Arabian Travel Market: UAE looks to mix culture, adventure and tradition to draw in millions more visitors

'It's no longer just about shopping and looking at tall buildings' says one hotel boss

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The UAE plans to bring millions more tourists into the country in the next five years, promoting adventure tourism alongside culture and tradition in its cities, deserts and mountains.

Hotel groups and travel agents on Sunday set out plans on the opening day of Arabian Travel Market (ATM) to draw in China's huge middle class, Russia's aspiring globetrotters and more of the millions of Europeans who visit every year.

Mid-price hotels charging less than Dh550 ($150) per night or less are crucial, travel experts said, as is “offering more than just shopping and looking at tall buildings”.

Last month Colliers International, ATM's research partner, estimated that 8.3 million visitors from Europe will visit the GCC by 2023 - 1.9 million more than in 2018. The bulk of that will be in the UAE, with a forecast 6.15 million.

“You simply cannot expect to do mass tourism by only offering people seven-star hotels,” said Tim Cordon, Middle East senior area vice president for the Radisson hotel group.

“It needs to be competitive and we have seen that recently with the average cost of a hotel room in Dubai staying around the Dh550 mark."

That compares to 2014 when the average daily rate was Dh882, according to consultancy STR Global.

Dubai - which is the fourth most visited city in the world after Paris, London and Bangkok at number one - has set a target of 20 million visitors by 2020, which would require a significant increase from 2018 when 15.9 million visited. It has been said Expo 2020 Dubai will bring that boost.

Sheikh Hamdan last year set a goal of 25 million visitors by 2025, hoping to unseat the three rivals.

You simply cannot expect to do mass tourism by only offering people seven-star hotels

“If any other city in the world was trying to achieve these numbers you just wouldn’t think it was possible,” said Mark Willis, chief executive officer of the Accor Hotel group for the Middle East and Africa region.

“However, this is Dubai where anything is possible.”

Arabian Travel Market is taking place this week Dubai's World Trade Centre.

More than 39,000 travel professionals, government ministers and international media are attending.

Dubai received 15.92 million visitors in 2018 with India being the top source market with more than 2 million visitors.

Saudi Arabia was the second most popular market for tourism in Dubai with 1.6 million visitors, followed by the UK (1.2 million) and China (857,000), which climbed up to fourth spot thanks to a 12 per cent year on year increase.

The largest percentage increase in visitors came from Russia (678,000) - a 28 per cent year-on-year rise.

Mr Willis said the recent $3.4 billion trade deal between the UAE and China was only going to help increase the number of visitors to this region.

“Europe and Russia have always been fantastic markets for Dubai and that is not going to change,” he said.

“China however stands out. The agreement the UAE signed with China is only going to increase the level of visitors from there to this region.”

The other emirates have a key role to play in the 25 million by 2025 target, said managing director of travel website

“It is very feasible that Dubai will reach this number and part of that is down to the diversification of the other emirates,” said Mamoun Hmedan.

“While people still associate Dubai with being a shopping destination, Sharjah is seen as offering a more authentic Arabic experience while Ras Al Khaimah is seen as an adventure destination.

“It’s no longer just about going shopping or looking at the tallest buildings.”

Leander De Wit, Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi general manager, said there had been a clearer strategy in recent years to draw in more visitors to the country.

“That is starting to pay off and while I think the locations where visitors are coming from won’t change, the numbers will certainly expand especially among younger people.”