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Dire safety warnings for tourists heading to Middle East

Posted January 8, 2020 2:02 p.m. EST

— Rising tensions in the Middle East have prompted international safety warnings for tourists and other travelers heading to prime tourism destinations such as United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Turkey.

Particularly dire consequences could face Westerners, some experts have warned, as anti-American sentiments escalate following last week's US drone strike on Iraq that killed a top Iranian general.

Many travelers preparing to visit the region now face hard choices over whether to cancel their trips.

The US State Department and British Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) are among the many government bodies to issue "do not travel" advisories for both Iraq and Iran -- unsurprisingly given the current situation.

But destinations previously known as safe tourist havens are now also the subject of official warnings highlighting the risk of violence and potential "terrorist attacks." One expert said there was a real risk that visits to unsecured heritage sites could turn deadly.

Over the last few days, the United States, Canada and the UK have also issued updated security advice or alerts concerning the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

"The U.S. Embassy/Consulate General in the UAE advises all U.S. citizens of heightened tensions in the region," says one alert. "U.S. citizens are strongly encouraged to maintain a high level of vigilance and practice good situational awareness."

The FCO, meanwhile, updated its Turkey travel advice on January 7, advising against all travel to areas within 10 kilometers of the border with Syria, except the city of Kilis, due to Turkish military operations in northeastern Syria.

"Following the death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a US strike in Baghdad on 3 January, the incident has led to increased tensions in the region," says the FCO's advisory.

"There is a possibility of an increased threat against Western interests and the security situation could worsen with little warning. You should remain vigilant and keep up to date with the latest developments, including via the media."

Guidance on travel to the UAE, which receives around 1.5 million British tourists each year, has been updated with a similar warning, stressing that while most visits are "trouble free" the "increased threat against Western interests" suggests that "terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in the UAE."

On January 4, Canada updated security advice for multiple destinations in the region due to an increased threat of attacks.

Citizens are now advised to exercise a high degree of caution in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

"The decision to travel is your choice and you are responsible for your personal safety abroad," reads a message on the Government of Canada website.

"We take the safety and security of Canadians abroad very seriously and provide credible and timely information in our Travel Advice to enable you to make well-informed decisions regarding your travel abroad."

The US State Department has advised "increased caution in Israel due to terrorism."

Are flights to the region still in operation?

Some international airlines have canceled or rerouted flights to avoid airspace above Iran and Iraq. Passengers with travel plans in the region should check with their airline for flight updates.

The US Federal Aviation Administration restricted commercial US flights "from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, and the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman."

A Boeing 737 jet, operated by Ukraine International Airlines, crashed on Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran's international airport. The cause of the crash has not been determined.

Can I cancel my trip?

While governments have warned against all non-essential travel to Iraq and Iran, this doesn't apply to surrounding countries, which means travelers currently have no legal right to cancel or amend travel plans with a guaranteed refund.

"The travel advisory warnings are quite 'soft'," says Yeganeh Morakabati, an expert in risk and tourism at the UK's Bournemouth University.

"This puts people in the difficult position of having to either lose their money or put their lives in danger."

How concerned should travelers be?

Travel risk, crisis management and evacuation company Global Rescue admit there's a "high degree of uncertainty" at present, stressing the next few days will be critical when it comes to assessing how the situation will play out.

"Anytime countries like Iran and the US are standing toe to toe and launching attacks at each other isn't a great time to be in the airspace," Daniel L. Richards, the company's CEO, tells CNN Travel.

"The story is obviously still unfolding. This thing could stabilize relatively quickly, or it may not.

"It's very hard to say whether or not traveling to the Middle East or throughout the Middle East is something that anybody should be doing right now if they don't have to do."

"If you have a really good reason to go to the Middle East, I don't think you shouldn't.

"But you'll be going into a theater where there are active hostilities between two very significant players, so you have to be prepared for entering that type of environment."

Richards advises that anyone planning to travel to the region imminently make sure they communicate their whereabouts to those close to them and be prepared to move quickly.

He also recommends bringing along a reliable means of communication in case cell phone networks go down.

"People are nervous," he adds. "We're hearing from a lot of our members who are either in the region or had plans to travel to the region.

"We're definitely in a position where we're ready to act on behalf for our members and our clients in the region, should we have to."

Morakabati also stresses that anyone planning to travel to the Middle East in the coming days or weeks should be extremely vigilant.

"If I was a white American going to the Middle East, I would think twice," she says.

"It's not just Iran, Iraq or Lebanon. The anti-American sentiment is quite strong everywhere at the moment. This is clear when you read the local media."

Morakabati advises any tourists visiting the region to avoid any particularly busy or central areas.

"Some of the heritage places are very difficult to control in terms of security," she adds.

"I would say, don't go to many of these places. It might be the case that you've paid $5,000, but sometimes you trade $5,000 for your life."

How will this impact tourism in the Middle East?

While travel to the region remains active, the current level of uncertainty could ultimately have a bearing on the tourism industries of various Middle Eastern countries and/or territories.

The UAE welcomes more than 21 million tourists annually and the popular destination recently announced a multiple-entry tourist visa scheme for all nationalities in a bid to attract even more visitors.

Turkey generated around $34 billion of tourism revenues in 2019, while capital city Istanbul was named one of the world's most visited destinations in UK-based market research company Euromonitor's International Top 100 City Destinations 2019 report.

Tourism in Jordan has also been booming and the Arab nation registered a 9.4% increase in tourism revenue last year.

Israel received a record number of visits in 2019, welcoming just under five million tourists.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, already one of the most popular Middle Eastern destinations for domestic travelers, was opened up fully to international visitors for the first time in 2019 with a new visa scheme.

"Of course it [the Iran-US crisis] will affect tourism," says Morakabati. "But the bigger picture is, it will also impact the prospect of foreign direct investment.

"Jordan has always been in a difficult position, although it's a very attractive destination. It's very hard to control attacks in that part of the world.

"Turkey has always been difficult in terms of security -- there have been several terrorist attacks there.

"These destinations have a lot more to lose than Iran, because the Iranians have lost so much already, that in a way, there isn't anything much left to lose. Most of the tourism arrivals there will be those who are visiting relatives.

"I'd say Turkey and Jordan are among the most at risk, because they are in a tough geographical position."

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