Travel Racism in the Middle East

Travel middle east

Travel to the Middle East had been growing steadily for several years and was expected to peak this year. The events of the Arab Spring put all that growth into a tailspin, but not everywhere in the region and not equally. While many of the Middle Eastern countries have seen sometimes significant drops in tourism, Israel has actually had an increase. This strange fact made me wonder how tourists traveling to the region are making their travel decisions.

Oddly enough one of the flashpoints in the Middle East, Egypt, seems to be recovering fairly well. Tourism officials have reported increasing numbers and tourist visits in key areas, especially along the Red Sea, are expected to be normal by the end of the year. Other countries have not fared as well. Jordan for example has seen a 12 percent drop in the first half of 2011 even though it never experienced the dramatic political unrest witnessed in other countries.

middle east travel
Israel though has maintained and even increased its tourism numbers, with some month-to-month comparisons showing a 25% increase from just two years ago. What seems strange to me, the Palestinian Authority has seen a 15% drop in tourists even though it borders Israel and usually hosts many of the same visitors.

Elsewhere in the region, Syria has logically enough seen its tourism sector nearly destroyed, but even the significantly less turbulent Lebanon has had a significant drop in tourism.

All of these facts and figures made me wonder if tourists are racist when they make their travel decisions. I can understand the drop-off in tourism after the Arab Spring, although in some cases it may not be warranted, I understand the reason. We in the West tend to paint the Middle East with a broad brush and when reporting on nations like Egypt and Syria, other countries, such as Jordan, unfortunately get caught in the media net. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw the numbers, except when I saw that Israel has not only fared well, it’s seen an increase in tourism.

Israel is in the Middle East, has had problems in the past and is a regional flashpoint. I personally think it’s safe, I traveled there last year, but I also think the Palestinian Authority and Jordan are safe. But the average traveler only knows what they’ve seen on TV and I don’t understand how Israel has escaped the image that has plagued every other nation in the area.

travel middle east
So why then are people flocking to Israel? It has to be based on cultural reasons. It’s possible to get by speaking English only and, in general, we here in the U.S. hear a lot about Israel and I think we are more comfortable with the concept of traveling there. But why don’t they also visit Jericho, Bethlehem, Amman, Petra – how much of it is based on racism, running from the unknown?

I unfortunately think that the one image most of my countrymen hold of what someone in the Middle East looks and acts like is the reason for this difference. There is a popular misconception that everyone in the Middle East are terrorists and prone to violence, the Arab Spring just proves the fact that they are unstable and ready to snap at any minute.

This is of course absurd, anyone who knows the region’s history or has traveled there will tell you that each country is radically different from one another and that within the individual countries you will see as dynamic a population as anywhere else in the world.

travel middle east

From personal experience, I can also say with certainty that the people I have encountered in the Middle East are the nicest I have ever met. They are open, honest and genuine, traits nearly impossible to find with any level of consistency in many other places around the globe.

I love Israel and am thrilled they have seen an increase in tourism. The rest of the Middle East was well on its way to the same numbers, until the violence erupted. I just hope that this does not define tourism in the region and that countries in the Middle East can recover and continue their ascent into becoming travel hotspots and that tourists realize not every country in the Middle East is a hotspot of violence.

What do you think? Is it racism keeping some people away from countries like Jordan?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

23 thoughts on “Travel Racism in the Middle East”

  1. An excellent post Matt. I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head – Israel is just seen as being more “western.”

    Our trip to Israel and Jordan wasn’t postponed due to security issues (perceived or otherwise), but cost – we simply cannot afford to do the trip the way we want. I wonder if prices are driving away any other potential visitors? With airfare alone topping out around $1500-$2000 per person, that certainly isn’t helping things.

  2. I understand why travel is difficult in some areas – a few years ago I went to Jordan and rented a car to drive to down to Petra and all points in between.

    I was extremely difficult. There were no street signs, no directions, and extremely hostile people. I was chased by stone throwing kids, and as I followed a tourist bus winding through towns on the way to Petra, I watched the reactions of the adults after the buses went past – the shaking of fists, the obscene gestures, the yelling, and also the throwing of stones.

    There is a distinct lack of signage to find some of the ruins if you wanted to see something that was not part of a major tourist area.

    Yet I did have a good time as I rarely let the ugliness of a location affect me. I have wanted to go to Petra for 40 years, and I am delighted that I went. But it was probably

    1. Sorry the rest got cut off – I was saying that this was probably the most difficult trip I have ever taken because of the overt hostility towards tourists.

      1. Hi Pamm – what were you driving?!

        Travelled the length and breadth of Jordan, by car too, and never encountered the problems or hostility you mention.

        In fact, in all the years I’ve lived in the Middle East, since 1998, I’ve only experienced hostility in two countries:
        * Syria, in two rather odd towns called Hama and Deir al Zour (both of which are unfortunately suffering at the moment) but these were exceptions, and in many years of visiting Syria and travelling all over the country by car, never had any problems.
        * Israel, by virtually every member of the military/security/police we encountered – was very unpleasant.

        But never Jordan…

      2. Hi Lara,

        I actually don’t remember what I was driving other than a silver sedan.

        To be honest, I was pretty shocked at the whole thing as I have never expected such hostility before.

        It saddened me greatly.

        In spite of that, I absolutely enjoyed myself and continued on alone for the last half of the trip. That part was without incident.

        Trying to find my hotel in Madaba was really funny as I stopped at a gas station and asked for help. The two clerks got into a huge arguement on where the my hotel was located. I manged to find it and actually came back and stayed there again before I went to up to Jerash.

        It is a fascinating area. And I still need to go to Aqaba to do some diving and to Wadi Masa. And back to Petra.


      3. Pamm, what a great attitude you have, thank you again for sharing! It can be tough getting past ugly incidents and giving a country a second chance, I’ve struggled with that myself. Jordan is indeed a beautiful place and I’m glad you’re planning a return visit.

    2. Pamm, wow I’m so sorry that happened to you. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of such a thing in Jordan, it’s usually a pretty calm place. I’m also certain that the people I know in Jordan would be shocked and sorry that you went through such an experience.

  3. I’m sure that racism is the reason that keeps “some” people away from some countries in the Middle East, but those are the same people who stayed away even before the Arab Spring. As you mention, before the violence, “The rest of the Middle East was well on its way to the same numbers” as Israel. It’s not necessarily racism that stopped much of the tourist trade, it’s likely a fear of violence based on recent events, not ethnicity. I don’t think that all people who prefer visiting more “western” countries (as Christina above mentioned) or who are “running from the unknown” (as you said) can be categorized as racist. They may be missing out on learning about new and interesting new cultures, but it doesn’t mean they are making travel decisions based on racism. Thoughtful and interesting post, Matt.

  4. This is not racism, it is a lack of knowledge and a fear for one’s safety, and nothing more. Israel is portrayed more favorably by the media and has not had internal conflict during this period, so more people are comfortable visiting that country. People are staying away from other Middle Eastern countries out of fear of being caught up in violence, and when it comes to safety concerns, most travelers want to be cautious. They prefer to stay away from an entire region, regardless of whether or not some of the countries may still be perfectly safe.

    It’s the same reason why tourism numbers drop in all of SE Asia when there are problems in Thailand and the same reason why tourism numbers drop in Mexico, even though the violence is limited to one small region. I don’t see any racism in any of that.

    1. Actually tourism in Mexico has done really well, in spite of fears that the violence would keep people away. I see your point though, that people would rather avoid entire regions, but Israel remains the strange outlier.

  5. I am not quite sure it is racism, per se, but I noticed in Israel there was what I called a “collective amnesia” about the Palestinian Territories. I know I may have shared this here before, but whenever I asked my Israeli hosts about catching the bus to Bethlehem at the Arab Bus Station, they feigned even knowing it existed. I’m sorry, but how can you live in such a small space and not know about a bus station just outside the Damascus Gate? It’s in the Lonely Planet!!!

    Then, when I was in Jordan, I was supposed to couchsurf with a Bedouin but trying to get a hold of the guy was next to impossible, especially when the Jordanians I encountered found out who I was staying with and then proceeded to steer me towards their hostel/hotel/etc. I never was able to get a hold of him and felt horrible for not following through with my plans to couchsurf with my host.

    Was this racism or just outright sexism? I think my experience in Israel and the Palestinian Territories was more related to the different regions and everyone competing for a piece of the pie. My experience in Jordan was definitely sexism and made me painfully aware of how lucky you guys are with your male privilege! That’s not a criticism, just an observation. It made it very difficult for me to have a positive experience in Jordan. There were other things that happened too, but my first few hours in the country kind of tainted my overall view of the country.

    I think the Jordanians charging almost $80 to get into Petra for a DAY is coming back to bite them in the rear. Maybe that’s what is keeping people away from there. Just a thought.

    1. Interesting observations, thank you for sharing. It’s a point of view I have no way of knowing since I’m a guy. I agree that the price for Petra is way overblown, hard to believe it costs so much. But there are other tourist attractions around the world that are pricey, Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb is $200 per person!

  6. Hi Matt – what a thought-provoking post! Good on you for raising these issues. I agree with Cathy about racism, that the racists would always stay away no matter what; and that applies to Africa, Asia, the US, Australia, anywhere. I agree with Earl too re perceptions about safety and ignorance about geography. I remember when we were living in Abu Dhabi and the American forces invaded Iraq – nearly every single person I knew who didn’t live in the Middle East was emailing me to ask if we were okay!

    Many of the Middle Eastern countries have in fact been incredibly popular destinations for many years. Sure, they, like everywhere, experienced drops during the various economic crashes, but some in fact were still doing very nicely even, when, say, Americans stopped travelling for a while, because they still had custom from the Gulf and Europe.

    Syria in fact was booming until recently, and has been for many years, especially with European tourists, French and Italians mainly, who go for the history and archaeology, and Gulf tourists (locals and expats), who traditionally go there and to Lebanon, for weekend breaks, especially during Eid holidays. Flights were already cheap between ME countries, but the low-cost airlines have made weekends away possible. Syria and Lebanon has long been major destinations for Gulf Arabs during summer – they head their to escape the heat of the Gulf. Jordan less so, for a lot of reasons. While all three countries have their share of stupendous archaeological attractions, the food, nightlife, cultural activities, shopping, fresh mountain air, and beaches have made Lebanon and Syria, esp. Beirut and Damascus, better propositions than Amman.

    Matt, I’d question the stats re the Palestinian Territories, where their nascent tourism industry hasn’t really developed at all, despite what Tony Blair has done and said. My understanding is that almost all of the tourists visiting are going to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and the vast majority are only day-trippers staying for a couple of hours. When we last visited, hotel occupancy was 1% of something crazy, so few were staying overnight. It’s extraordinarily difficult for tourists to visit other parts of the West Bank, because the Israelis control access. People wishing to visit the Palestinian Territories have to declare this when they enter Israel and make a choice to go to one or the other, not both. Most are primarily going to visit Israel so choose Israel, which officially excludes them from visiting the West Bank. You can then sneak fairly easily into, say, Ramallah, but getting out without being interrogated is another thing. We went as journalists to do a story for an American magazine with the support of the Ministry for Tourism and had a special visa and the phone number for the secretary to the Minister for Tourism, and yet we were still interrogated. When we tried to visit other West Bank areas as tourists, we continually had to lie about what we were doing whenever our vehicle was stopped at road blocks. Not fun. Sadly, I think it will be a long time before the Palestinian Tourism Industry can develop properly.

    Israel fares better simply due to the phenomenal number of American Jewish tourists visiting. Simple as that. It’s in a very different situation. We’ve found more people speaking English in Syria and Lebanon than we did in Israel.

    I also disagree with this comment. “There is a popular misconception that everyone in the Middle East are terrorists and prone to violence, the Arab Spring just proves the fact that they are unstable and ready to snap at any minute.” I think you might need to add after misconception “in the US” perhaps because I’ve not encountered this view before. Most people I meet are sympathetic for the Palestinians who have lived under Israeli repression for so long, and the Libyans, Egyptians, Syrians, and Yemenis who have also lived under despots forever. They didn’t “snap” at all for a very long time because they feared the violent response. Indeed, Syria has been one of the safest and least-violent countries for as long as I can remember. There’s nowhere I’ve felt safer. At this point in history that comment probably applies better to Londoners and Canadians after hockey matches ;)

    Oh dear, that was an essay, sorry, Matt, but you raise a lot of interesting points.

    1. I was never asked when entering Israel if I intended to travel to the Palestinian Territories. I think the reason most people do day trips is because the amount of affordable, budget accomodations is severely lacking. If I hadn’t been able to arrange a couchsurfing experience, I would not have been able to stay in Bethlehem. It cost too much as a single traveler on a budget. I don’t think they are used to independent travelers going there. It’s usually tour groups.

      I spent three nights in Bethlehem and took a day trip to Ramallah on one of those days. I would have liked to have gone to Nablus, but just didn’t have the time. On the way to Ramallah, our servee was stopped and we had to hand over our papers to the IDF soldiers at the checkpoint. Aside from that and having to deal with getting back “into” Israel (which is a long story), I didn’t find it any more of a hassle than normal security in Israel.

      I don’t know….maybe because I had been there before in ’95 and knew what to expect and knew that it was safe I am a bit more adventurous….I need to get a new passport so I can travel to the rest of the Middle East. Syria (when it cools down a bit), Lebanon, Turkey, etc….they are all on my list, regardless of what I read on the news.

    2. Wow, thank you Lara for the very well said and thoughtful comments. You’re right about the Palestinian Authority. I visited as a day tripper with a company and found everything to be very easy. We drove around to the various sites and that was that. I saw a couple of hotels, but I can’t really imagine anyone staying there. There’s just no reason yet with Jerusalem being so close.

      And you’re right I should’ve added “in the US” to that statement. I know and agree with what you’ve said, but here in the US there is a bizarre and warped image of the region.

  7. I spent close to a month is Israel last year. I never had any issues with people being rude. It was an extremely easy country to get around in (besides driving in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv). I have never heard anyone say anything bad about Jordan before these comments. Most of the blogs I read also speak highly of the hospitality in Syria and Lebanon, too. Egypt gets a lot of complaints about aggressive touts in Cairo.

    As far as racism, most well-read travelers will be quick to find these positive comments about traveling in the Middle East, so hopefully that will break down those stereotypes.

    1. Thanks Erik and I hope you’re right. I didn’t expect to love the Middle East as much as I do. I’ve fallen in love with the region and can’t wait to explore more of it.

  8. While I do think that safety and stigmas play a major part… sometimes the bottom line is simple, $$$. If one can get a cheaper ticket into Tel Aviv than they can Yemen, that might be the biggest deciding factor and it could be nothing to do with race. Who knows, it could be simply they don’t know anything about the food!

  9. I find it interesting that those of us who have commented about negative experiences also happen to be female….coincidence? Nah, I don’t think so. That’s just the way it is in the Middle East. It is much more difficult to travel as a solo female traveler there. It won’t keep me from returning, it just means I have to prepare myself differently. My time in Jordan had more negative experiences than positive, but that’s not going to prevent me from visiting again. I just won’t be going back to Petra if it continues to cost as much as it does. I’d like to give Jordan a second chance. Israel, I will always go back to. The West Bank, most definitely. I feel like I barely touched the surface with just three days there. So much to see and do……being a woman traveling alone just brings with it a different set of rules and the Middle East made me painfully aware of those rules, however stupid I think they are. :)

  10. Laura, World Out There

    I think it’s the perception that Israel is perhaps more ordered and less chaotic than other Middle East destinations. Whether that’s actually true or not, I don’t know.
    Between terror threats, holiday companies going under and airline price hikes, there’s a lot more to think about before you sign on the dotted line. I would say there is probably a desire for ease, safety and, to some degree, familiarity in the face of so much world turbulence.
    I am based in London , England – I wonder what effects the footage of the riots here and in other cities will have on our tourist industry. Would it put you guys off visiting?

    (My travel blog is which your website field said was not a valid url.)

  11. It’s amazing what an important and misleading role the media can have on your perceptions about a place. I visited Jordan back in 2009 before the Arab Spring and any news of it. It was the best experience of middle eastern hospitality i had until then and though I had been living in Dubai, I had never experienced this side of Middle east yet.
    And yet when i speak of Iran and Jordan as my favourite countries visited yet, people are often surprised. “Iran?? But isn’t it dangerous there?” In spite of the all the hype in the media, we started our rtw trip in the middle east in September 2011 because it was a region that definitely held more than what was being projected in the news and i’d definitely recommend it to anyone in a flash!

  12. You bring up some excellent points but travel racism is really a strong term to get at. A lot of people just don’t go to the middle east due to cultural ignorance or fear of something greatly different from what they are used to. This is why people flock to Dubai since it’s more ‘westernized’. No one goes to Saudi for example – and that’s not even due to the culture shock. The place simply seems to be very unattractive as a travel destination due to the very strict muslim laws. (women – regardless of religion have to be fully covered, etc.)

    There’s just a huge cloud of doubt surrounding the middle east and this makes people uncomfortable. Some of it is justified, most of it isn’t.

  13. I do think you have to factor into these figures that they are just for a limited period, following the Arab Spring. Don’t forget that lots of people had to switch holidays at the last minute when the “problems” erupted, and Israel very likely benefited from that. Probably travel agents were offering it as the best, closest alternative, because the majority of tourists do use travel agents, whether online or not, and don’t travel with the same abandon as bloggers or other traveling folk!
    Certainly, here in the Canary Islands we benefited hugely from it. There was, actually, an increase in tourism at a time when it was least expected owing to the recession. The nice part for me was that they were tourists who seemed to appreciate the island more than those who simply come to burn and booze. They were more interested in excursions and things to do, so everyone got a chance to make the most of it.
    I agree that what you describe isn’t racism. It’s simply lack of sufficient information and, as usual, press hysteria (it sells papers!) about different places.

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