At first mention of a vacation, the Middle East isn't usually the first spot that comes to mind. Yet the images of violence that flash across the nightly news are just an unfortunate subplot in the greater story of the region, which boasts some of the most pristine and, yes, tranquil attractions in the world.
Tranquil--for now, that is. The World Tourism Organization reports that 46 million foreign tourists visited the Middle East last year, making it one of the world's fastest-growing regional destinations "despite ongoing tensions and threats." Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca account for some of those numbers, but guide companies report a growing interest in the region from Americans as well — everyone from history buffs to outdoors-lovers to old-fashioned Arabists.
The birthplace of three major world religions, as well as the earliest civilizations, the Middle East has a plethora of historical treasures. If fighting the crowds at Rome's Coliseum sounds dismal, head east for farther-flung examples of the Romans' grandiose empire.
Rich in ancient history
One obscure but stunning example, according to Carolyn McIntyre, a guide and Middle East expert with tour company Geographic Expeditions, is the ancient city of Apamea in northern Syria. Once the host of distinguished royalty such as Cleopatra and Emperor Caracalla, Apamea has been one of many stops for McIntyre in her quest to recreate the 75,000-mile journey of Ibn Batutta, a Moroccan scholar who traveled the Islamic Empire in the 14th century.
"Syria is being touted as the next Morocco," says McIntyre. "Small hotels and restaurants are opening up all over Old Damascus, and the scenery is just fantastic."
Pioneering travelers who relish treading new ground will find plenty of fodder in the Middle East, says McIntyre, particularly in Saudi Arabia. The country has only been admitting tourists in any capacity for a few years ("The draw is the forbidden aspect," McIntyre says), and unlike many countries that have been mining their past for decades, archeology is new to the kingdom.
"Until recently, Saudis weren't taught very much about the country's Bronze Age history because it was pre-Islam," says McIntyre. "So they keep coming across brand new sites." One worth exploring is Meda'in Salah, a giant city of cliff dwellings and tombs once inhabited by the ancient Nabateans (whose capital was Petra). The attraction was recently named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site.
Hit the trail
For pioneers of an athletic persuasion, the region's rugged and varied natural landscape is a playground for intrepid adventurers. McIntyre names village-to-village hiking in Yemen's mountainous Al Mahwit region as a highlight of a visit to the "roof of Arabia" with its lush scenery and stonework architecture.
Hiking is also a draw in Lebanon, the "Switzerland of the Middle East," whose steep, cedar-lined Qadisha Valley makes for fragrant and dramatic climbing in summer or skiing in winter.
And for those eager to live like Lawrence of Arabia (minus all the conflicts, of course), one can follow his very footsteps in Jordan's Wadi Rum desert. So surreal is the rocky, red landscape, says Derek Ong, a Jordan guide for tour company Absolute Travel, that it's actually served as a set for the planet Mars in several movies.
Low risk, high reward
As with any travel, risk is a factor, says McIntyre, but she finds the dangers of traveling in the Middle East are often overblown.
"Most of the violence in these countries occurs far from any areas tourists would visit," she says, and political context should be considered when viewing State Department Travel Warnings. Of course, some notorious spots, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are out of the question.
Though perhaps not forever. Earlier this week, a new airport opened in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, a hopeful gesture by the government that it may soon be able to begin promoting tourism.