Heritage tourism in Southwest Asia and North Africa: Contested pasts and veiled realities

Dallen J. Timothy, Rami F. Daher

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter focuses on heritage tourism issues in Southwest Asia and North Africa, which includes Turkey and sometimes Azerbaijan and Afghanistan because of their cultural and religious connections to the rest of the region (Lew et al. 2008). The region is also often referred to as the Middle East and North Africa and, for expediency, both these designations will be used interchangeably in this chapter. For the purposes of this chapter, Central Asia and the Caucasus region are not considered but, because of their cultural and historical connections, Turkey and Iran are. The two most notable geographical elements that make this a unified region are the dominant religion (Islam) and the arid and semi-arid physical environment. Secondary variables are economic dependence on oil and the Arabic language, although there clearly are exceptions to this, as several of the states in the region have no or little petroleum resources, while Turkey, Iran, and Israel have national languages besides Arabic. Many of the countries in this region are less developed, although by most global standards several (e.g., Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)) would fall into the category of developed, industrialized, or newly industrialized nations (Sönmez 2001). North Africa and Southwest Asia is blessed with a rich and varied array of tangible and intangible culture, which gives the region one of the most bountiful resource bases for heritage tourism in the entire world. Many observers have noted this in a variety of contexts and hinted at the huge latent potential for cultural heritage tourism to develop more than it already has (Alipour and Heydari 2005; Alizadeh and Habibi 2008; Burns and Cooper 1997; Daher 2005, 2007b; Hang and Kong 2001; McGahey 2006; O’Gorman et al. 2007; Ouerfelli 2008; Richards 2007; Smith 2003; Tosun et al. 2003; Yarcan and Inelmen 2006; Zaiane 2006). Unfortunately, however, Southwest Asia and North Africa have a reputation of being dangerous destinations to visit (Alhemoud and Armstrong 1996; Gelbman 2008; Issa and Altinay 2006; Sönmez 2001)—a stereotyped image often erroneously fueled by foreign media reports. Nonetheless, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had devastating effects on tourism in the region. In addition, recent civil wars in Lebanon and Algeria; the ongoing war in Iraq; tensions between neighboring Iraq and Iran; the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990; current hostilities between Syria and Lebanon; Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan; contemporary terrorist attacks and tourist kidnappings in Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq; the long-term clash between Israel and its Arab neighbors; George Bush’s extreme labeling of Syria and Iran as “axes of evil” (whether or not they really are) and state sponsors of terrorism, even though the US has made recent agreements with Syria regarding tensions in Lebanon; the enduring Palestinian struggle for an independent homeland; and many other current and recent events have placed this region above all else in the global media as a hotbed for conflict. These issues, coupled with a general anti-Western sentiment fueled by foreign policies in the US (pro-Israel) and other Western states that favor certain ethnic and religious groups over others, a lack of positive and welcoming counterpromotional efforts, and much of the region’s environment of poverty, have led to a failure to develop heritage tourism “analogous to its immensely rich and diverse natural, cultural and historical resources and attractions” (Sönmez 2001: 129). Clearly, there are exceptions to this generalization, such as the successes experienced in the realm of heritage tourism in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, and Lebanon. The region’s negative image, much of it perpetuated by Western foreign policies and media partiality, is unfortunate and has suppressed the development of tourism in a region that otherwise has a great deal to offer foreign visitors. Nearly all tourists to the region find the people to be extremely friendly and hospitable, and the individual countries to be welcoming to foreign tourists and tourism-related investments (Noack 2007; Schneider and Sönmez 1999). Concomitantly, because of the political tensions and anti-Western views, many Western nations have issued travel advisories for several countries in the region. For example, as of July 30, 2008, the US government had posted travel advisories against visiting eleven of the twenty-one countries in the region for reasons such as kidnappings, terrorist threats, war, violence, anti-American demonstrations, embassy attacks, random arrests, and general security threats. At the same time, the Australian government had posted travel warnings regarding all countries in the region. Notwithstanding these calamitous conditions, tourism is doing rather well in the region as a whole, better in some countries than in others. For instance, tourism was an important part of the economy of Lebanon before its civil war. The war caused tourism to plunge but, once it ended in 1990, tourism once again became important to the Lebanese economy and saw considerable recovery (Butler and Hajar 2005; Issa and Altinay 2006; Lew et al. 2008), although most of its tourism industries are supported by intraregional travel rather than by visitors from Europe, North America, Asia, and the Pacific (Daher 2007a; Richards 2007; Timothy and Iverson 2006). Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, the UAE, Oman, and Jordan have faired quite well through the political downturns. Israel’s primary international market is religious tourists, who have a tendency to be less concerned with security warnings compared with other types of tourists, so Israel too has seen relatively successful growth, in spite of notable ebbs and flows in demand. In the face of a potential decline in oil reserves in the next generation or two, several of the Gulf States are attempting to develop tourism fairly quickly. The UAE, particularly in Dubai, is probably the best example of a Gulf country with a rapid tourism development program that focuses on mass-produced, commercial, high-spend, and luxury-oriented tourism (Lew et al. 2008; Robatham 2005). Natural heritage, most notably desert landscapes, is the main tourism resource in other countries in the region, such as Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman. However, several of these countries have begun to realize the importance of their cultural heritage and have started to redirect tourism development and marketing efforts to include more emphasis on cultural heritage (Al-Azri and Morrison 2006; Gugolz 1996; Mershen 2007; Soper 2008). In Oman, for example, which is perhaps best known for desert safaris, 1994 was designated the “Year of National Heritage,” reflecting new laws enacted to protect living culture and built heritage (Gugolz 1996), and tour operators there have begun involving the Bedouin nomads to enhance the heritage tourism product (Mershen 2007; Winckler 2007). Similar heritageoriented trends are occurring in North Africa, particularly in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, whose tourism sectors have largely been based on desert safaris and beach resorts (Kohl 2006; Zaiane 2006). The sections that follow highlight the various issues, patterns, trends, and challenges extant in Southwest Asia and North Africa today. These include issues related to pilgrimage, war and conflict, successive empires, indigenous people, and conservation challenges.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCultural Heritage and Tourism in the Developing World
Subtitle of host publicationA Regional Perspective
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781134002283
ISBN (Print)041577621X, 9780415776219
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences
  • General Social Sciences


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