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September 23, 2008

Middle East: Development Through Travel

World Savers

by Beata Loyfman

The Middle East is a frequent news headline these days. Unfortunately, much of the press has not been positive. How do we juxtapose the region's enormous growth in the travel sector with its often negative reputation? Middle Eastern hospitality experts tackled this issue in the last panel of the World Savers Congress

A few facts to get you started:
* Abu Dhabi is building the world's first carbon-neutral, zero-emissions city, known as Masdar. The city will be fully functional by the end of 2009.

* Qatar has budgeted $100 billion (that's right, billion) toward new infrastructure over the next six years.

* Egypt was the world's first producer of beer and wine (sorry, Europe).

* More than 50 percent of visitors to the Middle East come from outside the region, with the greatest majority hailing from the United States.

The consensus among the panelists was that we are far more similar than we are different. And despite cultural differences, travel is the one force that connects us. As Mounir Neamatalla of Environmental Quality International said, "The natural tendency of humans is to include, to relate. We are a social animal."


I got tuned into the World Saver's Congress from Pam at Nerd's Eye View and have been reading up on the various panels. This one on the Middle East especially struck me. I completely agree with the idea that travel helps to connect people, even those who are culturally different. Once a person makes a personal connection with a place, that place and its people is no longer "other;" it's no longer "scary." Travel is a great way for ordinary people to make these connections. My husband and I call it "traveler as citizen diplomat."

When we departed for the Caucasus and Central Asia last year, we were a bit apprehensive from what we had read on the news and travel warnings. After spending five months in the region, our view completely changed and we communicated this to family and blog readers to change their perceptions. We're now planning our visit to the Middle East for next year and hope to do the same there, especially with Iran (if we can get visas, that is).

Thanks for sharing the discussion from this panel.

Wow, five months in the Caucasus sounds like an amazing experience. We'd love to hear more.

Also, let us know how things work out in the Middle East.
- Beata Loyfman

I'm not sure where that figure came from but Americans don't make up a large percentage of travellers (or even expats) in the 'Middle East'. But then a lot of countries are being lumped together under that Mid East umbrella. I always wonder why that is. It's done far less for 'Asia' or 'South America' where the travel media consider 'China' or 'Buenos Aires' or 'Thailand'.

Visitors to the Arabian Gulf (where you have listed one country and one city above) are overwhelmingly other Arabs from the Gulf and Middle East (and I realise Arab is an ethnic group, not a nationality), then Indians and Pakistanis, then British, Australians and Europeans, with Americans comprising a small percentage of visitors to this part of the world. But it's certainly one that's increasing because they now realise that once they do the currency conversion the Gulf is actually a great value destination - Dubai included, and a room at the Burj Al Arab is really not all that expensive, compared to say a New York hotel.

But let's face it, Americans are fairly slow adaptors when it comes to travel. I'm a travel writer and I've lived in the UAE (Abu Dhabi, then Dubai) for 10 years and was pitching Dubai to US magazines over 5 years ago. Everyone else was buying, especially the British who were already filling the luxurious beach resort beds. It was already a hot destination then. But it's only been the last year or two that Americans have 'discovered' the place.

Now they realise, like we always have, that it's one of the safest parts of the world, with a rich heritage and culture based on tolerance and open-mindedness and traditions of hospitality and generosity. Great weather and an optimistic outlook on life. And in the Gulf, fantastic fashion, film, art, and gastronomic scenes.

There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes that need to be broken down in the US media about the 'Middle East', Arabs and Muslims. But it's not going to happen until writers stop lumping all destinations under the banner of 'Middle East'.

As for that bad reputation. Which places are you talking about? Afghanistan? Iraq? Saudi Arabia? Then say that. Can't remember the last time I saw a new hotel or restaurant opening in any of those places. But I also can't remember the last time anybody said we had a 'bad reputation' over here. Youch!

Lara (from a very nice place called Dubai)

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