Arab Spring Unrest Sent 2011 Tourism Down 30% in Egypt, Tunisia

March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Tourism in Egypt and Tunisia plunged more than 30 percent last year amid the popular upheavals sweeping the Arab world, said Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Arrivals dropped 33 percent through the third quarter in Egypt and 30.7 percent for the full year in Tunisia, according to Rifai. Still, that’s a “remarkable” improvement given that tourism tumbled about 80 percent after the unrest began in the first months of 2011, he said. He predicted a rebound this year to 2010 levels.

“Tourism won’t defy all the realities on the ground, specifically political realities, but we believe 2012 will see the resumption of tourism trends as they were in 2010,” Rifai said today by telephone from Berlin, where he will present the UNWTO’s report on 2011 tourism trends and figures on March 8.

The Arab Spring took a toll on tourism in cash-strapped nations in the Middle East and North Africa, costing the region more than $7 billion, according to the Arab Tourism Organization in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The number of visitors to North Africa and the Middle East dropped 12 percent and 8 percent last year, the Madrid-based UNWTO said.

Tourism is the world’s third-largest industry, providing one in every 12 jobs, according to Rifai. Egypt counts on foreign visitors for 16 percent of its gross domestic product and 14 percent of jobs while in Tunisia, tourism accounts for 17 percent of GDP and more than 15 percent of jobs, the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council said.

Tunisia’s summer high season will be a “very important test,” Rifai said. Both Egypt and Tunisia “are making a tremendous effort” to rebuild the industry, he said.

“Things won’t settle down soon but they must keep working on the new source market destinations and the newcomers of the world of tourism,” Rifai said. “This is a tsunami of changes, and they will take time.”

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