Arab Emirates [Getty Images]
04 July, 2022
A number of Arab countries were reliant on tourism before the disastrous COVID pandemic hit in January 2020. Two years on, these countries are faced with a catch-22: deter tourism to prevent climate catastrophe or entice tourism to aid growth.

With COVID-19 all but receding from the headlines, most remaining discussion of the pandemic focuses on its economic fallout.

Inflation is battering countries from Egypt to Turkey, in part a result of shortages created by COVID. At the same time, many fewer analysts have discussed the implications of the post-COVID era for the natural environment.

As travel bans vanish and tourists return to the Middle East and North Africa in droves, they will bring a spike in greenhouse gas emissions and all the other forms of pollution that accompany overseas travel.

"According to the Global Carbon Project, aviation accounts for 2.5 percent of humans’ overall output of carbon dioxide, highlighting the relief that a slowdown in air travel can bring to the planet"

The societal shutdowns undertaken in the early days of the pandemic led to a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from key sectors.

The Global Carbon Project (GCP), a research group, determined that a 75 percent dip in air traffic in March, April, and May 2020 stemming from travel bans coincided with a 60 percent drop in the industry’s emissions of carbon dioxide, one of several greenhouse gasses contributing to the climate crisis.

According to the GCP, aviation accounts for 2.5 percent of humans’ overall output of carbon dioxide, highlighting the relief that a slowdown in air travel can bring to the planet.

The pandemic’s effect on this sector also lasted well past 2020: from late November 2021 to early February 2022, Morocco prohibited all incoming international flights in a bid to limit the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID.

Until just last month, Saudi Arabia blocked its own citizens from travelling to Ethiopia, India, Turkey, and Vietnam to prevent imported cases of COVID.

French tourists stranded at Tunis Carthage airport wait for flights to return to France [Getty Images]
French tourists stranded at Tunis Carthage airport wait for flights to return to France [Getty Images]

Despite the relative recency of these measures, the Arab world hardly seems likely to turn back the clock.

This month, Saudi Arabia plans to host as many as one million local and foreign pilgrims for the Hajj — a rite that the kingdom restricted over the last two years in light of the pandemic.

Last month, Morocco also dropped its requirement for foreign visitors to present a negative COVID test before entering the kingdom, a move designed to attract more tourists.

Morocco hardly finds itself alone. Egypt is trying to court tourists from Israel and long-time business partners in the Persian Gulf, among them Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

For its part, the Jordan Strategy Forum, an advocacy group representing a coalition of privately held companies in Jordan, prepared a report on the “post-COVID-19 road map for recovery” of tourism in the kingdom as far back as March 2021, well before the pandemic had even begun to ebb. The report described the revival of the industry as “a high priority.”

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The rush to bring foreign tourists back to the Middle East and North Africa reflects economic realities in the region.

Tourism represents a major source of employment and hard currency for Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey, whose economies are still recovering from the pandemic and other, unrelated financial crises.

Even Saudi Arabia, which can leverage the petroleum industry as an economic cushion, relies on the Hajj as a source of income.

While the economics of tourism makes the industry imperative for many countries in the Arab world, its cost to the natural environment extends beyond greenhouse gas emissions.

Garbage, some of it from tourists, often litters the surface of the Nile, which serves as one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions and most Egyptians’ source of water. The Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai also found that, in the past decade, hundreds of camels in the Arabian Desert had died from eating plastic, much of it from careless campers.

Even as tourism contributes to climate change and other forms of environmental degradation in the near term, these phenomena are undermining the industry in the long run.

Egyptians working in the sector have already observed how global warming is damaging coral reefs in the Red Sea, some of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions. Heat waves induced by climate change, which could soon blanket much of the Arab world, might deter tourists further.

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By placing greater emphasis on sustainable tourism, governments in the Middle East and North Africa can develop an effective, immediate response not only to the industry’s role in climate change but also to global warming’s impact on tourism.

Egypt intends to present its plan for sustainable tourism at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference — better known as COP27 — at the tourist destination of Sharm el-Sheikh in November. If other countries in the region follow suit, they can counteract the consequences of the post-COVID rise in tourism.

Investing in sustainable tourism will only ever represent one piece of a successful strategy for climate change mitigation, given all the industries responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Even so, every step toward carbon neutrality will limit the devastation that the climate crisis has already started to inflict on the Arab world and across the globe. With COVID gone and tourists back, the Middle East and North Africa need sustainable tourism more than ever.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired