“It's one of those planks in the travel arsenal that will be greater than the sum of its parts,” Paul Griffiths, chief executive of state-owned Dubai Airports, told The National on the sidelines of the World Travel and Tourism Council's global summit in Rwanda.
“The development of tourism in other countries in the Middle East will make the whole region more attractive and encourage more businesses.”
The head of the world's busiest airport by international traffic said he was often asked about competition from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which is developing big tourism projects and building a new airport in Riyadh.
However, he pointed to the evolution of tourism in Europe where travellers often visit several cities within the continent during a single trip.
“The Middle East also has a multiplicity of different things to see or do … the difficulty, of course, is that tourism in the Middle East is nowhere near its potential compared to tourism in Europe,” Mr Griffiths said.
“And the more places in the Middle East that can be added to the 'must-sees' on the tourism map, the better it will be for every single nation within the GCC.”
The more cities there are on the tourism map that encourage people to visit the Middle East, the better the perceptions that people will have of the region, he added.
Plans for a single unified tourist visa system are being developed with the aim of simplifying travel within the GCC and boosting tourism. The new system is scheduled to be introduced between 2024 and 2025.
The move is a big part of the GCC 2030 tourism strategy, which is aimed at increasing the sector's economic contribution through increased regional travel and higher hotel occupancy rates.
It intends to boost the number of visitors to GCC countries to 128.7 million visitors by 2030. That is up from 39.8 million last year, which was an increase of 136.6 per cent compared with 2021.
The new programme is expected to be a game-changer for the region, according to hospitality and tourism experts.
There is an untapped market for tourism in the GCC bloc, with many travellers put off by visa restrictions that made reaching some nations difficult, they said.
Dubai International Airport raised its full-year 2023 passenger forecast in August to 85 million, from an earlier projection of 83.6 million, and is inching towards its pre-coronavirus levels.
“Every time we've revised our forecasts through the year, we've had to revise them in the upward direction, which means that we've exceeded our forecasts at every level,” Mr Griffiths said.
“If things continue to go well, I am hopeful that by the end of the year we may be close to our original pre-pandemic numbers.”
The hub recorded 86.4 million travellers in 2019.
The emirate is expected to host a flurry of global events in the coming weeks that are expected to attract an influx of international visitors to the city.
These include the Dubai Airshow on November 13, the International Civil Aviation Organisation's Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels on November 20 and the Cop28 UN climate summit at the end of the month.
Chinese travellers are also starting to come back to Dubai, although not yet in full force.
“We're starting to see really encouraging signs that they will be back in strong numbers,” Mr Griffiths said.
He could not provide a timetable for their return to pre-Covid levels as the recovery of Asian markets has been “sluggish and they've not performed as we had really wanted”.
Unified standards on sustainable travel
Asked about the impact of the Israel-Gaza war, that has raged on for nearly a month, on the airport's traffic, Mr Griffiths said: “The situation in a few parts of the world at the moment is obviously very serious and we don't want to take anything away from the human suffering, but I would say that Dubai seems to be a place where we're incredibly resilient and traffic flows always seem to hold up.”
Dubai International Airport is connected to 255 destinations in 104 countries and serves 90 international airlines.
“Because of the huge volumes that come through from so many parts of the world, if one traffic flow is slightly depressed, then it seems to be compensated by another area,” Mr Griffiths said.
The war is undermining tourism across the Levant at the start of the high season, which runs from October to late May.
Brent, the benchmark for two thirds of the world’s oil, has given up most gains since October 7 when Hamas, which rules Gaza, attacked southern Israel, killing about 1,400 people and taking more than 200 hostages.
Concerns are mounting about longer-term travel demand as households wrestle with inflation and rising interest rates, and as geopolitical tension, particularly in the Middle East, has started to deter some travellers.
However, Dubai International Airport is optimistic about travel demand holding up.
“Nothing flies off the shelves quicker than if you put 'limited edition' on it and, unfortunately, the pandemic put 'limited edition' on every airline ticket, so when we were able to open up connectivity to the world again, everyone just said 'get me on a plane'," Mr Griffiths said.
The removal of Covid-related curbs on international travel allowed people to release their pent-up desire to visit new countries, a trend known as revenge travel.
“I don't think revenge travel has exhausted itself yet … the propensity to travel is alive and well, and we're seeing the results of that,” he said.
“Traffic growth is very much order of the day, so the DXB hub has never been in greater shape.”
The airport executive was speaking during the WTTC's annual gathering of industry officials where the issue of urgent climate action and measures for sustainable travel and tourism were the dominant themes at this year's discussions.
Mr Griffiths emphasised that the global aviation industry should tackle climate action with the same stringent and harmonised approach it takes towards safety regulations.
“People have a right to expect that all measures are taken to ensure the safety of every journey,” he said.
“The same attitude that we apply to aviation safety should be applied to sustainability, because you could argue that failure to deal with it in an intelligent manner can lead to an equally dramatic result.”
The aviation industry must work with governments in partnership to address decarbonisation efforts “because what you cannot have is a playing field where some parts of the supply chain conform and others don't”, Mr Griffiths said.
Just as aviation safety rules have been adopted by regulatory bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation as a common standard globally, the same approach needs to be applied to environmental sustainability.
“We need to get to a common standard of what environmental responsibility looks like so that we all know what we're enforcing – until we get to that, it will be difficult,” he said, pointing to the numerous carbon dioxide reduction initiatives.
“This is a problem for the entire planet and it needs a global solution that we can all work collaboratively towards. We can't have different schemes that conflict with other schemes … we all have a duty of care to decarbonise whatever activity we're engaged in at the fastest possible rates,” Mr Griffiths said.