Arabs Travel the World on Oil Riches

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The fallout from $75 oil is everywhere. A recent trip to the Cote D’Azur disclosed — big surprise — a growing presence of well-to-do Arabs, staying at the fanciest resorts and happily spending their petrocash at all the ritziest spots. Families the size of small cities, hallways cluttered with muscular and slightly formidable bodyguards, piles of deliveries from Chanel to princesses in residence — the signs are unmistakable.

The influence of the Arab visitor is still modest, but one senses it is growing. Young Arab ladies on the Cannes beach are watched over by fully draped servants, who must be scandalized by the naked breasts and the thongs still on view from the Croisette. Most bars and restaurants now highlight a menu of exotic but alcohol-free offerings, (not likely directed to the French consumer) and the shop keepers at Gucci and Louis Vuitton seem to have laid in more than the usual complement of items which could pass as head scarves.

Also, it seems odd to find American MSNBC and CNN blocked on hotel TVs. Access to TV Dubai, TV Oman, Al Jazeera, and any number of other Arab offerings is excellent, but somehow the American programs seem to experience ongoing technical difficulties. Thankfully, Al Jazeera can be relied upon to supply a nightly movie in English, with Arabic subtitles. Normally the program is hideously violent, and prone to depicting Americans in an especially depraved light. Nonetheless, those hooked on “Law & Order” reruns will find nothing especially out of the ordinary.

For the most part, the influx of Arab nobles to the south of France is accepted gratefully by a region that felt the sting of American rejection just a few short years ago. Tourism, after all, is one of France’s great industries. It is the world’s most popular destination by a wide margin, attracting more than 75 million tourists each year, and generating revenues (in 2004) of nearly $41 billion. The country did suffer from the American boycott following the dispute over the Iraq war, and claims a slightly smaller percentage of European total tourist revenues than was the case a decade ago.

The French must be looking over their shoulders, however. While there appears to be little threat of a fall-off in Arab petrowealth, alternative destinations may limit the future swell of revenues from these visitors. Despite visa problems, an increasing number of tourists from the Middle East have begun again to enter America, most likely attracted in part by the cheaper dollar.

After the attacks in 2001, visitors from the region fell sharply. In 2002 the total was off 25%. By 2004, however, the numbers had begun to build, and are projected to continue to grow. They are still small, compared to the number of visitors from other countries.Only 527,000 travelers from the Middle East entered America last year, of which about half were from Israel.That compares with an overall total of 49.4 million foreign tourists that came to America.

The importance of Middle Eastern visitors is disproportionate however, in that they are likely to be big spenders. The most recent data (from 2004) shows that such visitors spent an average of $3,239 per person when in America; that compares to $2,655 from European travelers.

America is not the only destination expected to attract Arab visitors in coming years. Enormous investment in the Middle East is convincing an ever larger number of vacationers to stay at home, or least in the region. According to the World Tourism Organization, the Middle East has been the fastest growing tourist destination for the past 10 years, expanding at 11% annually compared to worldwide growth of 4%. They cite residents of the Gulf states as being a major factor in the increase.

Huge investments in luxury resorts in the Middle East may keep some of the big spenders at home. Dubai, cited by some as the fastest growing city in the world, is building top-rated resorts at an astonishing rate. The region offers sun, shopping, and luxe amenities such as gigantic water parks, marinas able to handle ever-larger yachts and world-class golf courses. Dubai has even created an indoor ski area.

The Burj Al Arab — self-described as the world’s only seven-star hotel — has helped put the region on the traveler’s map. This extraordinary facility, which has been named by numerous travel magazines as the world’s best, confirms through a spokesman that about 26% of its current bookings are from Gulf State residents. Last year, tourism generated $1.3 billion overall for the UAE.

Sadly, the recent outbreak of war between Lebanon and Israel will doubtless impact further regional growth in tourism. Though the Jumeirah Group, which owns several resorts in the UAE including the Burj Al Arab, claims not to have suffered any cancellations since the fighting began, other areas in the Middle East have likely been hurt. Certainly one of the tragedies of the recent fighting is the destruction of recovering tourism in both Lebanon, where tourism has emerged as an important segment of the economy, and in Israel. According to the trade group, Lebanon’s hotels had finally reached excellent occupancy rates, and a related high rate of economic growth. Israel, too, was beginning to enjoy a rebound in visitors. A loss of tourism revenue, however, is arguably the least of their problems.

The New York Sun

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