The Middle East’s wealth of cultural, historic, and religious sites has long captivated travelers, but the region is also home to dramatic natural beauty and sunbaked coasts. These alluring waters are helping to drive a resurgence of international tourism to the region, which suffered in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Now, with perceptions of increasing stability, visitors are returning. According to the World Tourism Organization, the U.N. agency responsible for promoting sustainable tourism, international arrivals to the Middle East grew by about 10 percent from 2017 to 2018, outpacing the world average.
From the Mediterranean’s balmy beaches to the Gulf’s shimmering sands, here are the Middle East’s must-visit beaches.
Known for its laid-back bohemian vibe, this former Bedouin fishing village in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula is celebrated for its coral reefs, which are among the healthiest in the region. According to researchers, Red Sea reefs are some of the most resilient in the face of climate change. The secluded wildlife and marine preserve of Ras Abu Galum, reachable by camel and boat, is not to be missed. The Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole more than 300 feet deep, is famous among divers. Take care, however, as this site can be dangerous and is best left to advanced divers. Remember to pack a reef-safe sunscreen to protect the delicate ecosystem.
Ocean view: Dahab offers a wide variety of both budget and luxury hotel options. Support local communities by booking a stay in a Bedouin-owned property, such as Sheikh Ali Resort. Try camping under the stars on the beach to the sound of the waves or in the desert at one of the area’s Bedouin camps, which can be booked online or through local tour operators and diving groups.
In a country known for its beautiful beaches, Oludeniz is perhaps the most famous, and with good reason. Looming over the aptly named Blue Lagoon, the green peak of Babadag Mountain is a popular launch point for paragliders. For those daring enough to take the plunge, the vista throughout the 45-minute descent is stunning. While the main beach can become overcrowded with tourists, there are more secluded spots nearby, including Butterfly Valley, reachable only by boat.
Ocean view: This is a popular tourist area with a plethora of bungalows and hotels, including the Sertil Deluxe Hotel & Spa. For a low-impact, eco-friendly stay, pitch a tent on one of its campgrounds, such as Doga Kamp, where you can also stay in a treehouse.
The Dead Sea
Israel, the West Bank, Jordan
The Dead Sea—which is actually a giant saltwater lake—lies at the lowest elevation of any body of water on Earth (around 1,300 feet below sea level). The lake’s extreme salinity precludes marine life, hence its name, and creates an unusual sense of buoyancy: It is nearly impossible for bathers to sink. The Dead Sea’s salt and mineral-rich mud are also touted for their purported skin benefits. However, the rapid pace of evaporation and sinking water levels threaten its survival. The governments of Israel and Jordan have negotiated, but not yet implemented, a plan to pump waters from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea.
Ocean view: The Dead Sea can be done easily as a day trip from Tel Aviv, Israel, or Amman, Jordan—a good option for budget travelers looking for a greater range of economical options. For those willing to splurge, a plethora of resorts, such as the luxurious Kempinski, line the Dead Sea Shore, offering beach access and spa treatments. A day pass can be purchased at public beaches and select hotels.
Tyre (or Sour, as the locals call it) is a laid-back beach town on the southern coast of Lebanon. Once a powerful Phoenician city, it was later occupied by the Greeks and then the Romans, and was listed as a World Heritage site in 1984 for its rich archaeological remains. Today, divers can explore the sunken ruins of Roman cities off the coast. Tyre's free, public beach is also rare among Lebanon’s highly privatized coastline, and has some of the cleanest waters in the country. In between dips in the gentle waves, beachgoers can relax with a plate of fish, a beer, and argileh (flavored tobacco) at one of the seaside restaurants.
Ocean view: Check into one of Tyre’s boutique hotels, most of them concentrated in the city’s charming and historic Christian Quarter, for a uniquely local experience. For a room with a view check out Dar Alma Guesthouse.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
For those looking for a more urban beach experience, Kite Beach is a great destination for families, with a plethora of watersports on offer, including kitesurfing, wakeboarding, and paddleboarding. The beach also offers shoreside activities, including volleyball nets, a running and cycling track, a skate park for the kids, and a number of food trucks and cafés.
Ocean view: Dubai is full of hotels at all price points, from the opulent Burj Al Arab, which towers over the city’s skyline, to more modestly priced options like XVA Art Hotel, a boutique lodging that showcases Persian architectural heritage.
In stark contrast to the arid landscapes in most of the surrounding Gulf, the hillsides of southern Oman’s Salalah turn a luscious green under the monsoon rains, or khareef, from July to September. Whatever the time of year, temperatures remain moderate and the beaches are generally free of crowds. Not-to-be-missed coastal sights include the Marneef Cave and the adjacent Al-Mughsayl Blowholes, which spurt water as high as 90 feet into the sky during monsoon season.
Ocean view: Salalah is a prime destination for the adventurous at heart. While a range of hotel options are available, wild camping is legal in Oman. There are no official campgrounds, so visitors can pitch a tent in a secluded spot. Just be sure to observe “leave no trace” rules.
Cyprus’s famous Nissi Beach has something for everyone. Its waters are pristine enough to earn it the Blue Flag designation from the Foundation for Environmental Education. But these golden sands also have a reputation as a nightlife destination, with the Nissi Bay Beach Bar hosting DJ sets every day during the high season, as well as foam parties, dance contests, and other shenanigans. For a more mellow experience, go in the winter months when the crowds have dispersed and temperatures remain moderate.
Ocean view: The town of Ayia Napa, where Nissi Beach is located, offers a variety of accommodations, including the well-known Nissi Beach Resort, tourist apartments, and hostels.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Despite its glitzy resorts, Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island is also a haven for wildlife: Its sand dunes harbor a protected nesting area for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle. Motorboats and motorsports are prohibited off the island’s coast, and development is banned within 200 feet of the dune system where turtles have their nesting grounds. Pedestrians can access the beach via a wooden ramp to avoid disturbing the vegetation. Apart from the turtles, wild schools of dolphins can frequently be spotted off the shoreline.
Ocean view: Most accommodations on Saadiyat are luxury resorts, including the St. Regis, Park Hyatt, and Rixos. Don’t miss the island’s newly developed Cultural District, which is home to treasure troves like the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
While technically in North Africa, Tunisia is culturally Middle Eastern and home to some of the most gorgeous beaches in the region. The waters of Djerba, a small island off Tunisia’s southern coast, offer divers a varied landscape of reefs, underwater caves, and shipwrecks to explore. The island also holds a rich cultural tapestry that includes Africa’s oldest synagogue, a swath of souks, and delicious seafood restaurants.
Ocean view: Djerba has a large selection of guesthouses for budget-conscious travelers, as well as standard hotels, like the charming Maison Leila. Locals, on the other hand, often set up elaborate encampments on the beach.
Abby Sewell is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. She covers travel, politics, and culture with a focus on the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @sewella.