In early May, a United States-flagged cruise ship carrying a complement of eager American visitors arrived in Havana, Cuba.

The journey from Miami was less than 160km, but it was the political estrangement, not the distance, that kept Americans from Cuba's once steamy and alluring shores for almost half a century.

Raul Castro and Barack Obama inaugurated in December 2014 a new era of political detente - and as a consequence, economic trade and development - between the long-feuding nations.

Tourism - arguably the largest industry in the world - has become so much more than a couple of umbrellas on a beach.

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According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism's contribution increased to 9.8 percent of world gross domestic product, which is roughly equal to ($7.2 trillion in 2015 (PDF).

The sector now supports the employment of 284 million people from Pyongyang to Medina - one in 11 jobs on the planet, more than the global car industry.

"Despite uncertainty in the global economy and specific challenges to travel and tourism last year, the sector grew by 3.1 percent," explained David Scowsill, President and CEO of the WTTC.

Soaring numbers

Last year Southeast Asia recorded travel sector growth of 7.9 percent, followed by South Asia, which grew by 7.4 percent.

The Middle East, despite its troubles, grew 5.9 percent, more than the Caribbean (5.1 percent), Sub-Saharan Africa (3.3 percent), North America (3.1 percent), Europe (2.5 percent), Northeast Asia (2.1 percent), Latin America (1.5 percent) or North Africa (1.4 percent), according to a March report by the WTTC.

From Cairo to Istanbul to Riyadh, the business of travel is no longer considered a minor adjunct to the national economy.

Tourism is the barometer of the Sisi government's ability to promote foreign investment and economic development, and it is a key to employment for the millions of job-hungry Egyptians and a national economy suffering the consequences of uncertainty among Arab and international investors.


In 2015, the industry generated $194.5bn or 8.0 percent of GDP and supported nearly 6 million jobs - 7.8 percent of total employment - throughout the Middle East.

The industry is at the centre of national development - a key engine of diplomacy, modernisation, and sustainable economic growth.

Recent events - from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, Beijing and Moscow - attest to the growing, critical importance of the tourism economy to modernisation and government reform.

The Vision 2030 development and reform plan announced recently by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman places tourism in its contemporary economic and social context at the centre of a 21st-century government effort to modernise, reform, and globalise.

"[Saudi Arabia] is open for people that are doing business, for people working in Saudi Arabia, investing in Saudi Arabia, and people who are visiting for special purposes. And now it will be open for tourism again on a selected basis," explained Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, at the Arabian Travel Market exhibition in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on April 26.

Sultan bin Salman said tourism is one of the most promising industries for "creating real, meaningful, long-lasting jobs that Saudis like to do."

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Vision 2030 is certainly far more than a plan to promote tourism in the narrow definition of the term.

The business of tourism is conceived as no less than a crucial element in the Saudi Arabia's effort to forge a new, sustainable modernised national identity, particularly among the majority of Saudis who are under 25 and whose commitment to the old ways is tenuous at best.

The country needs "to have a Saudi citizen totally buying into their country's history," explained Sultan bin Salman.

Lifeblood of Egyptian economy

The situation in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula illustrates the promise, but also the perils of modernisation strategy hobbled by shortcomings in governance and a reluctance to part with outdated but still-prevalent practices.

Long before the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) launched an insurgency throughout the peninsula, there were widespread, and unaddressed, complaints by the local Bedouin population.

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These were complaints of discrimination in citizenship and employment in the region's then-burgeoning tourist economy, and corruption in the use and ownership of prized Sinai beachfront land - from Taba in the north to Sharm el-Sheikh in the south.

Cairo's interest in undermining the insurgency by marrying the stick of its military campaign with the elusive carrot of economic reform, development, and social investment remains at the centre of the President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government's unified development, reform and counterinsurgency agenda.

In March, the Sisi government unveiled a grandiose $1bn economic development plan for Sinai. The president promised the construction of four new motorway tunnels to Sinai and new railway lines.

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"We are connecting Sinai to Egypt," Sisi stated. "We are currently working on the East Port Said Harbour, which will be one of the biggest in the Middle East. So far, 600 fish farms have been established, and there will be 20,000 within a year," said the president.

The president pointed out plans for 27 "Bedouin centres" in North and South Sinai, comprising new housing, accompanied, and water.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that tourism is the lifeblood of the Egyptian economy - especially in Sinai.

And tourism is the barometer of the Sisi government's ability to promote foreign investment and economic development, and it is a key to employment for the millions of job-hungry Egyptians and a national economy suffering the consequences of uncertainty among Arab and international investors.

Attacks by ISIL and others in Egypt highlight not only security fears that have resulted in a dramatic drop in tourism revenues. Their campaign has also contributed to a shortfall in foreign currency and intrusive efforts by the US ad Russia to supervise Egypt's airline security.

These developments continue to have wide-ranging, negative effects on the broader economy - effects that contribute to social instability far beyond Sinai and that complicate, if not undermine, popular support for the Sisi government.

"We need to work on gaining people on our side, rather than jumping to irrational political reactions that only gain us more enemies," explains Mohamed Abu El-Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP).

"The more enemies we have, the less our chances to encourage tourism and investment. And this is not something we can afford at this point in our economic problems."

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera