BEIRUT, Lebanon – Tourism Ministers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey convened to launch a quadripartite mechanism for tourism, an initiative that they said embodied the first steps toward establishing a free trade zone between the four countries.
“I trust that our meeting will give us an opportunity to show one another all the means available for cooperation, and to arrive at effective recommendations that aim to achieve common goals and improve tourism. This is part of the effort to support the environment of cooperation and coordination between [Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey,” Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said during remarks that opened the meeting.
The summit comes as part of a series of meetings that the “The Higher Council for Strategic Cooperation” set out to bolster ties between the four countries. During a June 2010 meeting in Istanbul, delegations from foreign ministries of the respective countries released a joint declaration “to develop a long-term strategic partnership” and “create a zone of free movement of goods and persons among our countries.”
At a banking summit in Beirut two months ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued an impassioned appeal to Arab leaders to set up a trading bloc similar to Europe’s Schengen area. Erdogan also called for lifting visa restrictions between the four countries, a move that is largely seen by regional analysts to be part of a major drive to establish closer relations between Turkey and the Arab states.
“Tourism embodies our drive for cooperation in its first stages,” said Syrian Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha Al-Kalaa, who added that there were 110 million people that stood to gain from more intensified cooperation between the countries’ tourism sectors.
“Based on all our data and calculations, international tourism will grow at a considerable pace this year, therefore it’s expected that the Middle East … will achieve touristic growth at a faster pace than the rest of the world, but that will require that we work together, hand in hand,” said Jordanian Tourism Minister Zeid Jamil al-Qasous.
Qasous said Jordan’s King Abdullah recommends that discussions at the meeting revolve around four main topics: investment in common, competitive economic areas that can generate further investment in the future, facilitating and attracting investment, improving the quality of services in tourism sectors and creating common quality standards, and finally, devising a common promotion strategy for tourism in the four countries.
When Abboud first announced last week that the quartet meeting would take place, he said that the group would aim to produce a shared tourist visa, as part of a larger aim to create a single tourist bloc between the four countries.
“It’s a known fact that Turkey today is one of the best ranking touristic countries. We’re prepared to cooperate with the other three countries, and we’re prepared to cooperate on investment, rehabilitation, education and training, in order to improve touristic sectors, as well as other economic sectors,” Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuful Gunay said.
“Among the best 100 hotels in the world, 20 are Turkish, and we have almost a million hotel beds,” he added.
But he said Turkish tourism operates at half of its capacity and would benefit from greater regional cooperation.