Middle East as an emerging travel market
If visitors were points, and tourism were a game, the Middle East would be gaining ground fast on the industry's traditional leaders.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of travelers in the Middle East more than doubled, from 24.1 million to 60.3 million, according to the United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO).
It's a level of growth unmatched by any region in the world during the same period. And it comes during a period that saw conflict in Iraq and other volatility in the region.
Behind the numbers are commonplace extravagances that include Michelin-starred chefs, Italian linens, camel milk cappuccinos and private butler services.
At the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi, for example, guests step through a marble lobby fashioned with an array of rare petrified forest materials from the Seychelles and then walk into what Jumeirah's general manager Doris Greif calls “jewelry box elevators,” which are crafted from semi-precious stones.
The luxurious, moneyed new face of the hospitality industry -- perhaps one of the best-known aspects Middle Eastern travel -- is in many ways a reflection of the United Arab Emirates’ success as a thriving business hub.
But there's more to the recent success than just big bankrolls.
Over the past decade, Middle Eastern tourism ministries have launched aggressive branding campaigns.
While public relations campaigns have occasionally suffered thanks to the failures of ambitious projects -- Dubai's unfortunate experiment with sinking islands made of sand comes to mind -- the shiny promotions and snappy slogans have contributed to the increase in travel revenues.
Even so, most of the Middle East's travel boom is homegrown, with 80 percent of travelers coming from within the region.
"If you wanted to do some fancy shopping, in the past you went to Europe, or maybe the United States, but now if you want to be pampered in a nice hotel you can stay in the Middle East," says John Kester, head of tourism trends and marketing strategies at the UNWTO.
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Increasingly, regional travelers are buying tickets on regional airlines.
According to a recent report issued by the International Air Transport Association, over the past decade the share of global international passenger traffic held by Middle Eastern air carriers has grown from 4.8 percent to 11.5 percent.
As some destinations do better than others, they naturally pull others along.
According to Mona Tannous, country manager at the Sultanate of Oman Tourism Australia and New Zealand, growth in regional tourism to Dubai and Abu Dhabi has boosted tourism in Oman as well.
A ripple effect is undeniable, but Oman's success also springs from its niche identity. Rather than attempt to break world glitz records or wow visitors with opulence, Oman emphasizes outdoor activities, such as visiting souks, cattle markets, caving and swimming in waterholes in the desert.
"Some people think that because it's in the Middle East, it will be exorbitantly expensive or flashy," says Tannous. "It's neither."
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Religious tourism forms the bulk of travel in many Middle Eastern countries.
The region defined as the "Arab States" contains 74 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the region is densely packed with holy sites for several religions.
"Foreign tourism has typically been only a small segment of the travel market (in Iran),” says Gabe Kaminski, head of business and product development at tour operator AITO (Azadi International Tourism Organization) Iran Tours. "Domestic and religious tourism is still the largest part.”
Pilgrimage to Mecca is the fifth pillar of Islam. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, leads in the region's religious tourism, gathering approximately US$7 billion annually in tourism revenue.
Israel also benefits from religious tourism. Eighty percent of tourists to Israel head for Jerusalem, a holy city for both Jews and Christians.
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Impact of the Arab Spring and regional volatility
Recent events -- conflict in Syria, the Arab Spring, concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya (albeit in Africa) -- and the ongoing Israel-Palestinian situation highlights the political and military turmoil that remains an enormous, if not insurmountable, obstacle to drawing large numbers of foreign visitors to the Middle East.
According to the UNWTO, the Middle East lost approximately 5 million international tourists in 2011 compared with the year before.
However, Michel Julian of the UNWTO's Tourism Trends and Marketing Strategies department says that it's important to analyze recent events against a backdrop of resilience.
"The Arab Spring is an ongoing process, and we've already witnessed important destinations in the Middle East and North Africa recovering," says Julian.
According to the UNWTO's September 2012 issue of the "World Tourism Barometer," the Middle East recorded a modest 0.7 percent growth in visitors in 2012.
"This is a slow recovery, with very depressed figures, because of the immediate effect of the Arab Spring. But tourism is a very resilient industry," notes Julian.
Not all countries in the region are seeing stagnant travel business.
According to Nadejda Popova, travel and tourism research analyst at Euromonitor, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, countries seen by many as "pockets of stability in the region," managed to attract more tourists while their neighbors experienced a decline.
In addition, countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are benefiting from a more nuanced international understanding of the region.
According to reports, international travelers are less likely now than in recent years to regard the Middle East as a single, homogeneous region with the same issues and problems affecting all countries across the region. Rather, they're increasingly assessing potential travel destinations on a case-by-case basis.
John Kester, head of tourism trends and marketing strategies at the UNWTO, believes that, despite political upheaval and economic worries, the Middle East will continue to grow as a major player in travel.
"I believe we will continue to see growth, although at a more moderate level, not the growth of the past 10 years," says Kester. "But the Middle East will remain among the faster growing regions for travel."
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