MIDDLE EAST

MIDDLE EAST

British Airways' new direct flight from the UK to Tripoli has encouraged several UK tour operators to include Libya in their Middle East programmes.

Steppes East sales executive Victoria Gilroy said: "A trickle of people were managing to travel to the country via Egypt and Tunisia, but the Gatwick-Tripoli flight, which started in June, has cut out the long overland haul and makes the country much more accessible.

"When clients see a household name like BA flying to Libya, it makes them think more positively about trying out the destination," she added.

Soft-adventure specialist The Imaginative Traveller is planning to launch a programme to Libya in October.

Operations manager Jackie Firmstone said:"We are planning to run a 15-day tour with camping in the desert, jeep safaris, walking and climbing.

"It will also take in Libya's beautifully preserved Roman sites such as Leptis Magna and the stunning desert caves and rock art in the Akakus mountains."

Libya, along with Iran and Saudi Arabia, is just one of a new crop of destinations to come on the market in the past year, taking the place of others like Yemen that have dropped out of operators' programmes.

Saudi Arabia, featured by Bales Worldwide for the first time this year, was seen only as a business destination for westerners until the company was invited to create a leisure programme by the Saudi government.

The operator is offering the 10-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tour, covering Riyadh and Jeddah, the mountain town of Abha, and a number of historic sites. It costs £2,150, including flights with Saudi Arabian Airlines and full-board five-star accommodation.

Iran is now part of Cox and Kings' Middle East programme, introduced last October for the first time, and is also in Abercrombie and Kent's brochure this year.

Cox and Kings offers the ten-day Treasures of Persia tour from £1,315 per person, which includes flights with Emirates, full board and three to five-star accommodation.

Abercrombie and Kent's new tour, the Pearls of Persia, costs £1,650 for a 10-night tour. It includes full-board accommodation and flights with British Airways. Planning manager Stuart Douglass-Lee said: "The highlight of the tour is Isfahan, a world heritage site dating back to the 16th century. It has blue-tiled mosques and fantastic 17th-century bridges.

"So few tourists have visited the country for over 20 years that you really get a sense of being a traveller in a foreign land."

While the recent Israeli military action will hurt tourism to Lebanon, Cox and Kings reports that other countries in the region are going from strength to strength.

Product manager Hugh Fraser said: "The recent bombing of Lebanon will undoubtedly do some damage to its performance this autumn. Elsewhere, our growth to Jordan has gone through the roof, and even tours to Iran are running at full capacity. I am very optimistic for the Middle East market for 2000."

Jordan, Israel and Lebanon look set to benefit from their biblical connection next year, as pilgrims flock to the Holy Land for the millennium.

This year's estimated 2.5m tourists will be topped by the 3.5m predicted to hit the region in 2000.

Israel will have an extra 8,000 hotel rooms by 2000, taking its total to 40,000 and 12 new hotels have opened in the Lebanon with a total of 567 rooms this year.

Jordan, too, is building for the future, increasing its bedstock by 50% to 35,000, and aiming to attract 100,000 UK visitors by 2002, compared to some 39,000 in 1998.

Tourism to Egypt now seems well on the way to a full recovery and operators report bookings to the country are almost back to the levels achieved before the massacre of tourists in Luxor in November 1997. For example, Bales Worldwide has carried around 1,500 passengers so far this year, up from last year's 1,000.

Elsewhere in the region, Dubai's excellent hotels and tax-free shopping have kept the city firmly on the stopover circuit - Goldenjoy Holidays is among the newcomers for 1999.

Amathus Holidays has introduced Oman to its new winter programme, with a four-night lead-in price of £491including flights with Gulf Air, five-star accommodation and transfers. Also new to Oman is TCA Holidays includes tours of the country in its Arabian Odyssey brochure.

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