Sightseeing in a revolution

What do the upheavals of the Arab Spring mean for visitors? David Blair gives an overview of a rapidly changing region.

If Parisian architecture wears the halo of revolution, then Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis has become a worthy inheritor of this tradition. Designed by the French as a North African version of one of their boulevards, this whitewashed thoroughfare runs through the heart of Tunisia's capital. This was where the Arab Spring began just more than a year ago: vast crowds massed on the footpaths to demand the downfall of Tunisia's dictator.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali flew to the ignominy of exile on January 14 last year. So began a wave of popular fury that swept the biggest countries in the Arab world.

Within a month of Ben Ali's downfall, Hosni Mubarak was forced from the presidency of Egypt. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was next to go, felled in August by Libya's popular revolt and a NATO bombing campaign. Meanwhile, mass protests rocked Bahrain's monarchy, forced Yemen's dictator to agree to relinquish power and sparked the long agony that is Syria.

Tunisians are proud the first revolution took place on their soil. Legacies of last year's outbreak of people power abound in Avenue Habib Bourguiba: walls are plastered with "vote for me" posters from the country's first free elections last October. Less happily, soldiers and armoured vehicles are deployed at junctions along the boulevard to guard against further unrest.

What does all this mean for travellers? The first two countries to lose their leaders, Tunisia and Egypt, were also the top two tourist destinations in the Arab world, offering umpteen sites of classical antiquity. Another popular destination, Jordan, also experienced large protests, although King Abdullah II remains firmly on his throne.

Last year's events in Tunisia were a triumph of courage over repression but they also dealt a severe blow to the country's reputation as a haven of stability. Today, you can walk the length of Avenue Habib Bourguiba without seeing a foreign visitor. But put things in perspective: Tunisia's revolution was short-lived, lasting less than four weeks and ending 13 months ago. Since then, there has been minimal trouble. Free elections for an assembly that will draw up a new constitution passed peacefully. I wandered around Tunis without feeling remotely threatened or intimidated. In the narrow alleys of the medina, shopkeepers were no less friendly or insistent in offering their wares than they had been during my last visit in 2009. So Tunisia feels as safe as it was before the revolution.

Syria, however, is firmly off limits; de facto civil war means visitors should steer clear. Libya is close to being in the same category. Despite Gaddafi's downfall, it remains a lawless place, with occasional gun battles between militias in Tripoli. The Australian government advises against all travel; the British Foreign Office advises against "all but essential travel" to the capital and warns against travel to most of the rest of the country. So Leptis Magna, the magnificent Roman city east of Tripoli, is off limits to sensible travellers.

Morocco and Lebanon have been largely unaffected by the Arab Spring. King Mohammed VI faced protests from angry Moroccans last year but his regime appears to be in control, with no serious trouble reported in the tourist hot spots of Marrakech and Fez. Lebanon's government is fragile and permanently on the verge of falling - just as it has been since the civil war ended in 1990. While regimes elsewhere were in the throes of collapse last year, Lebanon was an unlikely oasis of stability.

Egypt is more complicated. Demonstrations continue in Tahrir Square in central Cairo. Egypt is different because the revolution did not end with Mubarak's downfall. He handed power to a cabal of generals who have styled themselves the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and have been just as repressive as the old regime.


Parliamentary elections have taken place but the generals will not hand over power until a new president is chosen. When that will happen is anyone's guess. First, there has to be a new constitution, which could take a year or more to draft, then another election must be called. Until Egypt's political future is settled, the country might be in the grip of a continuous, rolling revolution.

Something else makes Egypt different: the setting for popular protest is in the middle of Cairo. Tahrir Square is next to hotels that were once full of tourists, notably the Semiramis Intercontinental and the Ramses Hilton. The Egyptian Museum, home to the world's greatest collection of antiquities, is nearby. So if trouble does break out, the risk of being caught nearby is real. That said, most Egyptians welcome visitors and few are out to harm foreigners. Even if unrest does erupt, the biggest risks are probably of inconvenience - delays, reworked itineraries - rather than physical danger. Meanwhile, the Red Sea resorts of the Sinai Peninsula have been much calmer than the big cities.

Outside these enclaves, however, the Sinai has always been a lawless place and the Bedouin of the desert have no love for resorts that take away land and water that belong to them. On February 3, two American tourists were robbed and held for a few hours by gunmen who waylaid their vehicle on the road between Sharm

al-Sheikh and St Catherine's Monastery.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, hardline Islamist parties have been the big winners in post-revolution politics, achieving convincing victories in the first free elections. Does that mean alcohol will be banned and bikini-wearers arrested? Probably not. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda, the fundamentalist party in Tunisia, are treading carefully, for now. Neither wishes to destroy the tourist industry and topple a central pillar of the economy.

Looking further afield, Jordan, home to Petra - arguably the greatest sight in the Middle East after the Pyramids of Giza - has been untouched by recent unrest. Demonstrations took place against King Abdullah II in the early days of the Arab Spring but have since died away. And it's always worth remembering this: a part of the world where history is measured in millenniums will take the events of the past 13 months in its stride.

The Telegraph, London