The 21st Century has seen the Middle East emerge as a major global transport hub with some of the world’s biggest and best airports and largest airlines based in the region. While many inter-continental travellers simply use it as a place to connect to another flight, some resorts and cities within the region have become popular travel destinations in their own right. In this post we will run through the five most visited countries in the Middle East.
Note that some definitions of which countries are in the Middle East will differ but we are including both Turkey and Egypt. The data comes from published statistics in 2018 from the World Tourism Organisation.
The Most Visited Countries in the Middle East
1. Turkey – 45.8 million visitors (in 2018)
While Turkey’s largest city Istanbul famously divides two continents, most of Turkey lies in Asia with a culture that has far more in common with other countries in the Middle East than it does Europe. With over 45 million visitors, it was the 6th most visited country in the world in 2018 with its many Aegean and Mediterranean Sea resorts drawing in sun seekers while the country also boasts an enormous amount of historical sites such as the ruins at Ephesus and fascinating cities such as Bursa and Edirne – the first two capitals of the Ottoman Empire.
Getting In – Turkey is most popular with visitors from Europe and there are large numbers of flights into cities such as Istanbul, Antalya and Izmir from just about every major European country. If you’re travelling within the Middle East, a Flynas booking will enable you to connect with other cities in Eastern Turkey and across the region.
2. UAE – 21.3 million visitors
Of all the oil-rich Gulf States, the UAE is the one that has most successfully built up a tourist industry and drawn in travellers from around the world. Dubai is certainly the jewel in its crown with visitors attracted by the idea of experiencing one of the planet’s most futuristic cities or by its year-round sunshine and luxury resorts. Abu Dhabi has emerged as a rival though with the nation’s capital having seen its profile boosted by hosting major events such as the final Grand Prix of the Formula 1 season. There are also a few more budget friendly options such as Ajman, the smallest of the emirates.
Getting In – The two major cities are also the two main entry ports. With Dubai-based Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, the UAE is home to two of the world’s best airlines and two of the busiest airports in the world. Therefore arriving in style is easy, but there are an increasing number of budget airlines which fly in and out of the UAE too.
3. Saudi Arabia – 15.3 million visitors
Saudi Arabia is making a real bid to invest in its tourism industry as it seeks to generate alternative revenue at a time of falling oil prices. While by no means on the scale of a Dubai, historic Jeddah and some Red Sea beach resorts are starting to grow in popularity and with over 15 million arrivals, there are signs that the kingdom’s ambitious bid to reinvent itself are starting to pay dividends.
Getting In – Jeddah and Riyadh are the most common entry ports but you may need to connect to another flight to get to your destination. Luckily Saudi Arabia does have quite a good selection of budget airlines with Flyadeal flights offering some of the best value for getting around what is a large country.
4. Bahrain – 12 million visitors
The fourth most visited country in the Middle East is tiny Bahrain, which consists of 33 natural islands and over 50 man made ones in the Persian Gulf. The main Bahrain Island, is connected by land-bridge to Saudi Arabia and it’s very close to the Saudi city of Dammam. Being so small, there are fewer obvious travel destinations than some of its neighbours but highlights include the Hawar Islands which are popular with divers and bird-watchers.
Getting In – There is only one passenger airport and appropriately enough it is called Bahrain International Airport, located on Muharraq Island adjacent to the capital Manama. Gulf Air is the national carrier and they have an extensive network which links the country with cities across Europe and Asia including Bangkok, Mumbai, Frankfurt, Paris, London and Moscow.
5. Egypt – 11.2 million visitors
Egypt’s travel sector has taken a real hit in recent years, with a number of unfortunate events ensuring it has failed to fully recover following on from the revolution in the country in 2011 which brought international tourism to a virtual halt. Sharm El-Sheikh has long been a major destination for Europeans looking for a beach holiday while history-lovers are spoiled for choice in terms of places to go and learn about the ancient history of this fascinating country. There is so much more to Egypt than just the famous Pyramids of Giza which don the postcards. Unlike most of the Middle East, Egypt also ranks as one of the cheapest countries in the world to travel in, which will make it an appealing destination for budget travellers.
Getting In – Cairo is the main entry port into Egypt and with an extensive and affordable rail network, it’s probably the best starting point for anyone looking to explore the country. The other main international airports are found in Hurghada, Sharm El Sheikh and Alexandria.
This article was published in June 2020 although the figures relate to the 2018 calendar year.
You may want to check out our Middle East travel blog for some more ideas for travel in the region.