Nature and Biodiversity

How the Middle East is striving to lead the way in sustainable tourism

Sustainable tourism is the focus of the Middle East travel sector.

Sustainable tourism is the focus of the Middle East travel sector. Image: Bahrain Economic Development Board

H.E Fatima Al Sairafi
Minister of Tourism, Ministry of Tourism of Bahrain
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  • The Middle East's tourism sector accounts for around 9% of the region's GDP and initiatives across the Middle East to promote more sustainable tourism practices are critical.
  • Across the region, governments and companies are laying the groundwork for sustainable tourism that respects their natural and cultural heritage.
  • A blend of innovative private sector projects, strategic government initiatives and a growing commitment is helping to position the region as a hub for fresh thinking on sustainable tourism.

The Middle East's tourism sector accounts for around 9% of the region's GDP. Forecasts predict an average annual growth rate of 7.7% in the region's tourism industry up to 2032, three times the 2.5% growth rate for the overall economy. This growth brings economic benefits and environmental challenges. Many popular destinations in the region also face increasing pollution, environmental degradation and resource depletion. In total, the global tourism sector is responsible for roughly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Initiatives across the Middle East to promote more sustainable tourism practices are therefore critical, as in the rest of the world. The good news is that change is already afoot. In countries such as Bahrain, Oman, and Jordan, governments and companies are laying the groundwork for tourism that respects their natural and cultural heritage.

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Tackling transportation

A key challenge for sustainable tourism practitioners across the world is the impact of transport. Tourism-related transportation accounts for half of the sector’s emissions and – if international climate pledges remain unchanged – it could represent 5.3% of all global emissions by 2030. The sheer scale of transport’s contribution to climate change is daunting, but that hasn’t stopped Middle Eastern economies and companies from putting together plans to green this area of tourism.

Aviation is a particularly significant source of emissions, accounting for 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2022. Investment to decarbonize air travel is, therefore, critical to keep net-zero goals within reach. Dubai-based airline Emirates has created a $200 million sustainable aviation fund to finance research and development into sustainable fuel and energy technologies over three years, representing the single largest commitment to sustainable research by any airline.

Airports themselves will also be critical for the decarbonization of the transport sector. Bahrain International Airport, for example, has been a carbon-neutral facility since 2022 and is actively working towards even greater sustainability. The airport is now looking to eliminate the use of single-use plastics, achieving Silver certification in the 8 to 15 million passengers per year category of the Green Airports Recognition scheme. It’s also become the second airport in the Middle East to reach Level 4 of the Airport Carbon accreditation scheme, which requires airports to align their carbon management with global climate goals. The airport's road map for future sustainability includes the installation of solar panels and improvements to the energy efficiency of terminal buildings.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about shaping the future of the Arab region?

Promoting sustainability across the sector

Tourism’s contribution to global carbon emissions extends beyond transportation, with areas such as goods, accommodation, construction and services making up the other half of the sector’s emissions. Hotels, for example, typically consume significant energy for heating, lighting, and cooling, while local transportation also adds to emissions. In this context, the rise of ecotourism provides a promising solution for reducing emissions.

Ecotourism focuses on responsible travel that promotes both conservation and the well-being of local communities. Done well it can protect nature while cutting the carbon footprint of travellers and lifting local standards of living. Its benefits are not only environmental but economic: the ecotourism market in Gulf Cooperation Councils was worth $519 million in 2021 and is expected to grow significantly in coming years.

Saudi Arabia’s The Red Sea project aims to combine conservation with tourism, helping to address threats to the 4,000km Red Sea coral reef, which is at risk from overfishing, pollution and mass tourism. It will also offer significant economic benefits as the country continues to pursue economic diversification, contributing $5.3 billion annually to the economy by the end of the decade. And, it will designate nine islands as special conservation areas and maintain the pristine status of 92 islands along the Saudi coast.

Other Middle Eastern countries are also championing ecotourism. The Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan's Dana Nature Reserve, for example, combines luxury vacationing with strong environmental credentials. The lodge is powered mainly by solar energy, the staff are from local families and over 50% of the lodge’s revenue stays within the local community.

In Bahrain, several accommodation providers are driving sustainability efforts. The Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay, for example, recycles 100% of its wastewater to irrigate its gardens, exclusively uses environmentally-friendly cleaning products and changes linen and towels every three days as standard to save energy.

Meanwhile, the Hilton Bahrain uses recycled materials to produce staff uniforms and maintains a vertical smart garden that produces herbs and vegetables for use in the hotel’s restaurant.

The seven key pillars of Bahrain's tourism strategy (2022-2026) — maritime and waterfront, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions and business, sports and recreation, culture and heritage, leisure and entertainment, media and cinema and medical and well-being — are also designed to sustain the Kingdom's investments in eco-tourism. In line with Bahrain's drive to generate clean energy, Exhibition World Bahrain initiated a solar power project in the Sakhir area by installing solar panels at various sites to generate renewable energy, which would contribute to a decrease in traditional energy expenditure. It was also constructed with several environmental factors and high-quality insulation standards in mind.

Preserving cultural heritage

Sustainable tourism isn’t just about reducing emissions and protecting the natural world for the Middle East; it's also about safeguarding the region’s ancient and diverse cultural heritage. Tourism can erode local culture if it isn’t managed effectively, so many Middle Eastern economies are making national commitments to the preservation of their traditions and history.

Bahrain is funding a project to restore the Souq Al Qaysariya, an ancient market in the heart of the historic city of Muharraq, and it is also driving tourists towards its three UNESCO World Heritage sites. These are the Bahrain Fort, one of the Gulf’s few UNESCO World Heritage sites, with over 5,000 years of history, together with the Pearling Path, which can be visited at any point of its 3.5km stretch that runs through the old alleyways of Muharraq, in addition to the Dilmun Burial Mounds in the Aali Area, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing the history of the early Dilmun period.

Saudi Arabia is backing its cultural heritage too, with a $63.2 billion development project to develop the At-Turaif UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic capital of the first Saudi state in the town of Diriyah and the original home of the Saudi royal family. The new site will incorporate new water- and energy-efficient technologies.

The road ahead

The Middle East may still have some distance to travel on its journey to sustainable tourism, but a blend of innovative private sector projects, strategic government initiatives and a growing commitment is helping to position the region as a hub for fresh thinking.

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