The Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in Dubai held in May, attracted more than 21,000 visitors with participants from 157 countries, the largest numbers ever in its 21 year history. Highlights of this year’s ATM include the ambitious Saudi investment plans, mobile technology and its impact on tourism, Dubai’s new branding launch and its tourist tax, the wellness sector, myriad hotel launches and úber-luxury in the skies, to name but a few.
By Rhona Wells in Dubai
UAE: the strongest regional player
The UAE was highlighted in research carried out by Euromonitor International as a tourism bright spot in the Middle East, seeing an increase in visitor numbers this year compared with the rest of the region which is stagnant. The UK is the UAE’s third most important source market after Saudi Arabia and India. In 2018, the UK is expected to still be number three, although strong growth will come from China, driven by strengthening economic ties.
EXPO 2020 is expected to bring more than 17m international visitors to Dubai. To accommodate this influx, existing hotel stock will need to be doubled, but Euromonitor warns “there are concerns about the potential oversupply of hotels after EXPO 2020 when visitor numbers will be hard to maintain.”
Business and leisure tourism across the Middle East is helped by the region’s airlines and supporting airport infrastructure. Etihad, Emirates and Qatar airlines are leading the charge, although Euromonitor International adds that smaller carriers such as Oman Air, flydubai, flynas and Air Arabia are important players too.
The impact of instability and unrest on Egypt’s tour- ism has been a drop in international visitors from 15m in 2010 to 9m in 2013, with receipts falling by 40% over the same period, says the report. Business travel from the GCC nations remains relatively unaffected helped by an increase in flights from Dubai.
World Travel Market Senior Director Simon Press stated that: “The UAE is a strong driver of global as well as regional tourism, buoyed by an impressive line-up of full service, low-cost and hybrid airlines. As travel patterns shift towards new markets, the Middle East is becoming front-of-mind for many tourism businesses.”
Mobile technology impacts on tourism sector
According to IT giant Cisco, mobile data traffic in the Middle East and Africa region will grow faster than in any other part of the world between now and 2018, with penetration of smart phones and tablets using the latest technology forecast to reach 598m devices within the next four years, up from just 133m in 2013. One in six consumers in the region is also now using the Internet as the booking platform of choice according to hotel- marketing.com, with the distinctive needs of digitally engaged travellers across the Middle East demanding a tailor-made approach from travel providers.
“Around 60% of airline booking and ticketing in Dubai alone comes from e-commerce and with youth accounting for 60% of the GCC population the need for the tourism industry in the region to be at the forefront of digital development and connectivity is a given. Of the regional travellers who generally plan their trips online, 48% had used a smart phone during the previous 12 months to carry out travel-related activities, a figure that rises to 69% if tablets are included. Indeed, 50% and 35% of Saudi and UAE travellers respectively access online services via their smart phones, presenting travel professionals with tremendous marketing opportunities, using mobile channels” said Mark Walsh, Portfolio Director, Reed Travel Exhibitions.
Data released by PhoCusWright in 2013 revealed that online travel agency sales in the Middle East hit $ 2.3bn last year, and this figure is expected to jump by 4% to 17% by the end of 2014. The GCC countries are also leading the pack in terms of social media activity, with 94% or 56m MENA region users on Facebook and Twitter generating around 10m Tweets per day with over 3.7m users.
Dubai launches new strategy at ATM
With the launch of the new ‘Dubai’ brand, the authorities are implementing a strategy that aims to transform Dubai from a ‘must visit’ city to a ‘must experience’ one. To sustain this development in line with Dubai Tourism Vision 2020, the Dubai Corporation of Tourism and Commerce Marketing is spearheading the launch of a smart traveler programme with a new website and app, expected to launch in September according to CEO, Issam Kazim: “As a city, Dubai has already positioned itself as a place you must visit, which is supported by our tourism numbers of 10m visitors in 2012. But to hit the 20m mark we have set for ourselves by 2020, Dubai cannot just be a must-visit city, but a must-experience city.” Explaining the dynamics of this change, Kazim continued: “Currently, the average stay for a tourist in Dubai is between two and three days. We have almost reached the four-day mark. But we want to make people realise that even four days are not enough to scratch the surface of Dubai. To achieve this, we are in the midst of developing a website and a new app to launch an overall experience.”
New tourism tax in Dubai- Tourism Dirham
The ‘Tourism Dirham’ tax, which applies to all guests staying at hotels, hotel apartments, guesthouses and holiday homes was introduced on 31 March. The fee, ranging from AED 7 ($1.90) to AED 20 ($5.50), according to the type of accommodation, is charged per room, per night.
This so-called hospitality tax is unpopular with visitors and travel sector employees alike. It is expected to help pay for Expo 2020 projects and the promotion of tourism in Dubai but is generally seen as being some- thing of a cheap stroke and not at all in keeping with the image of itself Dubai likes to portray. Others argue that the emirate expects Expo 2020 to cost more than $8.7bn. According to Helal Saeed Al Marri, director-general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM).
“The introduction of the Tourism Dirham will support Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing, helping to ensure our continued competitive- ness on the global stage, which will be reflected positively on the growth of two of our economic pillars – trade and tourism.” But, as one disgruntled industry official told me: “If Dubai couldn’t afford to fund EXPO 2020, they shouldn’t have bid for it. The government can dress this up however they want, the visitor just sees it as a rip-off.”
Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambitions
The Saudi government is investing heavily in its tourism sector, principally to provide employment opportunities for Saudi graduates. According to a 2013 MENA tourism and hospitality report by research consultancy aranca, investment in the travel and tourism sector is expected to increase by an average of 4% annually to SAR 30.9bn ($8.23bn ) over a 10 year period from 2013 to 2023.
“The travel and tourism sector’s direct contribution to Saudi Arabian GDP is projected to increase by approximately 4% a year to SAR 83.7bn ($22.3bn) by 2023. Put that into perspective it is equivalent to about 9% of current Saudi GDP, which is a great achievement, as the kingdom looks to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbon receipts,” said Walsh.
The number of tourists visiting Saudi Arabia is estimated to increase by 2% annually to 21.3m over the period 2013 – 2023. Revenues will total SAR 60.9bn ($16.4bn) by 2023 – due to an increase in the number of Hajj and Umrah tourists and growth of international shopping centres. To cope with the increasing number of visitors, the Saudi government has outlined a plan to invest more than $30bn in its airports by 2020, including $10bn in private investment for the sector. More than $12.5bn has already been earmarked for the country’s four main international airports in Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam and Madinah. These four airports handle 91.5% of total air travel throughout the country, including 72.5% of domestic travel.
Uber-luxury in the skies
Etihad Airways unveiled new luxury living space, which will be made available on its A380 aircraft and will include a living room, separate double bedroom and en- suite shower room as well as the attentions of a personal butler trained by the Savoy Butler Academy in London. Branded as The Residence by Etihad and located on the upper deck of the Airbus super jumbo, the private cabins will accommodate up to two people and are described as “the world’s most luxurious living space in the air”. The A380 will also feature the First Apartments, which are private suites with a separate reclining lounge seat and full-length bed, as well as a chilled mini-bar, personal vanity unit and wardrobe. The Abu Dhabi carrier has 10 A380s aircraft on order, with the first set to go into operation on 27 December this year.
The inaugural flight to London will contain 498 seats and the aircraft will be rolled out onto the New York, Melbourne and Sydney routes in due course. Each A380 will contain two 125 square foot residences, nine First Apartments and 70 Business Studios. The Residence by Etihad living spaces will be targeted at private jet customers and will be priced from $20,000 each way between Abu Dhabi and London.
It seems there are no limits to the luxury that is available to HNWIs but there is also a plethora of exciting travel experiences to suit all budgets and the region is expected to go from strength to strength in the coming years.
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