The wave of popular protests that swept through North Africa in 2010 and 2011, collectively becoming known as the "Arab Spring", was initially welcomed by many as a positive move towards democracy.

But while the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was replaced by an elected government and political reforms were implemented in Morocco, efforts to suppress demonstrations in Egypt and Libya turned violent, leading to a military coup and brutal crackdown in the former and a bloody and ongoing civil war in the latter.

The impact on the region's aviation and tourism markets was equally dramatic and initially very damaging.

The Arab Spring upheavals forced leisure operators such as Thomas Cook and TUI to shift aircraft and capacity away from such core leisure markets as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia in 2011, and both companies reported financial hits in their filings that year.

In Libya, there was initial optimism that the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi's regime would open the country up as a tourism destination and new international services were added, but as the security situation deteriorated these airlines withdrew, and the fleets of homegrown carriers Libyan Airlines and Afriqiyah Airways have been caught up in the civil conflict now raging in the country.

Carl Denton, managing director of SvenCarlson Aviation Consulting, says the impact of the Arab Spring on tourism has varied for each country, having "decimated" the tourism markets in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Markets have not yet returned to pre-Arab Spring volumes," he says, adding: "This has mainly been due to continued political setbacks halting progress, but overall there has been steady growth back towards original numbers."

Nevertheless, Denton says the impact is likely to be temporary in the bigger tourism markets. "The established markets such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have proven to be very resilient despite many setbacks and, ultimately, the relative value for money for consumers always drives demand.

"With economic recovery in Europe in particular Spain, Portugal and Greece, who are all currently very competitive – eurozone destinations will increase in cost and, given a relative level of political stability, the North African destinations should grow in the mid to long term," he adds.


Data from Flightglobal's Innovata schedules shows that air traffic as measured by seat capacity seems to be recovering in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco.

Between June 2010 and June 2015, seat capacity grew on services into Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Only in the smaller Libyan market have things got worse.

North African markets 2010 v 15

While tourism volumes would appear to be rallying, there have been changes over the last five years to the top airlines in these markets. However, in all five countries the national carrier or national carriers still dominate.

EgyptAir remains Egypt's largest operator, going from a 43.9% market share in 2010 to 40.3% in 2015. Saudia has consolidated its position as the second-largest operator, but Thomson Airways has been usurped from third position by Russian airline Transaero, reflecting the popularity of the Egyptian market for Russian visitors.

Egyptian market 2010 v 2015

In Tunisia, TunisAir remains dominant with around a third of the seats in June 2015, though this is down on the 42% share it enjoyed five years earlier. Charter operator Nouvelair Tunisie has been one of the big movers behind this.

In Morocco, national carrier Royal Air Maroc has gone from just over a 50% market share in 2010 to nearly 43% today but remains the biggest operator out of the country.

Moroccan market Jun 2015


What marks Morocco out from its neighbours is the extent to which low-cost carriers have developed operations there. Ryanair and EasyJet are the second- and third-largest carriers respectively, while Transavia and Air Arabia have also become significant players.

The growth of low-cost operators in the country can be traced back to 2006, when Morocco liberalised its air transport regime by joining Europe's common aviation area. This removed the bilateral barriers previously in place, paving the way for the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair to expand into the country.

In 2013, Ryanair opened bases at Fez and Marrakech, and it also serves Agadir and Oujda. The airline's head of scheduling Niall O’Connor says the carrier will grow its operations in the country 10% this year.

O'Connor sees "clear potential" for the Irish carrier to expand on this and start operations to Casablanca, which is "clearly the biggest airport in Morocco, and we are not there".

There is no operational reason for the Irish carrier's absence from Casablanca, says O'Connor. It is "primarily related to costs: the airport is not in a position or chooses not to incentivise new routes". However, a new aviation tax introduced last year could have a negative impact on growth, he warns.

He identifies potential for Ryanair in both Tunisia and Egypt. "The Tunisian market is the most obvious one at the moment for growth," he says, though he concedes that the country has had a "tough time of it lately" and the "lack of an open-skies agreement [with Europe] is the biggest impediment" to future expansion.

O'Connor reveals that in November 2014, Ryanair held talks with the previous Tunisian tourism minister, who was "open to the idea of a number of airports being opened up", including Monastir airport. The Ryanair executive points to media reports suggesting that the new tourism minister is also open to Ryanair entering the Tunisian market.

The Irish airline would also be "quite happy" to add routes to Egypt and the low-cost carrier has held "tentative talks" with the government but, as with Tunisia, the lack of an open-skies agreement with the EU is a "challenge".

However, growth opportunities are currently limited by a lack of fleet capacity and, even after the return of fleet growth when it began taking its new batch of 737s last year, O'Connor notes the airline has already announced much of its winter schedule.

EasyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall tells Flightglobal that Egypt is "great for us" and is a "very good leisure market because it is a winter sun destination and is popular all year round". But she emphasises that much of the UK carrier's growth in the coming years will be beefing up existing European routes and frequencies.

Low-cost carrier Air Arabia also has growth ambitions in the region. Unlike its European competitors, the Sharjah-based airline has taken the step of starting regional subsidiaries to expand its presence in Egypt and Morocco: Alexandria-based Air Arabia Egypt, which is a joint venture with Egyptian travel firm Travco Group, and Casablanca-based Air Arabia Maroc.

"Both hubs are performing well, reflecting the overall appetite in each market for low-cost air travel," says Air Arabia chief executive Adel Ali, adding: "Air Arabia Maroc has completed five years of operations and has become the leading Moroccan carrier serving Europe from four airports in Morocco. Air Arabia Egypt has managed to maintain a healthy status with all the political events that hit the region and currently plans to further expand its operations."

Ali says political upheavals in the region "will likely act as a brake on growth over the short to medium term" but says he remains optimistic about the long-term potential for the aviation industry in North Africa.


So how will the markets evolve in the future? Given the interest of low-cost carriers in expanding further into Morocco and Tunisia, and the well-established allure of Egypt as a major tourist destination, it seems likely these markets will continue on their path of recovery and growth, assuming those countries can provide security.

Denton is confident tour operators will come back to the region in ever-greater numbers because its tourist markets are "well suited to the business models they follow".

He adds: "The hotel product is plentiful and of an acceptable standard as well as being suited to the ever-popular all-inclusive concept. Markets such as Tunisia and Egypt are less affected by low-cost carriers as sector lengths are longer and as such less suited to the LCC model but, furthermore, a larger percentage of travellers are booking holiday packages.

"The tour operators have greater control over the bed stock and the consumer feels less confident to self-package their own holidays.

"Furthermore, the relative good weather in the winter months allows for better year-round utilisation for airlines and tour operators, which encourages further growth."

Source: Cirium Dashboard