Tourism As a Solution to Complex Problems

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April, 2018

Adventure travel, or sustainable travel, ecotourism - basically all the same thing - has made great strides in gaining acceptance in recent years as an economic development tool. With projects around the world supported by national governments and international aid agencies, it is common to hear of adventure positioned as a macro level market solution to help address an array of local issues. In the past I have written about adventure travel being leveraged to address problems associated with an aging population, concern over a loss of culture, and overcrowding in certain tourist areas. In this article Natasha Martin and I explore the context for tourism development in the Middle East.

Youth Boom

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the MENA region, which technically includes 24 Arab states in the area, has experienced a demographic boom in the last three decades. Thirty percent of the population is currently between the ages of 15 and 29, and 34 percent is under the age of 15. In Egypt, more than 50 percent of the labor force is under the age of 30.

This generation could form a growing middle class in the region, eventually leading to greater stability. But for now, many youth are caught in a vicious circle in which poor education hampers their access to jobs, credit, and the possibility to marry and begin an independent life. This challenging transition to adulthood that most Middle Eastern and North African youth go through has resulted in the coining of the term “waithood,” defined as a state of helplessness and dependency.

With its comparatively low barriers to entry and aspects of exploration and discovery appealing to youth, adventure tourism could help provide jobs for many young people. In Jordan, for example, the USAID-LENS project reports that adventure travel provides 2.6 jobs per $100,000 USD in tourism receipts. This stands in sharp contrast to mainstream tourism, seen to generate only 1.5 jobs per $100,000. Additionally, jobs in adventure tourism are, for the most part, local. In Jordan, 85 percent of jobs created by adventure are local, in contrast to mainstream tourism where only 36 percent of the jobs created are local.

Urbanization and Migration

As in many parts of the world, more people in the MENA region are moving from rural areas to urban centers. Sixty percent of the MENA population lives in urban centers, and the population of cities is expected to double by 2040. Although people move to the cities in search of work and to escape drought, poverty, and conflict, rapid urbanization also has negative environmental and social consequences. It leads to a break up of traditional, tribal, and regional patterns, which can be especially strong in this region. Furthermore, migration around the region causes instability. People move between countries to escape poverty and conflict. Both migration and urbanization  lead to a break up of traditional, tribal, and regional patterns, which can be especially strong in this region.

Interest in Economic Diversification

In many areas of MENA, the energy sector is dominant. However, this sector creates few jobs directly and is often used to finance massive bureaucracies. Oil prices fluctuate and, more importantly, oil is not a renewable resource. Governments realize economic diversification is important for future prosperity, and some countries have been pursuing innovative strategies for years. In 2015, the United Arab Emirates saw 70 percent of its GDP come from non-oil sectors, including tourism.

Taken together, the range of issues has opened up an interesting opportunity for the adventure community, especially considering government planners and companies with financial resources are now receptive to development ideas they may not have entertained in the past. Further aiding these local factors, there is also a supportive environment globally, and international tourism continues to increase, especially with a fresh emphasis placed on it from the highest levels to drive benefits for local communities and the environment.

“International travel continues to grow strongly, consolidating the tourism sector as a key driver in economic development. As the third export sector in the world, tourism is essential for job creation and the prosperity of communities around the world,” noted UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili in a press statement released in January. “Yet as we continue to grow, we must work closer together to ensure this growth benefits every member of every host community, and is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals”.


Christina Beckmann