There’s no doubt it’s been a rough few years for destinations in the Middle East, with political unrest and high-profile terrorist attacks deterring holidaymakers from travelling to some of the key tourist regions.
But there are signs that things are changing for the better – particularly for the destinations of Egypt, Jordan and Israel – with tourist arrivals on the up and tour operators boosting their programmes.
The destination continues to be held back by the continued Foreign Office (FCO) advice about not flying into Sharm el Sheikh’s airport, which prevents UK airlines from resuming services to the Red Sea resort.
This ban has been in place since a Russian charter flight was blown up by a bomb in October 2015. Several major European countries have since allowed flights to Sharm to resume after the airport introduced enhancements to its security systems and procedures.
With Sharm still effectively off the map for UK tourists, more attention has fallen on other parts of the Red Sea, and particularly the resorts of Hurghada and Marsa Alam.
The Egyptian State Tourist Authority (Esta) has been focusing on promoting Hurghada, Marsa Alam and the Nile gateway of Luxor in the UK. It’s a strategy that is paying off, with UK visitor numbers up by “more than 50%” during the first five months of this year.
Major operators Tui, and particularly Thomas Cook, have increased their capacity to both Hurghada and Marsa Alam this year, leading to a boost in bookings.
Andrew Hitchins, Thomas Cook’s yield and product manager for Egypt, said: “We are continuing to see strong demand for Egypt, which is being driven by Hurghada, and where sales are more than double compared with last year.
“As more of our customers are now staying longer than seven nights, we are seeing an increase in demand for our 10- and 11-night holidays, with sales up more than three-fold for both summer and winter.”
The surge in new flights has seen airline seat capacity between UK airports and Hurghada rise by 48% this year to a total of 276,000 seats compared with 2017.
Andrew Grant, managing director of Red Sea Holidays, says: “Demand for Egypt holidays has seen huge increases over the last 12 months and continues to grow, with very strong demand for both winter and summer sun.
“The family market has returned in much greater numbers this year as holidaymakers continue to recognise the great value aspect that Egypt has to offer.”
While the Red Sea side of Egypt’s tourism industry is gathering momentum, the more classical side of the country – Cairo and the Nile – is also showing signs of recovery.
It is partly being held back by the lack of air capacity, particularly into Luxor, where only Egyptair operates a direct flight from the UK – and that’s only once a week from Heathrow.
Philip Breckner, commercial director of Discover Egypt, says: “We focus on classical Egypt – Nile cruises and Cairo – which have come back in a big way.
“We’re seeing a lot of repeaters – people who haven’t been for 15 or 20 years – as well as first-timers. The Nile is on many people’s bucket lists and we’re seeing more growth at the top of the market.”
Breckner adds that the lack of flight capacity to Luxor is driving a trend towards earlier booking by clients. “We’re taking bookings well into 2019 and even 2020. People are now booking a long time in advance – that’s a fairly recent phenomenon,” he explains.
Egypt has also introduced a new electronic visa system allowing UK visitors to acquire a visa in advance, as well as on arrival at the airport, which is designed to make the entry process “as seamless as possible”.
A host of new hotel projects will eventually add another 200,000 rooms to the country’s stock, while Egypt’s luxury credentials will be boosted by the introduction of its first Waldorf Astoria and St Regis properties in Cairo later this year.
Another destination enjoying a positive year for UK visitors is Jordan, with inbound arrival up by 6.3% for the first six months of 2018 – coming after a record-breaking year in 2017.
Tour operators are increasing their product range to Jordan, including the new Jordan Trail, which runs for more than 370 miles from Um Qais in the north to the capital Aqaba.
Tui’s UK cruise brand Marella is also introducing Jordan as a destination from November.
Abed Al Razzaq Arabiyat, managing director of the Jordan Tourist Board (JTB), says: “There are 100 tour operators in the UK currently featuring Jordan, and appetite for the destination is certainly increasing. Last year we saw three operators introduce Jordan Trail tours, and Hayes & Jarvis also introduced new Jordan product.”
Cultural tourism, particularly to the historic sights of Petra, continues to dominate as a top attraction in Jordan, alongside visits to the Dead Sea. Cox & Kings, whose tours are particularly focused on culture, has seen passenger numbers more than double this year compared with 2017 (see p42 for an interview with Cox & Kings’ Middle East product manager Owen Walker).
Two key markets for the tourist board are luxury and adventure – Jordan is set to see nine five-star properties open over the next 18 months (five in Aqaba on the Red Sea and four in Amman), while further development is continuing on the Jordan Trail.
“Jordan will continue to develop the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, an ideal winter sun destination, to an exceptional international standard,” adds Al Razzaq Arabiyat.
“Jordan is also looking to increase its focus on health and wellness tourism and faith tourism, as well as a new focus on local experiences.”
Philip Breckner, from Discover Egypt, which also operates the Discover Jordan brand, says: “I see a lot of potential for Jordan, particularly combining it with Israel or Egypt – for example, you can combine a Nile cruise with the Pyramids, Petra and the Dead Sea on a two-week trip.”
Following a similar theme to Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s UK visitor numbers are also on the rise in 2018 – up by 12% year-on-year during the first five months of 2018.
The destination has long been touting breaks combining the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Israel has also benefited from coverage of the country’s 70th anniversary this year.
Sharon Bershadsky, director of Israel Government Tourist Board, says: “Israel is a popular destination for many reasons: great weather; impressive history and archaeology; important religious and spiritual sites; world-renowned culinary offerings; beautiful landscapes; and a huge range of activity possibilities.
“The most popular destinations with UK visitors are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee area.”
Israel should enjoy more positive publicity next year when it hosts the Eurovision Song Contest, while Tel Aviv also won Destination of the Year at the 2018 British LGBT Awards.
“We anticipate more UK tourists will visit Tel Aviv to enjoy its year-round vibrant and inclusive atmosphere,” adds Bershadsky.
Increased flights from the UK are another positive step for Israel, withWizz Air running a new direct route from Luton to the Red Sea resort of Eilat for winter 2018/19. This was previously operated by Monarch in winter 2015/16 but did not operate last year due to the airline’s collapse.
Israel has also been benefiting from the “open sky” aviation deal with the European Union, which was signed in 2013, with low-cost carriers increasing flights by 60% in the past five years.
Owen Walker Middle East product manager, Cox & Kings
How are Egypt, Jordan and Israel selling this year?
All three countries are doing extremely well compared with last year. The most popular by far is Jordan, which has the highest number of bookings of any Middle Eastern country. So far this year, passenger numbers have increased by 126% compared with the same time last year, and our Splendoursof Jordan tour is up by 189%. Numbers to Egypt have more than doubled compared with the same time last year, while Israel is hugely on the up, too, with booking numbers almost the same as Egypt.
What factors have been driving growth this year?
Brexit has definitely played a part. People have been less keen to travel to Europe but equally don’t want to travel long-haul – the Middle East has therefore become increasingly popular. Israel is far more fashionable now, and the foodie scene has secured interest from more travellers. It’s Israel’s 70th birthday this year, which has definitely helped. Egypt has been very good value and there have been some great offers. It’s also been a lot less crowded, which is a huge selling point. Growth to Jordan reflects increased consumer confidence across the region. People are realising just how beautiful the country is.
What type of client is booking holidays to these destinations with Cox & Kings?
They are well-informed and cultured, the type of people who are looking forward to learning about the history and exploring the hidden gems of each country.
Key tips for agents selling these destinations?
People need to book early for Jordan – some trips for next year are getting booked up already. Petra and the Dead Sea are starting to sell out for this autumn. For Israel, agents should focus on selling the country’s fascinating culture and history. As well as the biblical aspect, the culture is a key selling point. Agents should recommend clients stay in a traditional kibbutz and eat communally with the locals.
Red Sea Holidays has a 14-night cruise-and-stay trip combining seven nights at the Grand Makadi Hotel (right) near Hurghada and a seven-night Nile cruise for £2,336 for two adults including flights from Gatwick.
Discover Egypt offers an 11-day Nile cruise from Luxor to Cairo on its new Jaz Royale vessel in 2019 with prices from £1,799pp including Heathrow flights and no single supplements.
Cox & Kings has a nine-day private Jordan in Style itinerary from £2,895pp visiting Amman, Petra and wadi Rum, including flights, guided sightseeing and entrance fees.
Regent Holidays is operating a 10-day Essential Palestine & Israel tour in November 2018, priced at £2,770pp including flights, entrance fees and guided sightseeing
Twin-centre (Israel & Jordan)
Discover Jordan offers an 11-day trip combining Jordan and Israel starting in Tel Aviv. The tour is priced from £2,499pp including flights and guide.