In the wake of burqa ban French tourism risks losing hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern tourists


DUBAI – France risks losing hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern tourists who fear their privacy will be violated if the country enforces a ban on the Muslim full-face veil, Gulf-based travel companies say.

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government announced last week it will ban the wearing in public of the full-face veil, or niqab, with a bill to be presented to ministers in May.

The ban will also cover Muslim tourists as the government looks to send “a message at international level”, said Nadine Morano, a junior minister for families.

“People from this region are particularly sensitive about their privacy,” said Mohsin Kidwai, manager for holidays at UAE-based Orient Travels.

“They want to have fun when they travel and if they fear harassment somewhere they will change their destination.”

France is the second most popular holiday destination for Middle Eastern travellers after Britain, and veiled women are a regular sight in the luxury stores on Paris shopping boulevards, travel agents said.

The full-face veil is particularly common in the Gulf and tourists from the region tend to stay longer and spend more than other groups, making the economic impact more significant, travel agents said.

“There is a lot of high-end tourism from the Gulf so the economic impact will be huge,” said Chahid Bouamarane, a general manger at Saudi-based Al Tayyar Travel Group.

He also said many Middle Eastern tourists travel in family groups and it could be tricky if one member wears the veil.

“France is a popular destination for families but people will ignore the country if they fear segregation,” Orient Travels’ Kidwai added.

Munir Sherwani, holidays manager Al Rais Travels in Dubai, said summer bookings were just starting so it was difficult to measure the impact of the news, but he forecast France would lose “substantial business from the Middle East”.

Across the wider Middle East most women wear the hijab, a less conservative head scarf that covers everything except the face, but travel agents warned a ban could have a “psychological” on those who do not wear the full-face veil.

“People do not want to feel awkward when they go somewhere so I think it’s an issue of how Arab travellers view France,” Sherwani said.

There is strong support in French parliament to ban the niqab and burqa full body veil and the government is determined to press on with a law, which it says would affect only around 2,000 Muslim French women who currently cover their faces.

Authorities have already started clamping down on women wearing the garments.

Police on Friday fined a 31-year-old French Muslim woman 22 euros ($29) for wearing the niqab while driving, prompting accusations of human rights violation.

An incident like that involving a visitor from the Middle East would almost certainly create a wider backlash among Arab travellers, travel agents said.