As Arabs skip Disney World, Gulf resorts thrive

Salim al-Bishri would rather be vacationing at Disney World or Las Vegas.

Instead, he's at the Red Sea, lounging beside one of the Ritz Carlton's seven swimming pools with a freshly squeezed orange juice in hand. "You see I'm a Yemeni from the same tribe as Osama bin Laden, but, like his family, I live in Saudi Arabia," he says. And like other wealthy Gulf Arabs avoiding the US this year, Mr. Bishri doesn't like the idea of having his wife or his only child exposed to what he understands from Saudi newspapers is "ridiculous harassment" at airports. "For now, I'll be vacationing close to home, where they speak my own language," he insists.

Here on the Egyptian coast it's a familiar refrain. Concern about harassment is one factor. Religion and politics are also prompting wealthy Arabs to stay closer to home in droves. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of Arab visitors to the US has dropped by 50 percent and to Europe by 35 percent, according to the Arab League, based in Cairo.

Azziz al-Farrad says he loves the US. He spent eight months in Minnesota as a student and had planned early last year to take his young wife, Zahara, to Michigan. "I have four or five cousins begging me to come over. I even have a visa, but there are all kinds of hassles these days, even for Arab citizens. Besides, political relations are not that good right now since the US supports Israel. I prefer to spend my money in the Islamic world."

But Arabs are very much on the move within the Arab world.

Lebanese officials expect that Arab tourist arrivals will increase this summer by as much as 100 percent over the same period in 2001. Tourism officials report that flights from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to Beirut have already been bumped up from seven per week to 24 for the summer months. In Syria, the number of Arab tourists leaped by 34 percent in the first third of this year Here in Egypt, the Ministry of Tourism says the lure of sun, sea, casinos, and archaeological wonders will precipitate a 20 percent rise in revenues.

Industry analysts in Egypt and elsewhere in the Islamic world remain reluctant to say how long they expect the boom in Gulf tourism within the Arab world to last. They say that Arabs are acting mainly on their "private fears" this year and have opted for what they call "their own cultural comfort zone."

There are other factors, however, that suggest the trend could have legs. In June, the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest shrine, urged Muslims to choose Islamic countries as their destination. "Islam prohibits travel to non-Islamic countries without a legitimate reason or [except] to meet a need such as undergoing medical treatment," said Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Sudeiss during a Friday prayer session.

Meanwhile, Mediterranean Arab states like Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria are doing all they can to lure oil-rich Arab travelers from the Gulf. Saudi Arabian nationals, alone, spend over $14 billion annually on travel.

Look around the Sinai Grand Casino here, which touts itself as "the finest in the Middle East," and one can almost take a head count of the greater princes and lesser sheikhs who decided to cancel planned trips to Las Vegas this year.

"Folks in the Egyptian tourist industry have been rubbing their hands together for months now," says the casino's British general manager, Brian Beetham. "We get wealthy sheikhs in here all the time and we send them straight back to the high-stakes lounge.

"One thing that all the Gulf Arabs are talking about is the increased security checks they have to go through to get to Las Vegas," continues Mr. Beetham. "There are even stories of US pilots who refuse to fly when suspect-looking Arab passengers are aboard their airplanes."

TIGHTER visa requirements and more security checks are two of the most commonly cited hassles that Gulf Arabs in this popular Red Sea resort talk about. John Ashcroft, the US attorney general, announced new plans this month to fingerprint and photograph thousands of visitors – a program that Arab officials complain will inevitably focus on Middle Eastern travelers, who fit the US government's evolving profile of a potential terrorist.

The Middle Eastern tourism industry is capitalizing on those fears with ad campaigns targeted to the oil-rich Gulf states. Adel Abdel Aziz, the chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority, says that his country has launched a new ad campaign in the Gulf headed by the slogan: "Egypt is your house!" It's an obvious appeal to cultural affinity and strong Islamic traditions. Camel racing, shopping, and folkloric dancing grace the promotion pages. "The older Saudis like the belly-dancing scene in Cairo, but something new for us this year is the growing appeal for young Arabs of water sports on the Red Sea," Mr. Aziz says.

Five-star resorts like the Ritz Carlton in Sharm El-Sheikh are chipping in with their own private promotion campaigns. "We could see this coming last October and November," says Ricco De Blank, the general manager at the Ritz in Sharm El-Sheikh. "Overall, we've had a 15 percent increase in Gulf state tourism and a 40 percent increase in revenue because they [Gulf Arabs] spend more than most tourists."

Mr. De Blank made two trips to the Gulf in the last year to reap the windfall that he saw on the horizon. "I think it was the right move," he says. "I have now rented the presidential suite at $3,000 a day for the rest of the summer."

Like other five-star resorts in Egypt, the Ritz has made a few adjustments on its menu and through the services it provides in order to appeal to more Arab tastes. The restaurant menus at the Ritz are more focused on the Middle Eastern diet, and the hotel has changed the hours for breakfast because the Gulf visitors like to sleep late.

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