Like all other emerging markets, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has its own characteristics and requirements when it comes to tourism and hospitality. This young market, with a transient growth and rising population, is gradually becoming a big seller in the tourism industry. Speaking to the top industry professionals, we shift the focus from global to the footing of MENA’s tourism
TS Sayanti Halder
MENA region is increasingly becoming a leading tourist destination, with Emirati attractions leading the list of places to visit in 2018. MENA Research Partners said the region’s tourism industry is expected to reach USD 350 billion by 2027. In Dubai, itself, there was a two per cent annual increase in tourists in April from a year ago, with more Russians and Chinese visiting. The emirate received 4.7 million visitors in the first quarter of the year, with a target of 20 million tourists yearly by 2020. As a result, the job market in the MENA region is also set to improve, with the World Travel and Tourism Council’s ‘City Travel and Tourism Impact 2017 the Middle East and Africa’ report noting that 2.8 per cent of jobs in the region is supported by travel and tourism. The Middle East accounts for 6.8 per cent of the global travel and tourism Gross domestic product (GDP).
In addition to the above, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are expected to grow at a Compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of five per cent over the next 10 years. Currently, the UAE and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) account for around 50 per cent of the MENA tourism market. The travel and tourism sector in the GCC now outperforms global tourism indicators in terms of growth and spending. The projected CAGR of tourism contribution to GDP is five per cent for the GCC, compared to 3.8 per cent worldwide. Additionally, the leisure and business spending growth for the next 10 years is expected to increase at an annual rate of 4.6 per cent and 5.4 per cent respectively, compared to worldwide averages of 4.1 per cent and 3.2 per cent.
The key regional industry drivers are the leisure and religious tourism sectors. Leisure tourism generated approximately USD 115 billion to the region in 2017 with Dubai attracting 15 million visitors in 2017 and being ranked as the sixth most visited city in the world. UAE is expected to account for 90 per cent of leisure tourism in the area following the opening of multiple leisure attractions. The MENA region also has one of the highest demands for religious tourism due to its advantage of possessing holy places.
Moreover, with the Expo 2020 on the horizon and the Middle East representing high growth potential for the travel industry. WTM London 2018 this year is placing a spotlight on the region with a host of key speakers lined up for the show’s new regionally-focused Inspiration Zones. With visitor arrivals predicted to reach 25 million annually by 2025 and the opening ceremony of Dubai Expo 2020 now just two years away, the Middle East is set to continue to be one of the most dynamic travel destinations in the world. But one destination is not enough for contribution when we look at an overall growth of the entire region, where the other destinations are continuously striving to top the preference list.
Intense efforts are being made to ensure the landmark event leaves a meaningful, long-lasting and multi-layered impact way beyond this futuristic city. Leisure and business tourism are expected to skyrocket during the six months of the event, with up to 25 million visitors attending – 70 per cent from outside the UAE. With a plan focused on providing a lasting framework for the city’s MICE sector, MENA’s tourism industry is set to benefit from the sleek and ultra-modern event spaces being added across the region. Further, we speak to the industry experts to comprehend the current picture of this region’s escalating tourism and hospitality business.
Linda Lewis, Vice President- Global Sales Middle East & Asia Pacific, Jumeirah Group
“Dubai including the wider UAE will continue to be a key tourist destination in the world. Oman and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are increasingly popular for both international and Middle East tourists and Jumeirah is opening luxury hotels in both Oman and Makkah in KSA by 2019. The Middle East benefits from significant airlift into the region and is strategically located between both the east and west, which helps drive progress. For example, over two-thirds of the world’s population lives within eight hours flight of Dubai and one-third live within four hours. At Jumeirah, we are in a period of accelerated growth and we now have 11 hotels in the UAE. Our momentum of growth and expansion continues with the reopening of Jumeirah Beach Hotel after a five-month renovation programme in October 2018 and the anticipated opening of a further nine Jumeriah hotels before the end of 2019.
Dubai Expo 2020 will be a great attraction but the region offers many new activities including theme parks and experiences to suit all budgets and interests. Visa facilitation agreements pave the way to increase visitor numbers into Dubai. According to Dubai Tourism, out of 20 top source markets travellers to Dubai from 14 countries can now avail Visas on Arrival (VoA). Recent VoAs for Russian and Chinese visitors led to an increase in tourists visiting the city. The visa rules for Indian tourists were also relaxed. If Dubai can facilitate more people with VoAs, more visitors would be attracted to the city.”
Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group COO - Middle East, South Asia and China, VFS Global
“The GCC region has long been a preferred destination among global travellers for leisure and business travel, as testified by the growing visa application that counts to many of the countries, around. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are keenly promoting tourist attractions – for instance, VFS Global has been appointed to promote Yas Islands in the UAE, which is becoming a big draw for tourists. Similarly, we have set up Dubai travel shops in India (very soon in Saudi Arabia too), that offer information and convenient travel products for visitors. At the same time, the UAE government is recognising the strong linkages between tourism and investment. The Dubai government’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) body recently set up its first investor assistance centre outside the UAE (in India), in a bid to attract more FDI inflows and ease the process for prospective investors.
Going forward, we expect to see a rise in tourist arrivals as more governments in this region make tourism a key component of their economic growth agenda. It is noteworthy that besides the UAE, VFS Global has rapidly been expanding visa application centres for Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, in several countries. So, there is a trend towards increased travel to and from these emerging destinations as well. Worldwide, the growth of the tourism sector has surpassed expectations and outpaced that of the global economy. The MENA region is a significant source and destination market and is contributing to this growth, a trend that is expected to continue in the foreseeable future.”
Danielle Curtis, Exhibition Director – Middle East, Arabian Travel Market & IBTM Arabia
“Over the last decade, the tourism industry in the Middle East has grown ten-fold. Clearly, Expo 2020 is driving growth in Dubai as the emirate aims to complete 1,60,000 hotel rooms, with visitor numbers predicted to reach 25 million annually by 2025. The developments have been incredible with the tallest buildings and tallest hotels, revolutionary transport infrastructure, theme parks and leisure attractions. Recent reforms in Saudi Arabia and the relaxation of visa regulations – not to mention the widespread investment in the kingdom’s burgeoning tourism industry – are expected to drive growth in the hospitality market of 13.5 per cent CAGR to 2022, higher than the established markets of the UAE (10.1 per cent) and Oman (11.8 per cent). Saudi Arabia is expected to see a vast expansion of its hotel and resort inventory, along with a steep increase in airport passengers, as Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman continues to drive economic and social reforms, including direct investment in tourism.
The growth of Arabian Travel Market (ATM) over the last two decades reflects the fast-paced development of tourism in the region, as well as globally. In 2017, tourism supported 2.34 million jobs across the Middle East and generated around USD 84.7 billion to the economy, marking it as one of the most important drivers of economic growth and a major contributor to achieving sustainable overall growth. Looking to the future, tourism is estimated to support 2.97 million jobs by 2028, an increase of 2.2 per cent per annum and will generate USD 133.6 billion to the economy – an increase of 4.2 per cent, per annum. With its high-profile hosting of Expo 2020, now less than two years away, investment into infrastructure, activities and accommodation options are very much at the forefront for the tourism and hospitality sector, not only for Dubai but for the destinations across the region.”
Pankaj Nagpal, Managing Director, Travstarz Global Group
“Dubai has always been and will continue to be the engine of growth for the Middle East region. Especially now with the World Expo 2020, Dubai will continue to remain the hub of tourism. We have seen very healthy growth in numbers to Dubai, which is consistently growing year-on-year. However, I have seen a major shift in the tourism policies of other emirates in the past three years. All the other emirates, that were not very tourism friendly till some time back, have now realised the positive impact that tourism can have in their economies and can be a major contributor for their economic growth. We first saw Abu Dhabi, which was till recently considered very conservative, taking the lead in opening up to tourism to the world and especially focusing on India that is now the number one source market for Dubai. Initiatives such as the Yas Island and now the Warner Bros Studios coming up will go a long way in making Abu Dhabi a preferred destination in the UAE in the coming few years. Easy connectivity from major Indian cities and free shuttle services to Dubai are also good initiatives to promote tourism to Abu Dhabi.
Other than Abu Dhabi, we have seen other smaller emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah, which were till now the weekend destinations for people living in Dubai opening up to tourism from other countries. We are the joint marketing partner with both Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah and have seen the very keen interest for these destinations in the past one year. The travel fraternity in India is giving a very encouraging response to these relatively smaller and unknown destinations and we have seen the attendance of more than 200 travel agents in the various educational webinars organised by us. Going forward, I am sure that these two emirates will also make a significant contribution to the overall tourism to UAE. These two destinations are well connected by Air Arabia from all major Indian cities including many tier II cities and can also act as stop-over destinations for places such as Baku, Georgia or other destinations on the Air Arabia map.”
Murtaza Kalender, CEO - General Director, Travelshop Turkey
“The Middle East, being the cradle of several civilisations and the starting point of man’s struggle over nature, has always played a pivotal role and left a historical mark over the world throughout ages. Therefore, we need to take these lands as a whole and consider reflecting the values of the region all in one. However, Turkey seems to be an ideal location with the trio of all historical destinations, sea-sun and sand along with oriental yet European aspects and with the warmest of welcomes. In Turkey, many travellers would find what they look for in a vacation. With the amazing geographical structure, the climate that offers all four seasons at the same time, the texture that is consisted of million years of history, culture, nature and world-renowned Turkish hospitality.
Travelshop Turkey, with 15 years’ experience that was created upon the thousands of visitors’ review and a portfolio built by many elite counter-parts that only aim to serve better, sending happy foreigners, one voyager at a time. Turkey, presenting a leadership by establishing a bridge for cultures by connecting two continents through three bridges physically, to be an attraction point and a gateway to and from MENA and we, as Travelshop Turkey, provide a global network for all incoming tourism surely to grow even larger for the next five years and the decade to come, especially with world’s biggest airport to be erected soon and all other industrial leaps forward.”
Jeethmal Mutha, Director, Nafex.com
“Speaking of the MENA region, Dubai will be the strongest contributors in boosting the overall tourism in the Middle East and beyond. Dubai’s modern marvel of human engineerings such as the Burj Khalifa, man-made Island Palm Jumeirah and other luxury hotels are making Dubai, the choice of every tourist. MENA region’s key regional industry drivers are the leisure and religious tourism sectors, which are growing very fast. The MENA region also has one of the highest demands for religious tourism due to its holy places. Saudi Arabia attracts millions of pilgrims each year for Hajj and Umrah journeys. Moreover, medical and business tourism are emerging in the region, with the Middle East currently considered one of the fastest growing markets for these segments and many others.”
Lubaina Sheerazi, India Representative, Ministry of Tourism, Oman
“Oman, in recent years, has gained immense popularity with mature and evolved travellers as it is an exotic, adventurous, historic and geologically stunning country offering the most authentic Arabian experience to its visitors. The recently opened Muscat International Airport has increased passenger capacity to a great extent and will continue to undergo further upgrades in three phases. Also, to bring momentum to the tourism growth and to encourage more travellers to Oman, a new short-term tourist visa has been introduced to visit the Sultanate for a period of 10 days. This means that Indians who hold a valid visa to any one of these countries – United States of America, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, Japan and the Schengen States can avail the Oman visa through an e-visa process. With the reduced visa fees and revised visa policy, we see more travellers adding Oman to their long-weekend bucket list.
Along with FIT, we are seeing an increase in MICE tourism with the recent launch of the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre in Muscat that supports international and local organisations in hosting large events. Also, many new international hotel chains that recently opened in Oman have increased the number of rooms and venues in the country and will continue to do so in the coming years. Oman, being a short-haul destination from several places around, is also gradually becoming a preferred wedding destination.”
Sanjeev Tandon, Executive Assistant Manager-Sales & Marketing, The St. Regis Doha
“Over the last few years, the Middle Eastern countries have successfully managed to position the region as a premier luxury destination and a global hub for travel and tourism. The region attracts leisure travellers from around the world due to their wide range of tourist attractions such as luxury hotels, entertainment hubs, shopping centres, beaches, deserts, cultural centres and more. In my opinion, the countries that are expected to contribute to tourism growth in the region are Russia, China, Italy, Germany and India. The rise in Indian tourists visiting the GCC is attributed to the successful collaboration between Bollywood stars and tourism authorities in the region. In addition to this, the increase in destination weddings is targeting the Middle East’s growth, continually.
Furthermore, Qatar has recently made it easy for the nationals of 80 countries, including India and China, to get VoA, which has made Qatar the most open country in the Middle East. The tourism sector in the MENA region will witness a huge increase in the coming five years due to the ongoing campaigns targeting different tastes, income levels and cultures in different parts of the world. That is why, we see an increase in travellers from China, India and some European countries. Moreover, the Middle East has also become an international hub for conventions, meetings, exhibitions and sporting events such as Tennis and Golf tournaments, which has helped to position the region as a major family, business and event destination.”