With one billion travellers worldwide in 2012, it is no surprise that the Arabian Travel Market show (ATM), now in its 20th year, continues to prosper and grow, attracting visitors from across the world to this potentially lucrative market.

Highlights of the Arabian Travel Market (5-9 May) held in Dubai, included the UNWTO ministerial forum, addressing the issues of aviation and tourism, the launch of Dubai’s Vision 2020 tourism strategy and the influence of the Internet on travel patterns.

The UNTWO forum, entitled Tourism & Aviation: Building a common agenda for growth, focused on the need for synergy between the aviation and tourism sectors. Although, in principle, this would seem to exist, in reality there are issues that hamper development in both sectors. More than 25 ministers took part, sharing their views with delegates on how best to work together towards long term aviation and tourism sector growth.

Addressing the issue Taleb Rifai, UNWTO Secretary-General, stressed: “Tourism and aviation are siblings, working together in parallel lines. We cannot see them as separate from one another; with 52% of world travellers reaching their destination by air, their growth is intrinsically linked.”

Rifai then moved on to the thorny issue of visa facilitation, noting: “There are visa regimes still belonging to a century that has past. Despite the fact the UAE is leading the way in terms of opening up visa accessibility, the Middle East overall is still lagging behind, with 70% of people still requiring visas to enter the region, compared with 54% for Europe and 60% for the US.”

Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities reaffirmed the region’s geographical relevance to the tourism sector stating “The Arabian Peninsula has always been a crossroads for different civilisations. These days those roads are in the sky rather than on the ground, and the same role that Arabia has played in the past is now happening with airline networks.”

Helal Saeed Al Marri, director general at the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing of Dubai (DTCM) believes that first and foremost, in its efforts to foster tourism and look to the future, countries and cities of the Middle East region should be looking at adopting open skies policies. The development of airport, tourist attractions and hotels are important, the official noted, but the key is to allow airlines to fly without restrictions.

Lebanon’s Minister of Tourism, Fadi Abboud, candidly explained how the non-open skies policy applied by Lebanon has hampered the development of Lebanon as a regional destination, despite protecting its national carrier, MEA’s unique position in the country.

Other issues highlighted were the need to extend the principle of liberalisation to increasing numbers of countries and the opportunities for regional cooperation in the Middle East, particularly in terms of attracting long haul markets, as well as the importance of aligning tourism objectives with airline profitability.

Dubai Vision 2020 tourism plan underpins Expo bid with a new Tourism Vision 2020, the visitor target for Dubai in 2020 has been set at 20m. DTCM Director General Marri, indicated this total would be significantly enhanced should Dubai win its bid to host the World Expo 2020 – a decision due to be announced in November.

“In the past eight years, we have doubled the number of tourists and become the seventh most visited city globally … growth rates ahead are expected to at least match those achieved in past years and hopefully, even surpass them”, he said.

Some of Dubai’s recent achievements include claiming the number one position for international passenger traffic through its International Airport in the first quarter of 2013; a growth of 54% and 28% respectively in Russian and Chinese visitor numbers in 2012, and double digit growth in travellers to Dubai, to reach more than 10m for the first time in 2012.

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