Serene oases in the Middle East
YOU have to feel sorry for Middle East tourism operators. They've been blessed with one of the most ancient and fascinating regions of the world to sell. And cursed with the fact that every time they succeed in attracting lots of tourists, some new upheaval scares them away again.
In the past, it was mostly terrorist attacks that frightened tourists. But these days it is the Arab Spring - the uprising in support of democracy - scaring them off.
In the long-term, the upheavals that have toppled dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya - and may see Syria, Yemen and Bahrain become more democratic - will probably make those countries more attractive places to visit. But in the short-term, the pictures of demonstrations and riots have inevitably kept tourists away. And, of course, Iraq, Iran and Israel/Palestine have their own issues.
All of which is a pity, because the region produced the first civilisations and many of the world's great religions, and it is still home to glorious ruins, amazing cities, fascinating cultures and spectacular landscapes, which are nothing like our own. And, thanks to the rapid rise of Emirates and Etihad access is easier than it has ever been.
Fortunately, there are still places in the Middle East that remain oases of tranquillity amid those deserts of dissatisfaction. I've just returned from visiting Oman and the United Arab Emirates and felt completely safe. Places like Morocco and Jordan also appear to be calm, for now at least.
In other words, it is still possible for the wary traveller to get a taste of what the Middle East has to offer: lands rich with history and culture, great sand deserts and spectacular castles, magnificent mosques and bustling souks, picturesque canyons and peaceful oases, ancient ports and beautiful dhows, fine beaches and warm seas, where you can still enjoy traditional Arab hospitality augmented by offerings of dates and cardamom-flavoured coffee.
True, you've got to go to Egypt to see the pyramids. But in Oman I was able to walk into a remote village at the bottom of a wadi, where water bubbles in an ancient falaj system, allowing date palms to flourish amid the barren mountains, and have a one-eyed man offer me coffee in the shade of his garden. In many ways, that's even more precious.