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Mideast tourism sector braces for fallout from revolts

Tourism professionals in the Middle East are bracing for fallout from the revolts shaking the region, with cancellations affecting even countries so far spared from the upheavals, notably Jordan and Syria.

"Tourists are being influenced by the media coverage and are putting the whole Middle East in one bag, not differentiating between one country and another," Touhama Naboulsi, an official with Jordan's Tourism Board, told AFP.

"Some tourists have cancelled trips to all Arab countries and of course this includes Jordan," he added.

Several sources in the hotel sector said cancellations have reached a worrying 50 percent, while one tour operator said that for every 3,000 tourists originally booked to travel to Jordan in the coming months 1,200 are cancelling.

Tourism revenue in Jordan was estimated at one billion dollars in 2010, representing 14 percent of the gross domestic product.

The country's biggest tourist attraction is the ancient city of Petra, and visitors to Jordan often opt for a package tour that also includes Egypt, itself hit by a sharp drop in tourism following the uprising in February that toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak.

The popular revolt in Egypt followed a similar uprising in Tunisia that led to the downfall of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Libya, meanwhile, lying between the two, is in the throes of a rebellion while Yemen, Bahrain and Oman on the Gulf have also experienced unrest.

In France, an official with one of the country's top tourism operators, Voyageurs du Monde, described Jordan as a "catastrophe" with cancellations nearing 50 percent.

"People are in fact more worried about what may happen in other countries than those that have already had a revolution," said company chairman Jean-Francois Rial. "They're wondering whether Jordan's King Abdullah is going to be toppled, whether the king of Morocco might have trouble and the same even for China's leader."

Syria is also nervously watching developments and has lowered its forecast in terms of the number of visitors.

"We don't expect more than an 11 to 12 percent increase in the number of tourists because of the situation," Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa recently said, adding that annual growth since 2000 had stood at 15 percent.

Ghassan Chahine, owner of Naya Tours in Damascus, said his agency had received 35 to 40 percent cancellations for the peak season that runs from March through May and concerns mainly European tourists.

"People tend to think that the revolts taking place extend to the entire region even though we are telling them that nothing is happening in Syria," Chahine told AFP.

"Not so long ago, we were begging hotels that were fully booked to find us rooms and now they are calling us looking for customers," Chahine said, adding that the downturn will translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.

But despite all the gloom and doom, tourism professionalism point to the industry's capacity to quickly rebound.

"People's perceptions change very quickly," said Sean Tipton, of the Association of British Tour Operators.

He said Egypt is by far the biggest market in the region for British tourists with one million visiting the country every year.

"As soon as we saw the scenes (of unrest) in Cairo and other cities it had a very direct impact," Tipton said.

"My experience in the travel industry is that the British tourists tend to be fairly resilient and have fairly short memories," he added. "So it doesn't take long for a country to bounce back in the reservations."