'Too big to fail': Gulf travel sector remains resilient in face of regional unrest

Arabian Travel Market hears the industry is looking to the future with optimism despite the war in Gaza and Red Sea crisis

Tourist attractions such as Petra in Jordan are being tipped to bounce back after being affected by unrest in the region. AFP
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Industry experts have backed a resilient Gulf tourism sector to reach new heights, even as the sector grapples with regional challenges.

The arrival of a much-anticipated unified GCC tourism visa and an expanding regional rail network are fuelling the belief that the Middle East can rival Europe for connectivity and ease of travel

The wider effect of the war in Gaza and Red Sea shipping attacks has been felt across the region’s tourism sector.

But as with other setbacks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry is braced to bounce back strongly and attract more tourists.

Occupancy rates for hotels in Jordan were down in the first quarter of 2024, with local reports stating reservations were expected at around 25-32 per cent in Amman, 18-20 per cent in the Dead Sea and less than 10 per cent in Petra.

Rail could be the point-to-point connectivity that we need. It could be a cabin cruise, or it could be a desert cruise
Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority

In Egypt, the 3.6 million visitors recorded from October to December last year were 600,000 below the expected 4.2 million, the numbers picked up in early 2024.

According to the Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism, the UAE has retained confidence from world travellers, despite regional instability.

From January to March, Dubai welcomed 5.18 million overnight visitors, an 11 per cent increase on last year's numbers.

Speaking at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, Haitham Mattar, managing director in the Middle East, Africa and South-West Asia, for IHG Hotels and Resorts, said the travel industry was proving its durability.

“Our industry has been through a lot, from foot-and-mouth disease to volcanic ash cloud, Sars and the financial crisis of 2008,” he said.

“But the only thing that brought the industry down to its knees was Covid.

“We have realised hospitality and tourism in general is too big to fail.

“The resilience of this industry is what makes it stand back on its feet, along with the togetherness, where airlines, tour operators, travel agents, governments and hotels all come together during very difficult times to keep this industry together.”

GCC travel visa crucial to growth

With connections to 255 destinations in 104 countries and serving 90 international airlines, Dubai International Airport is the linchpin of regional travel.

Collaboration between GCC nations via a regional travel visa aims to make it even easier for tourists to discover more of the Middle East.

With Bahrain already operating a new airport and exhibition centre, and new airports planned for Riyadh and Dubai – ease of movement within the bloc is seen as crucial to bring a wider regional benefit from tourism and hospitality.

Scheduled to be in place by the end of the year or early 2025, a GCC-wide travel visa is a crucial element of the GCC’s 2030 tourism strategy that aims to increase visitor numbers to 128.7 million by the end of the decade.

Last year, 39.8 million tourists were attracted to the region, an increase of 136.6 per cent from 2021.

“As we see the region growing, we see a lot of potential,” said Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority.

“One of the vital sectors is tourism.

“Business travellers play a major role in contributing to this and create many potential opportunities for businesses to come and establish here in this part of the world.

“The unified tourism visa will play a major role in streamlining and making it much easier for people to travel from one country to another.

“We have the hotels, the venues, the airlines, the airports and the expansion.

“So it makes sense to have more accessible destinations within the GCC countries, and I think it will be really good for everyone.”

UAE aims to double visitor numbers

The UAE is hoping to double the number of visitors to 40 million by 2031, and is on track to increase jobs in the tourism sector from 809,000 last year to 833,000 in 2024, experts said.

A recent alliance in the cruise industry between Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Oman is an example of collaboration that could extend across the wider region.

Unveiled at the ITB Berlin travel trade show, the Cruise Arabia Alliance aims to promote multi-country holidays in the Gulf.

In Saudi Arabia, an ambition to attract 150 million visitors by 2030, could be bolstered by the development of a regional rail network offering similar services to the cruise industry, according to officials.

“The best indicator for future performance is fast performance,” said Fahd Hamidaddin, chief executive of the Saudi Tourism Authority.

“In the last year, we have adopted a new travel visa to all residents in the GCC because we trust the security measures, and we share standardised information sharing platforms among governments.

“Having a railway system that connects (the region) would also be a game changer.

“Rail could be the point-to-point connectivity that we need. It could be a cabin cruise, or it could be a desert cruise.

“It's an opportunity to reimagine what a rail network can provide, connecting us to other cities within Saudi, and extending across the GCC.

“If it is a desert cruise rather than just a connectivity of point-to-point travel, it becomes as much about the journey, as the destination.”

Updated: May 08, 2024, 6:50 AM