How the Middle East is updating its vision for cultural tourists

We find out how the region is adapting to cultural tourism’s latest demands.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is one of the UAE’s popular cultural attractions. Reem Mohammed / The National
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Tourists are seeking more meaningful travel experiences, leading to an increase in demand for cultural tourism, according to industry leaders at the Arabian Travel ­Market in Dubai last week.

Through her company Wander with Nada, Nada Badran, one of the panellists at a discussion on the topic, offers walking tours around Dubai’s lesser-known sites. She believes visitors want to immerse themselves in a destination’s environment and connect with the unfamiliar.

“People have grown tired of the typical cookie-cutter travel experiences,” she says. “These limit interactions with local people to over-the-counter ticket moments. With the advent of globalisation, travellers have become more culturally curious. They are looking for more meaningful relationships and greater engagement.”

Arva Ahmed, another panellist and founder of Dubai-based Frying Pan Tourism, agrees. “The world is so connected now,” she says. “People are writing about destinations we’d never previously heard of and tourists want to experience them.

“You also see TV personalities going to far-flung places and meeting locals. It’s all over Instagram – people see it and are swayed by it.”

Frying Pan Tourism offers culinary tours around Dubai emirate. Starting with two to three tours per week when it launched in 2013, the company now runs nearly three times that amount during peak winter months. “In ­Ramadan, we’ll take people to a secret, unseen iftar,” she says. “Not one of the lavish buffets in a five-star hotel, but a simple affair serving 3,000 workers. We’ll peel back the commercial layers and show how humble Dubai residents can be.”

Cultural tourism encompasses many different elements. For Badran, it doesn’t simply mean museums and archaeological sites, but more-­contemporary and less-tangible things, too. “It can cover food, festivals, dance and modern art,” she says. “In the UAE, it’s not just about the early pearl trade.”

Helping to meet the demand for cultural experiences, the US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) Dubai Opera opened last year. Staging major international shows, the venue also hosts traditional Arab performers. Etihad Museum, which tells the story of the birth of the UAE, opened in January. This will be joined by the Museum of the Future this year and Mohammed bin Rashid Library next year.

One of Abu Dhabi’s most-visited cultural attractions is Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where people can learn about Islam, while Saadiyat Island will be home to the Louvre, Guggenheim and Zayed National Museum by 2020.

It’s not just the capital and neighbouring Dubai that recognise the rise in demand for cultural experiences. Sharjah is restoring its traditional heritage areas to reflect what life was like more than half a century ago. The Heart of ­Sharjah development, off Corniche Street, is home to souqs, galleries and diverse museums.


The Heart of Sharjah is among one of the UAE’s popular cultural attractions. Christopher Pike / The National

Likewise, in Ras Al Khaimah visitors can go on Bedouin camping tours and experience life as part of a desert tribe. They can also see camel racing, falconry and horse riding, which are still a key part of local life.

According to Haitham Mattar, chief executive of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism ­Development Authority, cultural exploration is one of the emirate’s biggest markets. “Alongside active adventurers and wellness seekers, cultural tourists form one of our three key target markets,” he says. “Nearly a quarter of our international visitors go to our museums and historic sites.

“Our goal, as we move towards achieving one million visitors by the end of 2018, is to increase this percentage.”

Revenue from cultural tourism can be reinvested in the restoration and expansion of sites, boosting the local economy and employment levels. In many instances, the knock-on effect can be felt on a national and regional scale.

In Jordan, cultural tourism forms the backbone of the economy, as Michael Nugent, regional director at ­Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, explains. “It’s the country’s key card. Nations that don’t have an oil-driven economy have to focus their energy on tourism. Jordan has done that extremely well.

“As a result, cultural tourism is sustaining communities and it’s employing youth, which is massively important in this region as it brings stability. Petra has the potential for high unemployment, but because it’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, unemployment has reduced. The local economy, while still tough, has been able to sustain itself over the last four to five years despite unrest in Syria.”


The historical site of Petra, which has become a major draw for cultural tourists in Jordan. Olivia ZZ / Getty Images

In addition to tour operators and tourist boards, hotels are also increasing their cultural offering. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts runs a series of experiences that give guests access to something culturally unique within that country. In Cairo, there’s an after-hours tour around the Egyptian Museum guided by former minister of antiquities and renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass – a man most recently in the news for a bizarre verbal spat with superstar footballer Lionel Messi.

“We call it A Night at The Museum,” says Simon P Casson, Four Seasons’ ­Europe, Middle East and Africa president. “The doors open only for our guests. They can see thousands of objects that span 5,000 years of ­Egyptian history including Tutankhamun’s gold death mask. At the end, there’s dinner for two in the museum’s garden.”

The group’s newest experience was launched this month in Saudi Arabia. The tour includes a visit to the historic city of Diriyah, a Unesco World ­Heritage Site and former home of the Saudi royal family, followed by a majlis-style lunch at the Tuwaiq Escarpment, 180 kilometres north-east of Riyadh.

“The escarpment is untouched,” Four Seasons Riyadh’s general manager Rolf Lippuner says. “It has a stunning view of the valley below. It used to be part of the ocean. Even today, you can find pieces of coral on the surface.”

A microlight flight and a sunset stop at Acacia Valley are also included.

“People don’t see Riyadh as an exceptional place to visit,” Lippuner says, “but it is. Generally, Saudi Arabia doesn’t receive the press it deserves. The experience is one way to help change ­perceptions.”

According to research from Colliers International, the country is set to invest up to $2bn in cultural tourism as part of Saudi Vision 2030. Under the vision, the number of museums will increase from 155 to 241 and the number of Unesco World Heritage Sites will rise from four to 10.

“There is vast potential for tourism in the region,” says Hossam Kamal, general manager of Oman’s Salalah Rotana ­Resort. “Lifestyle travel, in terms of shopping and entertainment, will continue to be a driver, especially for destinations such as Dubai. The Fifa World Cup, coming to Doha in 2022, will open doors for sports tourism, while Oman has a strong culture- and nature-based offering.”

In 2015, Oman pledged investments of $2.5bn for the Omagine Project, a 99-hectare mixed-use development, which integrates cultural, educational, entertainment and residential elements.

Its completion will add to Oman’s growing cultural tourism sector. This includes 18 museums, four Unesco World ­Heritage Sites, the Royal Opera House Muscat and Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.