Much has changed since the protests that heralded the Arab Spring, sparked by a dispute between a government inspector and a vegetable seller in Tunisia, began exactly five years ago.
Large parts of the region, which once lured thousands of travellers in search of fascinating history and culture, and dramatic landscapes, are now off-limits, according to the Foreign Office. Visiting countries against the Foreign Office’s advice is not illegal – but adequate travel insurance will be hard to come by, consular assistance may be limited or non-existent – and, of course, you will be risking your safety: governments don’t issue travel warnings without good reason to do so.
We look at how the globe has shrunk for travellers since December 2010 – and outline what incredible attractions you can and can’t visit.
Then: As Tunisia emerged from weeks of violent protest with a democratically elected government in 2011, the Foreign Office relaxed temporary travel restrictions. Alistair Burt, then Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, praised political reform and the hope for stability through free and fair elections.
Tunisia’s white beaches were famed among winter sun holidaymakers (AP)
Those who enjoy poking around ruins could head to the Unesco World Heritage-listed Roman ruins at Carthage on the Gulf of Tunis, and the 3rd-century Roman amphitheatre El Djemm, which once seated 30,000 people, and stay in troglodyte guesthouses. Winter sun – temperatures remain around 16C, even in darkest January, could be found at beach resorts such as Djerba, or in little Mediterranean villages such as Sidi Bou Said. Warnings still existed to travel to Chaambi National Park on the Algeria border, however – a cedar-filled reserve surrounding the country’s highest mountain.
The ampitheatre at El Djemm is one of the world’s most impressive (AP) Photo: AP
Now: 2015 was a dark year for Tunisia. In March, gunmen killed 22 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, famed for its fantastic mosaic collections. The attack was claimed by Isil, as was the later massacre in June at the beach resort of Port el-Kantaoui, in which 38 tourists – mostly Britons – were killed.
The Foreign Office changed its travel advice, warning against all or all but essential travel to the whole country. It said that although it has been co-operating with Tunisian authorities to improve security, “we do not believe the mitigation measures in place provide adequate protection for British tourists in Tunisia at the present time”.
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The relaxed seaside resort Sidi Bou Said now sees few tourists (AP)
Tunisia risks a vicious cycle of a dismal tourism industry dampening economic prospects. Diana Darke, an expert on Middle Eastern culture and heritage, said the violence of the Arab Spring had changed people’s perceptions of the Middle East: “Most Western travellers have simply decided to avoid the whole area, preferring to holiday in other so-called ‘safer’ parts of the world. The effect has been to deprive economies of much-needed tourism revenue and employment, thereby creating a cycle in which many young Arabs, left with little prospect of a future in their own country, are more likely either to join extremists like ISIS who offer big salaries, or join the migrant rush to Europe.”
After the beach attacks at Sousse the Foreign Office changed its advice to warn against all travel to Tunisia (Foreign Office)
Then: In 2010, travellers could have spent months roaming Egypt and still not have seen everything accessible to them. Out in the Western Desert, slinky sand dunes curved for hundreds of kilometres between oases, most famously Siwa, out near the Libyan border. Here, salt lakes, dunes and mud-brick towns were a peaceful counterpart to the narrow Old City streets and souqs of Cairo.
The strange land formations in Egypt’s White Desert are no longer accessible according to the Foreign Office (AP) Photo: AP
The White Desert at Farafra, deep in the middle of nowhere, 550km from Cairo, lured visitors with its chalky white sand and rock formations like giant mushrooms, while Mount Sinai was a draw for those keen to see the site of God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments.
But as political turmoil worsened across Egypt, with dictator Hosni Mubarak first resigning, and elected President Mohamed Morsi then ousted in a coup, accessible destinations became increasingly thin on the ground. By late 2013, the western desert and the entire Nile valley was off-limits, including the Theban Necropolis at Luxor, home to more than 900 tombs, the Temple of Horus at Edfu, and the 3,200-year-old rock temples at Abu Simbel.
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Egypt’s Sinai peninsula encompasses mountains and beach but is now off limits (AP) Photo: AP
Over on the Sinai peninsula, tourists were able to travel to resorts up the coast until early 2014, including the beguiling traditional town of Dahab. Divers and snorkellers headed to its growing number of boutique hotels and yoga retreats, combining excursions to sites such as the Blue Hole and Umm Sid, where enormous gorgonians sat alongside a steeply sloping reef wall.
Now: At present the whole Sinai peninsula is off-limits – even access to the mainstream resort Sharm el-Sheikh has been restricted because of fears over security at its airport. Restrictions to travel around the Nile have been relaxed, though, and at present cruises on traditional steamers, feluccas and dahabiyas are possible. The possible discovery of Nefertiti’s tomb behind that of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, good-value itineraries on river boats including that used by Agatha Christie, and quieter attractions, are reasons to visit Egypt.
The Foreign Office says the Nile Valley is safe but the Sinai peninsula and Western Desert are to be avoided (Foreign Office)
Then: When UN sanctions against Libya were lifted in 2003, this vast country (almost two million square kilometres) opened up to tourists, with the launch of daily direct flights from London and escorted tours. Nick Redmayne, a travel journalist who visited just after the trade restrictions were lifted, said the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna were “remarkable”, and Tripoli “felt like a Mediterranean city, although there was no hassling in the markets – it was more like walking through a mausoleum. “Benghazi had echoes of the Italian colonial period” in its architecture, he added, and while there were few tourists around, some tour buses of Italians joined him at Sabratha, an astonishing trading post on the Mediterranean that passed through Phoenecian, Numidian and Roman hands.
“One local even spent a long time showing me all his girlfriends on his phone. He seemed to know an awful lot of beautiful Lebanese women.”
David Hutcheon, who visited Libya in 2007
David Hutcheon, from Argyll, travelled to Libya on a group tour in 2007, and remembers museum staff keen to show off Gaddafi’s Volkswagen, sleeping in subterranean caves, and the oasis town of Ghadames – “Long, low tunnels, doors appear out of nowhere, bridges spring out above your head, a palm tree towers over you, then the tower of a mosque, patterns in every alcove, wells and squares.”
Libyans did not seem used to tourists but the group spent one evening with some locals in a hotel pool room: “One even spent a long time showing me all his girlfriends on his phone. He seemed to know an awful lot of beautiful Lebanese women. Oddly, the hotel had satellite TV – settled down to see if I could find some news from the outside world … all it had was hundreds and hundreds of porn channels (all scrambled) that all appeared to come from Lebanon.”
Food was not a highlight, however. David said: “It was a bit ‘we have burger, we have chips, we have pizza. But we also have 30 flavours of shisha.'” Dinners were not much better: “We had Moroccan soup, Libyan soup, lamb or fish. Every night, every restaurant, every hotel. We had Moroccan soup, Libyan soup, lamb or fish. We never found out the difference between the soups.”
Leptis Magna is a remarkable site in Libya (AP) Photo: AP
Now: The Libyan Crisis began in 2011, and the Foreign Office has advised against travel since, with a security situation it describes as “dangerous” alongside a “high threat of terrorist attacks and kidnap against foreigners.” Nick Redmayne voiced concerns about what would happen to Libya’s wealth of sites, particularly if Isil-affiliated extremists, who have destroyed pre-Islamic ruins across territory they occupy in Iraq and Syria, reach the splendid attractions.
The Foreign Office says Libya is totally off-limits for foreigners (Foreign Office)
Then: In 2010 – The Cradle of Civilisations – with its Roman strongholds, Crusader castles, Mediterranean trading ports and rich history of music, food, literature and design – had a growing tourism industry prior to a revolution that broke out in April 2011. Boutique hotels were opening in Ottoman-era houses in Damascus and Aleppo, fine restaurants showcased some of the world’s best cuisine, and demand for guides was beginning to outstrip supply.
Syria’s Aleppo citadel has been damaged in the war that has gripped the country since 2011 (AP) Photo: AP
The six Unesco World Heritage sites of Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers, Bosra, the Old Cities of Aleppo and Damascus, and the Ancient Villages of northern Syria, were just a fraction of the country’s riches.
Now: The outlook for Syria is the worst of all. The Foreign Office has advised against travel since April 2011, with then-Middle East and North Africa Minister Alistair Burt saying that security in the country was “deteriorating”. Although its rich museum collections have been boxed away and protected, in-situ heritage sites have been used as battlesites – video released this year showed weapons stored on the amphitheatre stage at the Roman town of Bosra – looted extensively, and in part destroyed completely. Bit by bit, Isil has blown up the magnificent desert ruins of Palmyra, while aerial bombardment, ground fighting and fires have reduced Aleppo’s atmospheric souk, hammams and heritage hotels to rubble. Tour guides are among the four million people who have fled overseas. As with the Syrian conscience, it will take generations to piece together again the reasons tourists once visited.
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The Foreign Office advises against all travel to Syria and advises British nationals in the country to leave by any possible means (Foreign Office)
Then: The poorest country in the Middle East has a rich, if tumultuous history, where tribal alliances run deep. It was always a destination for the more adventurous traveller – even prior to the 2011 uprisings the Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel.
“We used to have tourists from all around the world, especially from European countries. Groups from Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Holland.”
Ahmed Baider, Yemeni tour guide
But those who ventured there often returned with deep affection for its landscapes both urban and natural, its people, and its extraordinary past. The Old City of Sana’a, with its rammed brick townhouses with doily-like white stencilling, has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years, while the skyscraper-like buildings at Shibam meant it became known as the “Manhattan of the Desert.”
Sana’a in pre-war days – the city is over 2,500 years old (AP) Photo: AP
The island of Socotra, 150 miles from the Horn of Africa, is so far removed from elsewhere that a third of its 825 plant species are endemic, but is known for its extraordinary beauty. Ahmed Baider, business development manager at Aden Tours Agency, said: “We used to have tourists from all around the world, especially from European countries. Groups from Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Holland. We also used to have tourists from Eastern Asia like Japan and China.”
Now: The Foreign Office tightened its Yemen travel warnings in April 2011, and since then the country had slid into grinding violence, with many of its best attractions damaged in the fighting. The Old City of Sana’a has been hit by airstrikes, as have castles at the hilltop city of Taiz. Euromonitor, an industry data company, said that the rise of extremism and militant groups in Yemen caused fears among international tourists, and in 2011-2012 hotel occupancy stood at just five per cent.
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War in Yemen means it is off limits to travellers (Foreign Office)
Then: Visits to the west African country were generally for the adventurous, and from 2009 warnings were in place against visiting Timbuktu and anywhere further north – a British tourist was killed in June of the same year. But other travellers recording trips from 2010 on TripAdvisor’s online forums reported few problems, describing “no problems” or feelings of threat. The Great Mosque of Djenné has been described as one of the finest examples of Sudano-Sahelian architecture, while remote village festivals and Timbuktu, a centre of Islamic learning between the 13th and 17th centuries, were well off the desert road attractions.
Wonderful buildings such as the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali are currently inaccessible to foreign tourists (AP) Photo: AP
Now: Since 2012, ethnic divisions and political divides have seen Mali thrown into violence, and in 2013 French troops intervened. The Foreign Office advises against all travel to the whole country, warning against “a high threat from terrorism, including kidnap”. Timbuktu was damaged by Islamic extremists in 2012, and although locals have restored it admirably, Mali will unlikely see many foreign tourists in the near future.
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Kidnap and terror threats mean Mali is deemed unsafe (Foreign Office)
Then: Kenya is not an “Arab Spring” country, but its tourism industry has been hit by a series of terrorist attacks in recent years.
Kenya’s landscapes are phenomenal, ranging from lush forest to savannah, mountain – Mount Kenya is the continent’s second highest peak – to sand dunes more associated with north African nations. Tourists can expect some of the world’s greatest wildlife encounters, with the Big Five in the country’s national parks, with the plains ceding to white sand beaches along the coast, with vibrant marine life offshore. Lamu island is home to one of the finest examples of Swahili in its old town, while the village of Shela is bordered by beautiful white sand beaches.
Lamu island off Kenya has glorious beaches but the Foreign Office currently deems it unsafe (AP) Photo: AP
Now: But in March 2015 the Foreign Office extended the area it deemed unsafe along Kenya’s coast to include Lamu island, putting the relaxed island off limits to travellers. The Foreign Office currently says that there is a “high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping” in Kenya. “The main threat comes from extremists linked to Al Shabaab, a militant group that has carried out attacks in Kenya in response to Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia.”
Kenya’s coastline and Somali border have travel restrictions (Foreign Office)
Then: Turkey’s south-eastern region, with significant Kurdish and Arab populations, has always been wilder – and arguably more beautiful – than the resort towns lining the Turquoise Coast. Visitors to the vast plains, hillside cities and bazaars found rich pickings. The city of Gazientep was home to an increasing number of boutique hotels in restored houses, as well as pale stone hans, mosques and a renowned mosaic museum. It is also famous for its pistachio nuts and the best baklava in the whole of Turkey. The stone heads at the hill-top sanctuary Nemrut Dağı, built by Antiochus I Epiphanes in the 1st century BC, were a remarkable draw for which travellers would wake at dawn to see them against the sunrise.
South-eastern Turkey is full of atmospheric towns and cities such as Diyarbakir (AP) Photo: AP
Now: Turkey remains largely open to travellers, although the area bordering Syria and Iraq to which the Foreign Office advises against travel has grown steadily larger. In 2013, warnings existed only for a thin strip of land next to the border, and one inland area, but now Gazientep is deemed unsafe, along with a string of other historical cities and archaeological sites.
Terry Richardson, Telegraph Travel’s Turkey expert, recently wrote about the city of Diyarbakir – in the area the Foreign Office now considers unsafe: “it stands in splendid isolation on a bluff overlooking a long, lazy bend of the turbid River Tigris… The old city contained with the walls is a maze of cobbled backstreets running between old houses whose austere black basalt facades are enlivened by contrasting courses of white limestone. In classic Middle Eastern fashion, behind the severe frontages are intimate courtyards shaded by fig and mulberry trees.”
He also described what sounds like the world’s best breakfast – a meal of which locals are particularly proud – “a scrambled omelette mixed with tender lamb slices served up in a mini-wok, which comes to the table on a big tray surrounded by an array of spicy dips, tomato, olives, cheeses, jams, butter, honey, clotted cream and flat-bread.”
Turkey remains mostly accessible but precaution needs to be exercised (Foreign Office)
Then: Beautiful but much lesser-visited than its neighbours Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria has ghosts of colonial times past in Algiers, the haunt of artists and writers, as well as the Catholic Basilica Notre Dame d’Afrique, which has daily mass despite its dwindling congregation. UNESCO World Heritage Sites include Djemila, Timgad and Tipaza, and the M’Zab Valley is home to fortified ksours.
The ruins of Timgad can still be visited Photo: AP/FOTOLIA
Now: The Arab Spring spread to Algeria in the form of protests against unemployment, poor living conditions and limited freedom of speech – with demonstrations that foreigners were best to avoid. However, while the Foreign Office advises tourists to confirm travel arrangements before arrival in Algeria and to use a reputable tour operator with good local knowledge, it remains largely open to visitors. Long-standing travel warnings against the deserts of the deep south, where the crags of the Hoggar Mountains are to be found, and border areas with Libya, Tunisia, Niger and Mali, due to terrorism threats, remain. British national are also advised against visiting one area east of the capital. Small group tours currently on sale to the country include a 13 day-guided tour from Explore (explore.co.uk), with six guaranteed departure dates in 2016.
Algeria remains mostly on the tourist map although is generally explored by more adventurous types (Foreign Office)
The Foreign Office’s travel advice can change frequently in some parts of the world. You should check specific country pages before travelling by checking using the following link: gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice