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14 Jul

Why Travel To The Middle East Is On The Rise

Jerusalem’s Old City skyline in Israel
 / Photo: Alamy

Of late, we’ve been bombarded with news of travel bans, laptop bans, and State Department warnings regarding travel to the Middle East. So why are more Americans choosing to travel there? In the last year alone, Intrepid Travel has seen a 70 percent growth in U.S. bookings to Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, leading the company to double down on 2017 departures. Now offering over 45 itineraries across the Middle East—including Oman and the Palestinian territories—Intrepid is just one of many companies hoping to dispel popular cultural bias, ultimately changing the conversation from that of fear to understanding.

The Dead Sea in Jordan
 / Photo: Alamy
The Dead Sea in Jordan / Photo: Alamy

“We believe in the power of travel to connect people and break down barriers,” says Intrepid Travel CEO James Thornton. “Our travelers are making an important statement with continued bookings to the Middle East. They do not want to be told where to go and what to do, and they’re clearly not being deterred by the travel ban. They acknowledge travel in the Middle East is not defined by a single country or experience, and they are using travel to create a greater understanding of the world we all share, seeing beyond media caricatures.”

Similarly to Thornton, Adventure Travel Trade Association president Shannon Stowell believes in the power of travelers as citizen-diplomats, which led the consortium to host the AdventureNEXT Near East conference at the Dead Sea in Jordan, an event held in May, with the goal to bring travel-industry professionals together to discuss the future of travel in Jordan and the Middle East. “The Middle East is a very important region to visit for many reasons: It’s where the history of man, religion, and global issues merge.” says Stowell. “Now more than ever, we need people having positive firsthand experiences with each other to move towards peace and friendship versus conflict.”

A camel in front of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt
 / Photo: Alamy
A camel in front of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt / Photo: Alamy

Compared to 2016, Jordan is already experiencing a 10 percent increase in American visitors, owing a portion of this uptick to the newly launched Jordan Trail. A path spanning over 400 miles across the entirety of the country, from verdant Umm Qais in the north to Aqaba and the Red Sea in the south, the Jordan Trail is a chance for travelers to engage with locals and experience genuine and endearing Jordanian hospitality. “The Jordan Trail has revived tourism to Jordan,” says Muna Haddad, president of the Jordan Trail Association. “It is a way for travelers to explore the country slowly, often finding deeper experiences. It is a rewarding journey showcasing a cultural side of the country, leaving a lasting impression on those who give the trail the time it deserves.”

Local Jordanian tour operator Experience Jordan, who joined the outdoor community’s grassroots effort to help map the Jordan Trail, leads travelers along this route, and notes an increase in interest from Americans in 2017. “Almost everyone who visits Jordan—Americans included—are surprised by what they find,” says Matt Loveland, cofounder and general manager of Experience Jordan. “Be it the friendliness of locals, the diversity of the terrain, or the incredible food, people always leave Jordan having fallen in love with this place.”

Loveland, as with his fellow tourism professionals in the Middle East, firmly believes travel is the primary antidote to alleviate cultural misunderstandings and create a myriad of opportunities for Americans to experience the warmth of human beings from different backgrounds. “It’s easy to be a bigot and stereotype, but to solve problems, we need to be informed and have a correct perspective on what’s really going on in the world,” says Loveland. “There are certain common human desires—peace, a good future for our children, and a safe environment to learn and grow and do business. These are common to every part of the world, regardless of where we’re from.”

Engaging Cultures, which also operates tours in Jordan and the Middle East, has also seen an increase in American interest. “Our travelers rise above media misperceptions, which push for distrust and fear,” says Daniel Robards, cofounder of Engaging Cultures. “They have already experienced the power of travel to connect, inspire, and be a global force for good, and they see Jordan as a thrilling, safe, and wonderful destination.”

Dubai’s city skyline
 / Photo: Alamy
Dubai’s city skyline / Photo: Alamy

In addition to Jordan, many other Middle Eastern countries and cities are attracting more American travelers, too. Dubai, a Middle Eastern icon and the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, notes an 8 percent increase in American visitors since last year, making the U.S. the sixth-highest visitor market. Hugh Fraser, director of Corinthian Travel, notes a large increase in American interest to the majority of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Oman, and Lebanon. “After several years of almost no business from North America, there has been a very definite increase in interest of travel to the Middle East over the last six months,” says Fraser. “Egypt is spearheading the rise, Oman is slowly beginning to emerge as a destination on the bucket list of sophisticated travelers, and we’ve seen a smattering of business to Jordan and Lebanon, which we recently reintroduced.”

But interest isn’t solely restricted to the Middle East, either. MIR Corporation, an operator specializing in travel between Tibet and Tehran, sees this increase extending to Central Asia, too. Consisting of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, the company experienced a 69 percent growth in its custom-group programming in Central Asia, an area straddling highly geopolitical Afghanistan and Iran. MIR’s fastest-growing destination for 2016, however, was in fact Iran, although the Trump Administration’s proposed travel ban did thwart some of this year’s spring departures due to visa delays.

The Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran
 / Photo: Alamy
The Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran / Photo: Alamy

“There is considerable pent-up demand for Iran, and we already have multiple sold-out departures for this fall and next spring,” says Annie Lucas, vice president of MIR Corporation. “The trepidations travelers have prior to embarking on a journey to Iran disappear once they interact one-on-one with local Iranians. They feel their expression of hospitality towards them. It’s nearly a universal comment on how gracious and friendly the local Iranians are; Americans find the hospitality totally disarming.”

Lucas likens American travel to Iran to the beginnings of travel to post-revolutionary Cuba, a destination Americans felt was previously too taboo to visit, but which they now want to go to. Lucas also finds parallels to travel during the Soviet Union, when MIR guided Americans through the USSR in the late 1980s. Then, just as now to Iran, travelers always left with a greater understanding, realizing the “other” wasn’t so different from them.

Jerusalem’s Old City skyline in Israel
 / Photo: Alamy
Jerusalem’s Old City skyline in Israel / Photo: Alamy

“Don’t let travel bans or laptop bans turn you away,” says Lucas. “In spite of everything, this is the biggest thing we as Americans can do—travel. If we can tell others from firsthand perspective what it’s actually like, we can counterbalance mainstream media, which tends to focus on negative and hard-hitting political issues. There’s a void, which firsthand experience fills.”

Mountain Travel Sobek, another tour company leading travelers to Iran, has seen an increase with departures, too. After returning from a trip to Iran in 2014, Julie McCormack, Asia program director at MTS, made it her personal mission to increase understanding of the country. “I was amazed by how different my experience was compared to the news I was reading at the same time,” says McCormack. “I felt so safe and had so many incredible experiences. This is the personal diplomacy we need more of in this world.”

Imam Mosque in Esfahan, Iran
 / Photo: Alamy
Imam Mosque in Esfahan, Iran / Photo: Alamy

As tourism to the Middle East continues to grow, it may prove the most effective tool in changing cultural bias to dispel misperceptions of fear. You simply must find out for yourself. For your next trip, break your typical vacation routine and consider traveling to the Middle East. The journey may surprise you.

From Vogue

Hannah Kim
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