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15 May, 2012

Anti-Arab/Muslim Image Will Impact Summer Travel to Europe: UNWTO-ETC study

Cultural and religious issues, including a perception of anti-Muslim bias or association with terrorism, is one of numerous factors affecting travel from the Middle East to the Europe. Another key factor, directly related to the same “perception” problem, is the time it takes to get a visa, according to a study on the Middle East outbound market commissioned by the European Travel Commission (ETC) and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Says the study, “The (Middle East) travel trade feels that Middle East travellers, by and large, consider Europe to offer a stable, safe and secure holiday environment. However, the greater concern for travellers of Muslim ethnicity is the growing isolation of the Muslim community, with the international press regularly highlighting acts of terrorism committed by individuals of the Muslim faith and recent government regulations banning the use of the veil by Muslim women in countries such as France and Belgium. This discomfort was first seen after 9-11, and had subsided in large part during the intervening years, but appears to have re-emerged now.”

Offering clear evidence of the linkage between racial profiling/stereotyping and selection of holiday destination, the study adds to a growing body of literature showing how geopolitical tensions and security concerns are impacting global tourism trends. This perception will get even worse if extremist right-wing parties make electoral advances and the xenophobic rhetoric by the likes of suspected Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik continue to gain ground.

The study, commissioned by ETC and the UNWTO to Market Vision Research and Consulting Services, Dubai, focussed on the Middle East outbound travel market in general but had a particular reference to the position and image of Europe as a tourism destination in this travel market. Said an introduction to the study, “To be able to develop the right marketing message for Middle Eastern consumers, not only is the image of Europe important, but also more in-depth information is needed on Middle Eastern consumers’ experiences and wishes concerning travel to European countries.”

The study, completed in September 2011, was a combination of desk research, interviews with the travel trade and online interviews and focus groups with consumers. It looked not just at the Middle Easterners’ travel behaviour, trends and propensity to travel, but also delved more deeply into Europe’s image as a holiday destination in the region, the awareness and perceptions of individual European countries, motivations and possible barriers to travel to Europe, etc.

The study covers all the usual topics – demographics, economic conditions, accessibility, strengths, weaknesses, structure of travel trade, customer preferences, competitive analysis, etc. Most of the details are well known – rich populations, mostly in the young age-group, peak outbound travel in summer, medical tourism potential, etc., etc. What stood out, however, were the numerous references to the growing concerns over anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe, their impact on holiday choice and the swing towards “Muslim-friendly destinations.”

Although Europe is seen to be a great destination, offering a change of ‘scene’ and a different atmosphere compared to the Middle East region as a whole, the perception of religious or racial discrimination is palpable and could become a significant deciding factor if left unaddressed. Said the study, “According to the trade respondents, some Arab tourists have expressed apprehensions regarding travel to European countries that have introduced ‘anti-Islam laws’ fearing discrimination and harassment ‘simply because a person is of the Muslim faith’.”

Although the travel trade respondents believe that the ‘modern’ Western culture of the European nations is not necessarily an obstacle in itself for Arab nationals to visit Europe, they did highlight the growing popularity of ‘Islamic-friendly’ holiday destinations such as Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the study says.

“According to the trade, it is not so much the lack of cultural affinity that may come in the way of growing tourism from the Middle East to Europe, it is the European governments’ regulations and laws such as the ‘Burqa ban’ that may curtail future travel potential to Europe from the Middle East, if the travelling population feels they are being discriminated against.”

It says that ‘burqa’ bans is adding to “the market’s perception that the European countries are becoming anti-Arab and ‘do not want Arab visitors’. There is therefore a degree of uncertainty and apprehension among potential visitors on the aspect of treatment that would be meted out to them when on holiday.” As a result, the study says, Turkey, being perceived as an Islamic-friendly nation, has benefited tremendously in recent years, as visitors feel comfortable in the environment and with the local people, are assured of Halal food, good quality accommodation and a diverse holiday product.”

As a result of terrorism concerns, which is also usually associated with Muslims in Europe, even though Europe itself has a long history of home-grown terrorists, racists and neo-Nazis, visa policies have also been tightened in Arab and Islamic countries. This, too, is becoming a problem.

Says the study, “An oft-repeated deterrent to travel to Europe for some travellers is seen to be the complexity of applying for and getting visas for travel to Europe. Documentation requirements, processing time and cost of visa are some of the factors that act as deterrent to travel to Europe, particularly because several non-European destinations offer visas on arrival or visa exemptions for nationals of GCC countries.

“Further, for some European nations the Embassies are only in select Middle East countries and cities, thus making the visa process that much more cumbersome and longer.”

The travel trade also notes that since the duration of the Schengen visa tends to be limited, some travellers prefer going to other places such as Thailand and Malaysia where visas are granted with ease and for longer duration. For example, GCC nationals (with the exception of Saudi Arabians) may enter Thailand without a visa for 30 days; Saudi nationals may apply for a visa on arrival for stay up to 15 days. Similarly, nationals of GCC countries, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan do not require visas for stay up to three months in Malaysia.

What the study says on “The Burqa Ban”

France’s law banning the burqa and other Islamic face coverings in public places went into effect on 11 April, 2011. The law, which was enacted in October 2010, set down a six-month period to inform people of the penalty before it went into effect. The ban pertains to the burqa, a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face, and the niqab, a full-face veil that leaves an opening only for the eyes.

The law imposes a fine of € 150 (US$ 214), and the person breaking the law can be asked to carry out public service duty as part of the punishment or as an alternative to the fine. Further, forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa is also punishable.

The hijab, which covers the hair and neck but not the face, and the chador, which covers the body but not the face, apparently are not banned by the law.

The Belgium parliament has also passed a similar law.

The full impact of this law on tourism outflows from the Muslim countries is yet to be ascertained though it has created some apprehension amongst potential visitors to the country. Consumer research conducted as part of this study revealed that potential visitors to Europe perceived this action (banning the burqa) to be anti-Arab and discriminatory.

In August 2011, a new law is also set to be passed in Australia’s New South Wales state, which will give police the power to ask Muslim women to lift their veils. On declining to do so, the woman can be fined up to Australian $ 5,500 (US$ 5,858) or she also may have to spend a whole year inside prison.

Another issue of relevance that may have some implications on tourism relates to instances wherein Muslim women have been banned from wearing the body-concealing swimming costume known as a burqini. Several press reports have informed that women wearing the garment, made up of a veil, a tunic and loose leggings have been prohibited from entering swimming pools in places in countries such as Italy, France and Egypt.

Notably, the Muslim swimming dress is allowed in Australia, United Kingdom and the United States of America.”

The report can be ordered from the ETC Infoshop at a cost of € 75.00 (+P&P).

For an overview of the contents of the report, click here.