By Adam Coulter – November 2019 – 6 minute read
A land of ancient riches, fascinating culture and starkly beautiful landscapes, as well as almost guaranteed sunshine, the Middle East is more popular than ever and new destinations are opening up.
With the news that Saudi Arabia is opening up for tourism – hot on the heels of Iran – tourism to the Middle East has suddenly become a lot more varied.
Agents now have a huge choice, from the popular Gulf States such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi to the lesser-known emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Ajman or Bahrain and Qatar, all offering luxury stays in the sun, and art galleries and museums if desired. But then there are more off-the-beaten-track countries, rich in culture and history, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Oman.
It’s an exciting combination of adventure tourism, little-known UNESCO World Heritage Sites, hilltop castles and forts, Roman ruins and insights into cultures like the Bedouin.
Naomi Jackson, Product Manager for Africa and Middle East at Explore, says: “Travellers are really excited about Middle East travel right now, with its incredible history and fascinating cultures.
“Our new Highlights of Lebanon trip is proving really popular, alongside our Jordan Discovery trip which has been selling well for a while now.
“Lebanon is certainly an up-and-coming destination for 2020 – the change in FCO advice at the end of 2018 has led to renewed interest in the country and we were the first tour operator to restart our trips there.”
Owen Walker, Cox & Kings’ Middle East Product Manager, adds: “We’re very excited to announce that we’re adding Lebanon to our growing portfolio to the Middle East and Central Asia.
“Lebanon has much to offer the curious foreigner in search of diverse historical and cultural sites, amazing cuisine and wine and a lively, culturally diverse capital to explore. It’s also the perfect destination for both a long trip and short city-break to explore Beirut.
“If you want to miss the crowds and hordes of tourists that you get at ruins in places such as Turkey, Jordan and Israel, then Lebanon really is an excellent alternative.”
In September, Saudi Arabia announced it would issue visas for tourists from 49 countries, including the UK, in a bid to diversify its economy due to dwindling oil supplies.
Adventure travel specialist Wild Frontiers said that for many of its clients, a visit to Saudi Arabia was at the top of the list.
“We ask our travellers every year which country they want us to introduce next, and Saudi Arabia always appears near the top,” explains Wild Frontiers’ Founder Jonny Bealby. “The near impossibility in obtaining visas has led to a large pent-up demand to visit. We are delighted that it is finally going to be possible to offer tours here – this news offers a rare chance to see behind what has been perceived as one of the world’s most closed societies.”
A few years ago, Iran was touted as the next big tourist destination, with a wealth of extraordinary sights such as the ruined cities of Persepolis and Pasargadae, stunning architecture and even beach resorts.
But heightening tensions in the area, as well as the cancellation of a direct British Airways flight to Tehran has led to a sharp drop in UK tourists. However, a handful of operators do still offer tours there, including Intrepid, which offers a women’s expedition.
Emirate Ras Al Khaimah continues to cement its reputation as the adventure capital of the region with the opening of the Jebel Jais Zipline Tour, which features seven ziplines over the cliffs and canyons of Jebel Jais, connected by nine platforms. The ziplines cover a distance of five kilometres (ranging from 337 metres to one kilometre in length) with an average speed of 60kmph and join the existing Jebel Jais Flight, the world’s longest zipline.
Explore’s new Highlights of Lebanon starts in the capital Beirut and includes an overnight in the grounds of a working monastery in the Qadisha Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; visits to the iconic Roman ruins at Baalbek; a walk around a 1,000 year old cedar forest; and a 12th Century castle at Byblos.
The JA Lake View opened this September – complete with Alexa virtual assitants in every room – joining the JA Beach Hotel and JA Palm Tree Court as JA The Resort’s third hotel. It has 348 rooms and suites, three outdoor pools, a rooftop lounge, and restaurants including Phoencia, serving modern Middle Eastern cuisine.
The new hotel coincides with the reopening of the award-winning JA Beach Hotel, which was closed for renovations over the summer.
Dubai is sure to grab a bigger slice of the headlines next year as it hosts Expo 2020, an event expected to attract 25 million worldwide visitors.
Flagship project the 795-room Royal Atlantis Resort & Residences – dubbed ‘Atlantis 2’ by locals – is on schedule to open in around 12 months’ time. The $1.4bn megaproject sits alongside its Kerzner-owned sister property on Palm Jumeirah.
Elsewhere, Cox & Kings has introduced an 11-day new private tour called Israel Family Adventure, which includes a 4WD ride through the Ramon crater, an archaeological dig to look for Roman artefacts and a cookery class with a local Israeli family.
The same operator has also launched three new private tours of Jordan for 2020. The five-night Taste of Jordan tour (from £1,795pp), visits Amman, Jerash, Petra, the Dead Sea and the desert for a 4WD excursion. Nine-night Highlights of Jordan (from £2,045pp), includes both the Dead and Red seas, two days at Petra and a night in the desert. The Ancient Wonders of Jordan & Egypt (11 nights) covers the two country’s most impressive historic sites.
Ffestiniog Travel has a new nine-day tour of Jordan by rail. It takes to the tracks between Amman and Al Qatraneh on the Hejaz Railway, which was originally planned to link Constantinople with Mecca, as well as a second private steam charter from Disah on a little-used branch line. The itinerary also features visits to Jerash, the market town of Madaba, Petra, Wadi Rum and the baptism site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Silversea is including Nazareth and Jerusalem in Israel on selected voyages to the Holy Land, in addition to Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece, as part of its 2021 itineraries.
Where to book it
Explore has a nine-day trip to Jordan which includes the Dead Sea, Petra and Mount Nebo is £1,589pp. The price includes return flights, transfers, eight nights’ accommodation, breakfast, one lunch, two dinners (including a traditional Bedouin barbecue around a camp fire in the desert at Wadi Rum) and an Explore tour leader.
Saga has a nine-day tour of Lebanon is from £1,899pp departing between May and November 2020. It includes a hike in the Qadisha Valley, a visit to the Cedars of God forest, tours of Beirut, Sidon and Byblos and a chance to sample award-winning Chateau Ksara wines. The price includes half-board accommodation and flights.