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Under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development and Chairman of the National Council of Tourism and Antiquities of the United Arab Emirates, The UNWTO & ATM Ministerial Forum on intra-Arab Tourism was held in Dubai last week.

Visa facilitation, open skies, the need to adapt to market needs and the role of events in the promotion of intra-regional tourism in the MENA region were the focus of the debate at the forum.

“International tourism to the Middle East grew by 5% in 2014 after three years of consecutive decline. These are very encouraging results and show that tourism in the region continues to progress despite its many challenges”, said UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

The Arab market can play a particular role in progressing tourism in the Middle East as it tends to spend more, stay longer and be more resilient in times of crisis due to its greater knowledge about the reality of the region. Participants agreed that although tourism in MENA reveals a diverse picture with the Gulf Council Countries (GCC), North Africa and the Levant destinations presenting different tourism development levels, there are important opportunities to strengthen regional cooperation.

Areas of opportunities identified by participants include visa facilitation and easier land border crossings through enhanced use of technology, growing youth and cruise markets, and the development of thematic routes. Furthermore, participants highlighted the importance of a bigger focus on the domestic market and the opportunity to use upcoming mega events, namely sports events, to change the international image of the region and implement new measures such as visa facilitation.

Alongside these opportunities, participants stressed that challenges remain, including the lack of air lift and open skies policies making air travel within the region still comparatively expensive, talent management and the need to promote job mobility, as well as the importance of knowing the Arab tourism market better and adjust product development accordingly.

Participants also agreed that there are important opportunities to work together as a multi-destination to attract tourists from other regions of the world.

Globally, around 80% of the world’s 1.1 billion international tourists travel within their own region. In contrast, only 42% of international tourist arrivals to the Middle East originate in other countries in the region, despite the extraordinary growth of international tourism in the Middle East over the last two decades, and the increasing level of outbound travel from MENA to other world regions.