Ministers of Tourism and leading tourism companies from the Middle East and North Africa reiterated their confidence in the growth of tourism in the region during the first UNWTO/Arabian Travel Market Industry Forum (Dubai, 30 April 2012).

Entitled The Future of Tourism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Ensuring sustainable growth in challenging times, the forum debated short and long term prospects for tourism in the region, stressing the encouraging signs emerging from destinations affected by the political changes of last year as well as the on-going strong expansion plans of tourism infrastructure in the countries of the Gulf.

Participants in the forum reiterated their confidence in the growth of tourism in the region, where the sector has become a key pillar of local economies and employment and a central part of national development policies.

UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai said: “Despite recurrent challenges, the story of tourism in the Middle East and North Africa is one of success. The sector has become an economic powerhouse for the region, generating US$60 billion in export earnings and creating millions of jobs. This outstanding performance is the result of strong and committed public tourism policies aimed at diversifying national economies and create much needed jobs, especially for the youth, and strong private sector investment. These conditions remain unaltered”.

Reed Travel Exhibitions Managing Director, Richard Mortimore said: “The launch of this high-level forum could not come at a more opportune moment. It is a sign of the importance of tourism to the region that this high-profile group of ministers and industry leaders have come to share a platform at Arabian Travel Market, the region’s premier travel trade exhibition. It is sure to prove to be as successful and as influential as the well-established UNWTO and WTM Ministers’ Summit has been at fellow Reed Travel Exhibitions event World Travel Market over the past five years.”

The need for the region’s key players to work together in order to achieve a greater share of the global pie, was a key theme of the summit, with the Undersecretary of Oman’s Ministry of Tourism, Maitha Al Mahrouqi, saying: “I don’t see us [Oman] competing with the UAE, we are complementing the UAE.”

“We need to work with other industries to make the whole touristic experience a pleasure,” added Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour.

While examples of visa facilitation exist in the region – Oman has a joint tourist visa arrangement with Qatar, the panel also flagged the need for the opening up of the visa system within the region. “A common electronic visa platform would actually enhance security – not decrease it – and facilitate smoother travel globally,” said Gerald Lawless, Executive Chairman of the Jumeirah Group.