Photo: Tourists in face masks at the Milas airport terminal in Bodrum, Turkey, in September 2020. Oleg Eikov/Shutterstock

Islamic Lifestyle

Today is World Tourism Day. How are Islamic countries doing?

Today is World Tourism Day. With the severe headwinds the travel and tourism industry is facing due to the global pandemic, it’s unlikely the sector will throw a party.   

According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the massive drop in international travel demand from January to June 2020 translates into a loss of 440 million international arrivals and about $460 billion in tourism export revenues.  

Asia Pacific is the hardest hit with a 72% fall in tourists for the six-month period, Africa and the Middle East suffer from a 57% drop.

A worst-case scenario, in a UN policy brief, indicates international tourist numbers could decline by 58% to 78% in 2020, translating into a drop in visitor spending from $1.5 trillion in 2019 to between $310 and $570 billion in 2020.


Among Islamic countries and in the Islamic economy, Saudi Arabia is re-opening for umrah from October 4, albeit in stages. This was news that was keenly anticipated by companies in the sector since the pilgrimage was suspended at the end of February.

“Our view is that umrah and religious travel will recover first, and so is our [business] focus,” said Geet Bhalla, CEO at HolidayMe, a Middle East customer-positioned online portal that offers umrah packages. He was speaking on an August 20 webinar addressing Muslim-friendly travel market prospects in a post-COVID 19 environment.

But umrah won’t be open to international pilgrims until November, and even then numbers will be capped in accordance with Saudi’s health and safety precautions. Considering this year’s hajj was limited to only 1,000 who were already in the country, there is no possibility the religious travel sector will recover this year.

Speaking on the same panel as Bhalla, Benjamin Carey, Sustainable Tourism Consultant at FTS, expressed optimism.

“There's a very clear concept of sustainability in Islam, and this needs to be encouraged. COVID is a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency.”

But this “clear concept of sustainability in Islam” hasn’t come through in any palpable way as the big Islamic countries push for domestic tourism while international travel remains challenging.


UNWTO data shows that in 2018, around 9 billion domestic tourism trips were made worldwide – six times the number of international tourist arrivals.

“UNWTO expects domestic tourism to return faster and stronger than international travel,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili.

“Given the size of domestic tourism, this will help many destinations recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic, while at the same time safeguarding jobs, protecting livelihoods and allowing the social benefits tourism offers to also return.”

Turkey (2019 number of visitors: 51.9 million)

Turkey is the biggest tourist attraction among countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It re-opened its tourism sector to locals on June 1 but it’s the dollar and euro it’s really after, and it’s gone all out to promote itself as a safe destination, with its “safe tourism certification program” coordinated by the tourism ministry.

Turkey is now expecting 15 million foreign tourists this year, from the 60 million it forecasted before the pandemic hit. Mid-September the government said more than 10 million foreigners had already arrived on its shores.

The popular Mediterranean coastal region of Antalya alone has so far attracted around 2 million foreign tourists.

Saudi Arabia (2019: 1.855 million hajj pilgrims from abroad; 7,457,663 million umrah pilgrims from abroad; total number of foreign visitors around 16-18 million)

Saudi Arabia started promoting domestic tourism very heavily ahead of summer as in-country flights resumed May 31.

Momentum starting building in the run-up to the Eid al Adha holidays at the end of July and continued through August when the first cruises on the Saudi Red Sea coast set sail.

Saudi authorities eased international travel restrictions from September 15 but all restrictions will only be lifted in January 2021.

UAE (2019 number of visitors to Dubai: 16.73 million; Abu Dhabi : 11.35 million)

Next door in the UAE, Dubai re-opened hotel beaches in May but very shortly after in early July the city went all in for the international tourist.

The rest of the UAE only re-started issuing tourist visas last week on September 24.

The country is keen to be seen as a safe destination for visitors and is proudly broadcasting these credentials as the host for the major cricket event, the Indian Premier League.

Malaysia (26.1 million visitors in 2019)

Malaysia has a significant domestic market, with over 100 million trips, equaling about three domestic trips per capita. (Globally, with five domestic trips per capita, the United States has the highest ratio of tourist trips to population.)

To stimulate domestic travel, Malaysia allocated $113 million worth of travel discount vouchers and personal tax relief of up to $227 for domestic tourism expenditure.  

Ruzwana Bashir, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Peek, a travel activity marketplace, sees “a big push towards local”.

“Local bookings have doubled, people are staying closer to home,” Bashir said at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2020 organised by the World Economic Forum from September 21 to 24. 

“Activities like kayaking, or renting a boat, or a bike, have been up almost 400%.”

Indonesia (16.1 million visitors in 2019)

Indonesia is the worst hit among this group of key Islamic countries.

Its domestic tourism is suffering as the country continues to struggle to keep the pandemic under check, and Jakarta was forced to go into a second lockdown earlier this month.

Latest data show air travel picked up in July when 1.46 million people flew domestically, compared with just 87,000 in May, according to the country’s central statistics bureau. The numbers were still a long way below the 4 to 6 million in the early months of the year before the virus gripped Southeast Asia’s largest economy.


Overall, while efforts to boost domestic and international tourism in these key Islamic countries are laudable, the return to 2019 tourist arrivals for the global sector will take between two and a half to four years, estimates the UNWTO.

“The most worrying part is the fact that the [travel] industry, six months into this tragedy, doesn’t have a clear, consolidated approach on getting out of this,” said Martín Eurnekian, Chairman of Airport Council International (ACI World).

The Argentinian spoke about rebuilding tourism at the WEF’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2020. 

“There is still not a common approach within countries and regions of the world on what is needed for this industry to restart,” he said, criticising the lack of leadership.

However, he agrees with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) that technological advances will support the sector’s recovery.

“We will see the adoption of biometric technology accelerate really fast,” Eurnekian said.  

Advocating for safe, secure, and seamless end-to-end experiences, WTTC highlights a case in point: the boarding time of a 400-person capacity aircraft was reduced by 66% from 45 minutes to 15 minutes, using biometric technology.

Eurnekian, also the CEO of Corporación América Airports, an NYSE-listed holding company that acquires, develops, and operates airport concessions, explained the passenger profile has changed “quite a bit”.

“We have found that around 30% of our passengers aren’t happy with us telling them that we are sanitising everything and changing protocols for them to be safe.

“They want to be able to do that themselves. They want to have cleaning materials and wipes and things at hand at the airport to be able to wipe their surfaces around them.”

What this shows is that folks still want to travel but if restrictions make trips abroad too complicated, people will probably spend their holidays locally.

For the Islamic countries reliant on foreign currencies brought in by international visitors, such as Indonesia and Turkey, this isn’t great news.

Regardless, Happy World Tourism Day! Hopefully, the only way we’ll be going is up, up, and away!

(Reporting by Petra Loho; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim

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