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Published in Opinion Pieces
Monday, 27 February 2017 14:13

Travel and tourism in the GCC region

By: Geet Bhalla, CEO & Co-founder, Holidayme.com


These are exciting times for the travel and tourism industry in the Middle East. Blurring of the lines between business and leisure travel, travellers becoming more adventurous in selecting destinations and embracing of simpler pleasures is the travel mantra in 2017. Newer destinations, millennials seeking authentic experiences, and personal enrichment are set to be the highlights of the travel and tourism industry in the days ahead.


Saudi Arabia all set to become a major tourism destination in the Gulf region

Saudi Arabia is witnessing massive investments and expansion projects in its attempt to attract larger number of tourists. Saudi Arabia’s travel and tourism sector is expected to contribute more than USD 81 billion to the country’s gross domestic product by 2026, the World Travel and Tourism Council reports. The country attracts plenty of foreign travellers — more than 18 million foreign travellers visited the country last year, the most in the Arab world. Meanwhile, domestic tourism is expected to grow by 7.4 percent per year to 66 million trips by 2020, according to a Colliers International report this month. The number of local tourist trips inside Saudi Arabia exceeded 47.5 million last year — a 2.3 percent rise compared to 2015.


The expansion of King Abdul Aziz International Airport, which is poised to accommodate up to 80 million travellers, by 2035, is a step in this regard. The number of people performing Hajj is also increasing by the year, and is estimated to increase to almost 17 million by 2025. The higher number of travellers has contributed to the development of the religious tourism industry in the kingdom.

According to the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 plan, entertainment industry and development of coastlines and historical sites — like Al Ula – is also high priority. Development of heritage sites like the 2,000-year-old ruins of Mada’in Saleh, a relic of the ancient civilization, is also on the radar.


All of this comes days after, Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), mentioned that Saudi Arabia will become “one of the biggest players” in the travel industry. This followed news of additional government investment in tourism totalling USD 800 million.


Destination preferences changing the luxury travel industry


On the luxury travel scene; the outbound market is witnessing changing trends for destination preferences. Unique destinations well-connected in aviation routes, halal food and a ‘safe’ destination is playing a major part in the decision making of the local travellers. The period from June to September is the main travel season for the GCC nationals. During these months, which coincide with school holidays and extreme summer heat, the outbound travel is high. The availability of Halal food and beverages, and cultural familiarity ranks high among GCC travellers. Halal food is the number one priority, but security, convenience and exciting experiences are all important, too.


Newer and offbeat destinations like Georgia, Armenia, Peru will lure tourists in 2017


Safety has become a major keyword - now with travellers concerned about their wellbeing at their choice of holiday destinations. Also, in this age of social media, finding an authentic, unique and new experience has suddenly become the numero uno concern of all holiday seekers. All of these have resulted in destinations like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Bosnia coming to the fore as they are cheaper, less touristy and most importantly offer a unique experience. Offbeat places like Myanmar in the East while Peru (of Macchu Picchu fame) in South America are gaining prominence as undiscovered gems. Colombia, Cuba are turning out be popular unconventional choices like Cyprus and Croatia are adding an element of fun and leisure at reasonable rates in Europe.


Multi-destination travel to European and Asian countries is in vogue


Multi-destination travel like Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in Southeast Asia while clubbing together of prominent destinations like UK, France and Belgium for a longer holiday has also emerged as a top trend for 2017. Also, sustainable tourism is set to get a leg-up after the United Nations declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.


All-inclusive online travel portals like HolidayMe will dominate bookings


From a customer perspective, the word to remember is “Online” … From research to booking to finalising the destinations with customisation; the new-age tech savvy travellers will let their smartphones do the talking. With the advent of travel portals providing online booking options with travel guides and blogs to aid their research, it is extremely possible that 2017 will see a landmark shift towards all-inclusive online booking platforms.


Also, instead of just booking flights and hotels, all-encompassing holiday packages are becoming mainstream. Online travel portals helping the customer plan their holidays seamlessly in advance with customisation will be in vogue. Travellers will prefer those who help them plan their holidays immaculately at each stage of the journey – flights, transfers, hotels, activities, experiences all at one go, providing a thorough platform for the customer.


Cheap flights and offbeat stays set to change the dynamics of the travel industry


Fixed hotel check out times are all set to leave the window with several portals making it comfortable for passengers to select alternative options of accommodation with ease. Also, record low oil prices and more competition from international carriers will result in cheaper flights this year. More low-cost carriers are poised to expand operations, resulting in good news for the air travellers.


UAE to host World Expo 2020 – 25 million visitors, 90 billion euros and more than 2,50,000 jobs


The UAE will host the World Expo, which is held once every five years for the duration of 3-6 months, in 2020. This is the first time the event is being hosted in the MENA region and is estimated to attract up to 25 million visitors, of which 70 per cent will be from outside the UAE.

In economic terms, it is expected to generate Dh 90billion or 18billion euros, and create over 277,000 jobs, over the period 2013-21, 90% of which would occur during 2018-21. The expo, therefore, would increase the current workforce of 1.3million by 20 per cent, and have a direct impact on the growth of sectors such as construction, real estate, travel and tourism, hospitality, and retail.


Dubai is set to see a record for the largest number of footfalls, in the history of the World Expo. The airlines industry will see heavy traffic, and additional arrangements will be made to handle the large number of visitors. The Travel and Tourism sector is estimated to generate 40 per cent of the total projected jobs during the ramp up to Expo 2020.  According to Euromonitor International, the hotel inventory is expected to double, from over 82,000 in 2013 to around 164,000 rooms by 2020.


The World Expo 2020 will attract many global players, and will raise service standards through competition and adoption of best practices, across various sectors. The Expo is a wonderful platform for the UAE and the GCC countries to showcase their potential, and fast track the development in the region.

Published in Opinion Pieces