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Arab Spring, One Year Later: Where (Not) to Go in the Middle East

mosque muscat omanIt's been more than a year since the Arab Spring spirit of revolution swept through the Middle East, and the fallout continues to affect travel. Several countries, such as Syria, have plunged into daily violence or carry precautionary warnings, while others in the region remain healthy tourist destinations.

With safety concerns in mind, we've checked the status of tourism in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and issued some recommendations. Keep in mind that this list was created in March 2012, and political events can change the situation rapidly. Register with the U.S. State Department (or your own country's equivalent) if you're going on an extended trip to the area.

What's Happened: Arab Spring actually began in December 2010, when violent protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali led to his fleeing the country and the dissolution of his political party the following month. Constitutional elections were held in October 2011 and the new government took office in December. Demonstrations, work stoppages and protests, occasionally violent, have still taken place in 2012; however, no tourists have been affected.

Tourist Fallout: Arrivals to Tunisia dropped one third in 2011, with more than half of the European tourist trade diminished. The government has launched a campaign to promote Tunisia in various European capitals.

Tunisia attracted several cruise lines before the upheaval, but several, including Costa and Oceania, have pulled out or changed itineraries for 2012. MSC Cruises, P & O, Azamara and Holland America still make stops.

Should You Go? Yes, as long as you are a traveler who can handle uncertainty. Otherwise, wait.

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What's Happened: Inspired by events in Tunisia, protesters began calling for the ouster of President Mubarak in January 2011, with large rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square. While the revolution was successful, reforms have been sluggish, and strikes and protests -- often violent -- have continued against the governing body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The unease will likely continue until presidential elections take place in May 2012.

Even more troubling than the protests, however, is the decrease in security that's taken place since the revolution. In February 2012, two groups of foreign tourists were kidnapped at gunpoint in the Sinai Peninsula, where travelers flock to resorts on the Red Sea. Reduced police presence on the Nile River forced some river cruising companies to cut their route between Luxor and Dendera, turning it into a bus tour instead.

Tourist Fallout: Tourism plummeted in Egypt in 2011, with visitation dropping more than 33 percent. While the country could have recovered from the initial drop in tourism immediately after the revolution, the ongoing protests continue to offer a volatile image of the country.

Soon after the revolution began, major cruise lines canceled stops in Egypt's Mediterranean ports. Many have come back in 2012, including Princess, Holland America, Celebrity, Oceania, P & O, Cunard, Silversea, Seabourn and Norwegian, which is scheduled to return this fall. Costa dropped the country entirely from its 2012 roster, and Crystal and Azamara eliminated stops later this year.

On the Nile River, river cruises started again in fall 2011, although with far fewer passengers than before. Avalon, Scenic, Uniworld, Viking and Vantage are all sailing.

Should You Go? Yes, but only if you're a traveler who can handle uncertainty. Otherwise, wait (the Pyramids will still be there).

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petra jordanWhat's Happened: Friday protests against the government began in January 2011 and continued throughout the year, despite cabinet changes made by King Abdullah II.

Tourist Fallout: Tourism to Jordan dropped severely in 2011, mostly because of the negative perception of the region. Tourism officials estimated that the reduction cost the country $1 billion. Most tours remained open throughout the year, however, and all major tour companies are still operating.

Should You Go? Yes.

What's Happened: Until Arab Spring, Lebanon had experienced a resurgence in tourism, with record visitor numbers in 2009 and 2010. Beirut in particular became a trendy travel destination, with new hotels, clubs and restaurants rising along its beaches. Under pressure from Hezbollah, members of the government resigned in early 2011, with a new one forming in June. The country had several large-scale demonstrations and strikes during the year, some violent.

Tourist Fallout: Lebanon's surge in tourism stalled in 2011, dropping by 25 percent. The country's tourism officials attributed the drop to the brutal violence occurring in neighboring Syria, which discouraged people from visiting other Middle Eastern countries. Silversea cruises still stop in Lebanon.

Should You Go? Yes, but only if you're a traveler who can handle uncertainty; several countries, including the U.S. and Canada, have issued travel warnings. If you go, avoid the border areas with Israel and Syria.

What's Happened: Anti-government protests that began in February 2011 mushroomed into an all-out civil war, which ended when Muammar el Qaddafi was killed in October.

Tourist Fallout: The violence and fighting in Libya essentially ended most tours and cruise stops in the country during 2011 and into this year. While some airlines have resumed service into Tripoli, not all have done so yet, and tourist visas are still not being issued. A few cruise lines, including Crystal and Azamara, have considered Tripoli as a destination; however, none are going in 2012.

Should You Go? No.

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olives morocco marketWhat's Happened: Fueled by protests in other countries, Moroccans rallied on February 20, 2011, in massive demonstrations that called for King Mohammed VI to give up powers. Concessions were made, and a new constitution introduced. Protests still occur on Sundays.

In an unrelated incident, a suicide bomber attacked a cafe in Marrakesh in April 2011, killing 15 people.

Tourist Fallout: Despite the protests, tourism in Morocco remained stable in 2011, and even grew slightly. Most major cruise lines have stops in Moroccan ports, and tour offerings are plentiful.

Should You Go? Yes.

What's Happened: Oman experienced several demonstrations, some violent, in early 2011, when protesters called for government reforms and a better standard of living. Sultan Qaboos bin Said responded with a hike in the minimum wage, some reshuffling of cabinet members and other reforms. The furor died down quickly, compared to other Arab countries.

Tourist Fallout: With a less developed tourism trade than many Middle Eastern countries, Oman made it a priority in 2011 by opening more hotels and attractions. The number of cruise ship passengers visiting the country also increased dramatically, as more lines added port stops in Muscat. The Ministry of Tourism has said they expect two million foreign tourists in 2012, an increase of 400,000 from 2011.

Should You Go? Yes.

What's Happened: As in many Arab countries, demonstrations against the Syrian government started in January 2011. They continued through the spring until July, when the government of President Bashar al-Assad responded with harsh security clampdowns, using the Syrian military.

Now the country is engulfed in a civil war that shows no signs of receding. As of March 2012, more than 10,000 people from the opposition have been killed, and that's not counting deaths within the government security forces.

Tourist Fallout: Before the violence, tourism to Syria had been on the upswing. That's done now. Most Western countries have issued travel warnings against going to Syria, and the U.S. Embassy in Damascus closed in February 2012.

Should You Go? No.

mosque abu dhabi United Arab Emirates
What's Happened: The U.A.E., which includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi, avoided most of the upheaval that categorized Arab Spring. While some of the emirates have had some economic dips, the country's income per capita remains among the highest in the world.

Tourist Fallout: Often considered the Las Vegas of the Middle East, Dubai's tourism increased 20 percent in 2011, a jump that officials attributed to the uncertainty elsewhere in the region. All tours and cruises have continued as usual.

Should You Go? Yes.

Poll: Which of These Countries Would You Visit?

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