Fear of travel to the Middle East – hopeless cause?

Diplodocus Longus dinosaur skeleton found in Wyoming on display at Dubai Mall UAE (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Of course there’s a dinosaur at the mall in Dubai. Why not? (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Is it possible to overcome negative imagery and frightening news coverage in order to convince people that it’s not only OK, but well worth their time to travel to a destination?

While speaking in Dubai at the GCC Government Social Media conference, I wanted to talk to my tourism track session attendees about how social media might help them convince visitors (particularly U.S. ones) that their fears about visiting the region are largely unfounded.

I already knew that people worried about safety; almost every time that I told someone that I was going to the conference, they’d give me a furrowed-brow look of concern and ask if I was at all nervous about the trip.

Nope, not at all, I’d say.

To dig a little more into attitudes, I took an informal survey of my Facebook friends network. I asked for their reactions if someone handed them a free plane ticket to one of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries in the Middle East, which would include the UAE (United Arab Emirates,) Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

The concerns about safety were expressed immediately, particularly about being an American/U.S. citizen and/or a woman.

“Concern: being an American. I think I’d put maple leaf stickers on my luggage.”

“Getting nabbed by ISIS and my head cut off because I’m an American. I’d love to go to most of those places, if I had a steel neck.”

“Concern: traveling as a woman in that part of the world.”

“I’m a woman and alcohol is forbidden (I like a glass of wine with dinner.) Tell me why I’d even want to go?”

(Note: alcohol is generally freely available in most hotels, restaurants, and bars in GCC countries . We’re not talking here about super-strict Saudi Arabia.)

Lesser concerns included whether these countries, often hyped as the playground of over-the-top luxury travelers, make any sense for people who are more budget-minded.

“How expensive is the hotel going to be?”

Reasonable question – without doing much intense research, I stayed for a couple of nights in a Dubai Ibis chain hotel near one of the Metro stops for about US$68 per night, generous breakfast included. The room was small and basic but clean and comfortable, with good WiFi. In contrast, the swankier Sofitel next to the Burj Khalifa charges about US$190 per night.

Finally, all the destination marketing that’s hyped attractions like sail-shaped “7 star hotel” Burj Al Arab (about US$2500 and up per night,) massive shopping malls, and indoor snow in the desert at Ski Dubai give many people the impression that there is no local, authentic Emirati culture.

“I’d go to Turkey or Egypt, but I see little cultural value in the UAE. It seems like it is money and excess.”

“The ultra high-end thing does not do much for me – no interest in that.”

I have a few ideas about the feedback from my experiment, plus a post or two coming up about my own admittedly brief visit to Dubai, but I can say unequivocally at this point that I feel completely safe in this region, as a woman from the U.S. traveling alone, and it pains me that so many people have such a poor impression of places that are lively multicultural melting pot destinations with much to offer.

What are your thoughts? What would YOU think about a free ticket to this part of the Middle East? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. Kerry Dexter Reply
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