Thomas Cook and Sons’ first tour excursions in 1841 mark the birth of a global industry, in a decade that also included the founding of the Cunard Lines and the Wells Fargo successor, American Express. Cook began to internationalize its operations in the 1860s, creating the first package tours for England’s consumers and turning southern Egypt into one of the original resorts of the rich and famous.

Cook’s monopoly on Nile steamboat traffic underwrote its expansion elsewhere. The firm’s investment in hotel construction in Luxor in the 1870s presaged later vertical integration within the industry. And tourism earned an enduring association with imperialism when Cook’s fleet ferried troops wounded in the war against the nationalist uprising of Col. Ahmad ‘Urabi in 1882. A few years later, in 1884, the company ran a rescue expedition up the Nile to Khartoum after the Mahdi’s uprising. [1]

The Middle East’s association with contemporary flows of “pleasure hunters” has proved less significant, much to the consternation of investors and government officials throughout the region. The Middle East now captures a miniscule share of world tourist trade, though states continue to spend scarce resources trying to bring to their shores more Americans, Europeans or anyone else with time and money on their hands. In the 1970s and 1980s, moreover, the tourist sector became a rallying point for secular and religious opposition forces, for whom Club Med franchises symbolize the decadence of capitalists and Western elites.

Tourism and the Economic Pyramid

The 1950s and 1960s, in retrospect, can be seen as the beginning of global mass tourism, with the internationalization of the leisure and consumption pursuits of middle and working classes in industrialized societies. The numbers of travelers crossing international frontiers grew from 46 million in 1955 to 144 million in 1965 and to 455 million by the early 1990s. Their spending jumped from $103 billion in 1980 to $300 billion in 1993. Together with domestically generated tourism, these numbers translate into solid shares of production and trade for many mature industrialized economies. The US vies with France for the position of largest tourist market in the world. The US travel and tourism industry employs the second largest number of persons after health care. [2] The $63.5 billion in foreign receipts earned by US airlines, tour operators, hotels and subsidiary components of this service sector in 1993 are larger than earnings from such “classic” exports as agricultural products, chemicals and cars. The post-World War II “discovery” by newly mobile Westerners of “unspoiled” and — crucially — affordable alternatives to Miami and the Cote d’Azur, a few hours flying time from New York, Paris, London and Frankfurt, was a marketing dream. Tourist ministries negotiated with Hilton and Meridian for hotels in Marrakesh and Port-au-Prince. Tourism today generates more revenues than traditional exports in countries such as Barbados, Panama, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and India. It is hardly less important to the export profile of the group of Middle East and North African countries clustered around the Mediterranean basin that includes Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Libya, Morocco, Spain, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. Tourism receipts equaled approximately 2.2 percent of this region’s GNP in the late 1980s, 14 percent of the value of all exports, and between 23-29 percent of all services receipts. [3] The heavy costs to the seacoast environment, of course, are less carefully measured.

The fact that tourism moves people rather than goods was a windfall for anthropologists already in the field, and made it easy to assimilate tourism into the flourishing polemics on dependency and cultural imperialism. The first critical text of the 1970s on the phenomenon cast the new affluent nomads as “golden hordes” and christened their Third World destinations as “the pleasure periphery.” [4] But the anti-colonial tropes often hid more than they revealed about tourism and the world economy — in particular, about how little the zones of “late” nineteenth-century empire in Africa and the Middle East mattered to post-industrial transformations a century later.

There are several basic points about tourism. First, cross-border pleasure seeking (or the increasingly important business and convention touring) pales in comparison to the number of passenger miles and hotel nights consumed by citizens within the borders of their own countries. Second, even more than other forms of trade and investment, the phenomenon is centered overwhelmingly in the North. When pilgrims of leisure do pack their passports, they go mainly to North America and Western Europe. In the past few decades, only Asian countries such as Indonesia, China, Hong Kong and Malaysia have emerged as a new growth market.

The “pleasure periphery,” in essence located in the “core” capitalist regions, affects the social landscape and the real estate and labor markets of Manhattan and Milan as much as those of resort areas on the East Atlantic and North Mediterranean, Miami’s South Beach and Spain’s Marbella. Tourism is even more tightly intertwined with the dominant zones of capitalist production and wealth creation than is the case with, for example, trade in raw materials. To compete for market share, a country’s tourism sector requires a level of infrastructure, accommodation and facilities typical of industrialized rather than poor regions. And as a form of consumption crucially dependent on disposable income and organized leisure time, tourism is inconceivable for most people in the South. Today only Mexico, with 16 million visitors in 1991, attracts numbers that rival those of the market giants: France, the US, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Britain, Germany and Canada — the top ten tourist destinations for the past decade or more. The biggest tourist markets in the Middle East and North Africa cannot compare, notwithstanding NAFTA-era comparisons of Morocco and Tunisia as “Europe’s Mexico.” The Red Sea resorts trail behind second tier (4-8 million) markets such as Portugal, the Netherlands, Greece, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Turkey is the one part of the region that excites industry executives and now draws more Western Europeans than the Maghrib.

Politics of Leisure Markets

For planners throughout the Third World, marketing natural and cultural resources to consumer-tourists and their agents seemed to represent a potentially easy means to earn the foreign exchange to pay the bills for capital and consumer goods imports. But middle classes in Egypt and elsewhere in the region have not yet been able to engineer the kinds of socioeconomic transformations that would allow them to compete with Mexicans and Malaysians as consumers themselves of international tourist services. And those workers of the Western world who can travel abroad are mostly going elsewhere.

The 1990-1991 Gulf war’s impact on vacationers, easily seen in the statistical summaries compiled by the World Tourism Organization, dramatically illustrates the sensitivity of this sector to factors beyond the reach of the image makers and beyond the vicissitudes of desire. The volume of tourists from the US and Western Europe dropped precipitously throughout the region; receipts declined by 20 percent overall. Jordan’s tourism earnings fell nearly 40 percent.

In Egypt, the loss was cushioned by the thousands of extra Saudi Arabians and Kuwaitis who mingled in Cairo with the British, Germans, Libyans and Israelis who were Egypt’s best customers in 1991. For some countries, the war was a windfall, generating new revenues in Syria and catapulting Bahrain, with its heretofore unknown attractions, to a position ahead of the Bahamas, Cyprus, Israel, the Philippines and Kenya as a tourist destination.

The effects of the war underscore a second dimension of the Middle East’s intersection with global tourist markets — the relative buying power of the oil revenue — empowered Saudis and Kuwaitis. Industry studies singled them out in the mid-1980s, together with Mexico and Malaysia, as the only per capita markets for tourist services in the Third World that rival the high-rolling North Americans, Europeans and Japanese. [5] This buying power was obvious in Thailand at the height of the sex-tour boom, when Saudis swamped Bangkok’s brothels. [6] The government of neighboring Malaysia apparently tried in vain to lure a share by appealing to what they imagined was a “desire to visit a religiously ‘clean’ Islamic nation.” [7] But with the decline of oil revenues and the ensuing economic slump, the numbers of Saudi travelers to Asia had dropped significantly by the time of the war.

Tourism exports dominate the services sector in the Maghrib. Morocco and Tunisia draw over 45 percent of all tourists visiting Africa. [8] There the numbers of German and French sun-seeking visitors declined sharply as a consequence of the Gulf war, and of Islamist insurgencies in Algeria and Egypt. This was eased somewhat by massive new movements of Algerians to Morocco and Libyans to Tunisia. When Col. Muammar Qaddafi lifted the ban on foreign travel in 1988, Libyans began flocking to Sfax and other Tunisian cities at the rate of thousands per day, lured by low prices and ample stocks of consumer goods, spare auto parts and the like. Algeria’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Morocco in the same year resulted in similar consumer pilgrimages from Algiers to Agadir and elsewhere. [9]

This flow was powerful enough to impact market shares even before the war, and is responsible for elevating both Morocco and Tunisia in the rankings of world tourism destinations. In Morocco’s case, the numbers also include a significant traffic in Moroccans who reside in Europe and return home for vacation. In neither case, however, did these intra-regional tourist flows fully compensate for the decline in the European market segment, which reduced earnings by 16 percent in Morocco and 28 percent in Tunisia. As hoteliers in the Tunisian island resort of Djerba are well aware, Maghribi tourists do not fill the hotels; Europeans “stay longer and spend more money.” [10]

These North African tourist circuits are at the same time no less vulnerable to the contingencies of politics and the vicissitudes of desire. Libyan traffic to Tunisia slowed after Qaddafi and Egypt’s President Husni Mubarak agreed to reopen air links to Cairo, and rules were tightened on bringing goods back from these cross-frontier supermarket sweeps. The number of Libyan tourists to Egypt skyrocketed, from 14,000 in 1988 to 228,000 in 1989, and was the single largest segment of the Egyptian market when the Gulf war began. This market was consolidated when the 1992 UN sanctions against Libya led to a resevering of air links with Tunis and Rabat. Algerian tourism to Morocco began to decline at the same time, as the army began its war against the Islamic Salvation Front.

While Europeans began to return to the region in 1992, the year after the war ended, the optimistic forecast for the region’s leisure industry has yet to materialize. At least one tourism minister, Fu’ad Sultan, the tireless booster of the Egyptian private sector, lost his job in 1993. The reasons are well known. The Islamists’ struggle with the state has been fought on the terrain of the tourism economy, driving away both consumers and, crucially, investors. In Algeria, the regime’s recourse to economic liberalization measures, which triggered the October 1988 round of violent protests, was, for many old-style economic nationalists, symbolized by the joint venture signed with an American company in the mid-1980s. When the Algiers Hilton finally opened in 1993, despite long delays, 90 percent of its rooms were empty, plans for swimming pools and golf courses were shelved, and the hotel itself was closed down six months later.

The costs of the Islamist campaigns to the Egyptian economy can be gauged as well in Luxor’s nearly deserted streets and decimated local economy. The Mubarak government has been hard-pressed to stem this hemorrhaging of the tourist industry, where the number of tourists dropped 36 percent in 1993 and another 23 percent in 1994, to 1.8 million visitors. Receipts declined in 1994 by 40 percent, to $1 billion. These declines cost jobs, linkages to other industries and, of course, foreign exchange. [11] The World Bank is funding resort expansion on the Red Sea, which tourist agencies have painted as Islamist-free zones, and the US Agency for International Development thinks is ripe for “eco-tourism development” — even though a German national was killed in Hurghada in September 1994. [12] The giant American public relations firm Burson-Marsteller won a fat contract to woo back US and European travelers, and open new markets in South Africa and South Korea. Similar to Morocco, where the sector has yet to recover from the setback when investors from the Gulf quit the market, capital has shied away from new investment in Egypt’s tourist sector. Not only is there a lag in hotel construction, but buyers for some of the otherwise more attractive public-sector assets now on sale, such as the Cairo Sheraton and the Mena House, are shopping elsewhere. Only in Tunisia are the hoteliers smiling once again, after record numbers of Europeans arrived in 1994.

The Business of Pleasure

For local capital and Gulf investors alike, the hotel or accommodations segment of the industry is where profits are most likely to be found in Middle East tourism circuits. [13] Airlines dominate the transport segment of the industry, and a relative handful of major carriers tower over this market. In the early post-World War II era, firms such as Pan Am, TWA and Air France pioneered a wave of cross-investments in the hotel industry to capture a larger share of tourist spending, and integration is now commonly found in ground transport, food services, tourist attractions and the like. The rise of the “charter” carriers in the 1960s and the deregulation wave in the late 1970s helped weaken the majors’ price-fixing cartel, the International Air and Transport Association. But the sundry South-based “flagships” such as Royal Air Maroc and EgyptAir, must still bargain with the transnationals for routes and market share. And these capital-intensive ventures are state-owned. [14] Private charters are just getting off the ground. [15] The oldest private carrier, Egypt’s ZAS line, is down to a skeleton staff.

The commanding heights of the hotel market are similarly structured, with the giant “innkeepers” of the world — ITT Sheraton, Holiday Inn, Best Western, Novotel, Days Inn, Club Méditerraneé — operating thousands of hotels and over 1 million rooms in dozens of countries. These firms are often happy to let other investors assume the ownership risks by acting as contractors and franchisers. The Cairo Hilton, which began in the 1950s as a private Egyptian venture, is an early example of this now familiar pattern. The capital requirements in this sector are relatively modest and governments often find reasons to underwrite these assets. This has made joint venture hotels with multinational firms a highly visible form of investment for major private sector actors, such as Tunisia’s Stusid and al-Baraka groups and Morocco’s royal holding company, Omnium Nord Africain. The hotel industry, for all this integration, is also fragmented, which means that independent ventures successfully coexist alongside the big Western-identified chains.

Travel agencies and tour operators represent the third and much more competitive segment of the industry, but it is virtually impossible for Middle East or other Third World enterprises to vie for a share of this market. The problem is not domination by Thomas Cook or American Express or one of the other multinationals in a field crowded with tour marketers and organizers, but rather in gaining direct access to the millions of customers for these services in cities across Europe and North America. The travel “agencies” — tour bus operators and other, relatively small-scale service vendors — that sprouted in Cairo in the 1980s illustrate the kinds of secondary activities, along with restaurants, shops and the like, that support this sector, but they only directly capture a tiny portion of the revenues flowing to metropolitan tour wholesalers and retailers.

While the relatively labor-intensive tourism sector generates jobs directly and through backward and forward linkages to agriculture, construction, manufacturing and services, it will not serve by itself as a leading sector. The structural weaknesses that make foreign investment necessary also mean that part of the hard currency revenues generated in this sector “leak” in the form of payments to US and European contractors, licensees and manufacturers.

Pursued haphazardly, tourism investment may clash with other priorities. First put forward in the 1970s, these arguments remain useful correctives to those stray industry boosters and state tourist wallahs who view the future in terms of another thousand hotel rooms or another million guests. But the fiercest critics of the infitah and, a decade later, of the liberalization schemes spearheaded by the IMF, were not necessarily any more detached in their depiction of each new luxury hotel as a further step toward national deindustrialization. Tourism was cast unreasonably as the harbinger of some fantastic transformation of these relatively diversified economies into Caribbean-style dependencies. After all, despite two decades of investment in the tourism sector, Tunisia’s textile industry was still generating larger export revenues.

There is little reason to think that the trends in world population income growth and distribution, politics, and spectacle-generating technologies that have sustained the tourist industry are going to change. In the Gulf, Omanis and others, impressed by Bahrain’s rising revenues and depressed by their hotel vacancy rates, are marketing their beaches for weekend getaways. In Israel, the research institute that designed the Jordan valley settlements is now preoccupied with turning kibbutzim into bed-and-breakfast lodgings for the Tel Aviv set and exporting its expertise in “rural tourism” abroad. [16] Joint tourism development plans with the Jordanians and the Egyptians promise a future “riviera” on the Red Sea.

Virtually every generation since the 1870s has viewed the continued expansion of this commerce as revolutionary. Today’s dissenting currents, condensed in the idea of “sustainable tourism,” is tomorrow’s new niche marketing trend. Meanwhile, the adage that everywhere even tourists dislike tourists will lose none of its force. Thirty years ago, in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon turned the industry into a metaphor for the brothelization of the Third World at the hands of Western leisure imperialists. But as Fidel Castro might now say to comrade Fanon, “We still have an awful lot to learn about tourism…and since we haven’t found those big oil deposits, it is marvelous to have at our disposal these extraordinary deposits of natural resources.” [17]

Echoes of Fanon’s moral economy can still be found in Oran and Imbaba, though apparently not even all Islamist factions are ready to sacrifice the invisible balance to protect against contemporary Western invaders. “This city should be a tourist city,” an official of Hizballah, the Lebanese Islamist party, told a US reporter in Baalbek recently. According to Lebanese officials, Hizballah leaders have approved Tourism Ministry plans to resurrect the Baalbek “sound and light” show. Near the entrance to the famous Roman ruins, a hand-painted banner in English proclaims that “Hizbullah welcomes you by his pioneer values.” [18]


[1] Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook: 150 years of Popular Tourism (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1991), p. 201.
[2] “Tourists” and the tourist “industry” are difficult phenomena to define, particularly for accounting purposes. Though not all travel is, strictly speaking, leisure travel, there is often a leisure consumption component to it. It is now standard practice by institutions such as the World Tourism Organization (WTO) to define “international tourist” broadly as any person crossing an international boundary for a stay of over 24 hours.
[3] David Harrison, ed., Tourism and the Less Developed Countries (New York: Halsted Press, 1992), p. 14. See A Yearbook of Tourism Statistics, vol. 1 (Madrid: WTO, 1993), p. 10.
[4] Louis Turner and John Ash, The Golden Hordes: International Tourism and the Pleasure Periphery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976). Much of the early tourism literature traces the footsteps of the subject: “ambivalence, sweeping generalizations and stereotypes abound,” according to Malcolm Crick. His review is essential for those with less time on their hands. See “Representations of International Tourism in the Social Sciences: Sun, Sex, Sighs, Savages and Servility,” Annual Review of Anthropology 19 (1989), pp. 307-344. Two other texts stand out: Gareth Shaw and Allan M. Williams, Critical Issues in Tourism: a Geographical Perspective (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), and John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage, 1990).
[5] See Anthony Edwards, International Tourism Forecasts to 1999, Special Report 1142 (London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 1988).
[6] Based on data reported from tourism “exporting” countries, the top destinations of Saudi tourists were as follows (in thousands): Jordan (172), Egypt (149), Qatar (137), US (57), Syria (46), Turkey (39), Thailand (38), Iraq (28), India (22), Singapore (21) and Cyprus (21). Unfortunately, neither France nor Britain reported disaggregated figures for Middle East tourists. See Yearbook, vol. 38 (Madrid: WTO, 1983-1984).
[7] Linda K. Richter, “Tourism Policymaking in South-East Asia,” in Michael Hitchcock, Victor T. King and Michael J. G. Parnwell, eds., Tourism in South-East Asia (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 184. Data on the Saudis’ share of Thailand tourist trade is found in Linda K. Richter, The Politics of Tourism in Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989), p. 93. Of course, the notorious migration from the surrounding states (and city-states) of the region makes the numbers of Saudi and other Middle East sex tourists seem puny by comparison. See C. Michael Hall, “Sex Tourism in South-East Asia,” in Harrison, ed.,Tourism, pp. 64-74.
[8] Robert A. Poirer and Stephen Wright, “The Political Economy of Tourism in Tunisia,” Journal of Modern African Studies 31/1 (1993), p. 150.
[9] Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Reports: Tunisia, No. 2 (1988); Country Profile: Morocco (1990-91), p. 37.
[10] EIU, Country Report: Tunisia 2 (1992), p. 21.
[11] WTO estimates as reported in EIU, Country Reports: Egypt 3 (1994) and 2 (1995).
[12] Al-Majalla, July 4-10, 1993.
[13] The economics of the tourism industry has been discussed in various ways. John Lea, Tourism and Development in the Third World (London: Routledge, 1988) is a useful primer. The following section draws on Shaw and Williams, Critical Issues; Adrian Bull, The Economics of Travel and Tourism (New York: Wiley, 1991); and Francois Ascher, Tourism: Transnational Corporations and Cultural Identities (Paris: UNESCO, 1985).
[14] I have been unable to find detailed work on the industrial structure of the tourism sector in the major Middle East markets along the lines of, for example, M. Thea Sinclair, Parvin Alizadeh and Elizabeth Atieno Adero Onunga, “The Structure of International Tourism and Tourism Development in Kenya,” in Harrison, ed., Tourism, pp. 47-63. Ascher, Tourism: Transnational Corporations, p. 34, makes a passing reference to the relative success of both Tunis Air and Royal Air Maroc in bargaining for market share, which he compares to Aeromexico.
[15] Al-Majalla, September 19-25, 1993.
[16] See “Rural Tourism Development Course For Third World Countries,” Newsflash, Israel Information Service Gopher, Information Division, Israel Foreign Ministry (June 13, 1995).
[17] Fidel Castro, May 5, 1990, quoted in Derek R. Hall, “Tourism Development in Cuba,” in Harrison, ed., Tourism, pp. 102-120.
[18] Washington Post, June 19, 1995.

How to cite this article:

Robert Vitalis "The Middle East on the Edge of the Pleasure Periphery," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).

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