Special report: How the GCC is poised to develop as a major destination market for global tourism
Now Reading
Special report: How the GCC is poised to develop as a major destination market for global tourism

Special report: How the GCC is poised to develop as a major destination market for global tourism

The region is building its infrastructure and programmes to transform into a major tourist destination over the next few decades

Heritage sites. Shopping havens. Sprawling hotels. Mountain resorts. Culinary smorgasbords.

The GCC has effectively – and with intent – altered the conversation around tourism. With luxe projects, desert landscapes and mega destinations either under development or already welcoming guests, the gravitas is slowly but surely shifting to the region, helping vault its profile among the top touristic destinations around the world.

“Gulf states are devoting increasing levels of attention to tourism in an ongoing effort to diversify their economies. In fact, GCC countries leverage multiple advantages to boost their tourism sector, including the region’s location, its connected infrastructure – developed after years of investment and underpinned by a strategic vision – the growing array of modern man-made attractions, such as the world’s tallest building, some of the world’s largest theme parks, a variety of international events and finally its exceptional natural and cultural assets such as heritage sites, intangible culture, one of the world’s largest deserts, a diverse range of coastal areas, diving spots, and island archipelagos, often with special geological and ecological features,” opines Georges Assy, partner, Public Sector at Kearney Middle East.

“Additionally, each GCC country has also leveraged a set of initiatives and levers to position itself as a ‘must-visit destination’. For example, Dubai used the combination of connectivity and top-notch infrastructure, local hospitality investments, multiple entertainment venues and internationally renowned events to put itself on the global tourism map. Saudi Arabia capitalised on its natural, cultural and spiritual assets, its unique positioning on the Red Sea and new mega development to boost its tourism sector. Oman has been gaining recognition and popularity for its efforts to capitalise on its unique geography, coastline, and cultural heritage, and last but not least, Bahrain gained global recognition for achievements such as hosting the first Formula 1 Grand Prix in the Middle East.”

UAE
For a country whose desert dunes served best as a movie backdrop, the UAE has come a long way in its economic transformation journey, positioning itself as an ideal tourism hotspot. Earmarking the sector as a priority point and offering a host of attractions, Dubai – synonymous with icons such as Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest tower) and The Dubai Mall (one of the world’s most visited malls) – announced its tourism strategy, targeting 25 million visitors annually by the year 2025.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic hammering the world, Dubai welcomed 6.02 million overnight visitors from January to November 2021, with the highest number of international guests arriving from India, according to the Department of Economy and Tourism. Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK and the US rounded off the top five source markets. The emirate is also hosting the largest event ever staged in the Arab world, Expo 2020 Dubai, which has clocked in close to 11 million visits just past its halfway mark. More recent additions to the emirate’s skyline include Ain Dubai, the world’s tallest observation wheel.

“The UAE has multiple projects planned to open in 2022, including but not limited to, the Pavilion at The Beach and the Museum of the Future. The UAE also aims to repurpose the Expo 2020 zone (after it closes in March) into a smart city focused on innovation and technology called District 2020,” adds Assy.

Simultaneously, Abu Dhabi is also carving out a growth course for itself, keen to increase the number of visitors.

“The newly-launched Tourism Strategy 2030 will mean our focus in 2022 is on the growth of leisure, MICE events and sports tourism, with the overall aim of attracting 23 million tourists annually by 2030, more than double the number of 2019,” explains Nabeel Al Zarouni, Travel Trade and Market Development Regional Section Head – Domestic and Middle East Region, Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).

“DCT Abu Dhabi is actively participating in international roadshows across the globe to raise awareness of Abu Dhabi as a leading leisure destination, while strongly supporting brands and businesses that wish to host MICE events in the city. For event planners, organisers and venues, the Abu Dhabi Convention and Exhibition Bureau (ADCEB), under DCT Abu Dhabi, has pioneered the ‘Advantage Abu Dhabi’ programme, increasing the overall value proposition of the destination by providing an array of support throughout the event-planning cycle, including financial aid.”

Abu Dhabi is home to a unique and diverse environmental offering, with desert landscapes, island ecosystems, abundant marine life and protected mangrove fields, adds Al Zarouni. While the city is developing its eco-tourism sector, sustainability is essential to Abu Dhabi and preserving and enhancing its natural environments.

“DCT Abu Dhabi has developed several sustainable eco-tourism initiatives, including Al Reem Mangroves preservation project for the protection of valuable mangroves of Abu Dhabi; Jubail Mangrove Park, an educational, research and leisure destination; Jebel Hafit [which] provides a safe path for visitors, hikers and cyclists to enjoy views from the mountains, and the Sweihan Desert area – a haven for desert lovers and campers; exquisite marine protected areas; and The Hawksbill Turtle Conservation Programme.”

Ras Al Khaimah, meanwhile, also aims to attract 3 million visitors per year by 2030.

“From cultural escapes to eco-tourism and adrenaline-fuelled adventures to beach retreats, Ras Al Khaimah appeals to a wide range of interests,” notes Raki Phillips, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority. “[Its] attractions include the world’s first Bear Grylls Explorers Camp, the world’s first branded accommodation, as well as the highest restaurant in the UAE – 1484 by Puro. The emirate is also popular for its attractions such as the Jebel Jais Flight: The World’s Longest Zipline and Jais Sky Tour with many more attractions to open in 2022, such as Jais Sledder, the region’s longest toboggan ride that runs a length of 1,840 meters.”

Phillips notes that they have been working closely with EarthCheck, global environmental experts, to co-create and implement sustainable practices that address key sustainability and climate change issues facing the tourism industry.

“Our initiatives include increased recycling, reduced food wastages, decreased waste and energy consumption, green procurement and cleanups at our tourist hotspots. We’ve also announced and started working on 20 sustainable tourism developments across the emirate, especially on Jebel Jais where our projects have been designed to not just protect the mountain ecosystem, but to enhance it.”

Saudi Arabia
High among the kingdom’s priorities to tip the scales firmly towards a diversified economy is the revamp of the country’s tourism landscape. The kingdom showcased its intent to rake in broader foreign interest when the kingdom rolled out its international tourism e-visa in September 2019, following a massive global marketing campaign.

Among the high-profile development projects touted to change the tourism landscape are the Red Sea Project – a sustainable development initiative spread across 28,000 sq km, with its own airport, ultra-luxury hotels and resorts (for size, that’s a little smaller than Belgium). Upon completion in 2030, the tourism destination will comprise 50 resorts, offering up to 8,000 hotel rooms and approximately 1,000 residential properties across 22 islands and six inland sites. AMAALA, the 4,155 sq km destination will include 2,800 hotel keys and more than 900 private residential villas, apartments and estate homes.

“The Red Sea Project and AMAALA provide a gateway to a new frontier in tourism. Both destinations deliver an exceptional barefoot luxury experience that is not only unprecedented in Saudi Arabia, but the wider region,” adds John Pagano, CEO at The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC). “The kingdom has an extraordinary vision to develop the tourism and hospitality sector with a goal to attract 100 million local and international visitors annually by 2030, and giga-projects such as The Red Sea Project and AMAALA are pivotal to this vision. TRSDC is also vital to the creation, training and capacity-building of the present and next generation of Saudi talent through the creation of 120,000 direct and indirect jobs across both current projects by 2030.”

“In addition, our ambitious regenerative tourism projects are paving the way for renewed sustainable practices within the tourism industry, setting new standards as we progress. We will be leaving 75 per cent of The Red Sea Project’s islands untouched, for example, and only less than one per cent of the site will be developed – unprecedented in any documented coastal development plan in the world.”

Other eye-catching initiatives include NEOM, the $500bn 10,000-square-mile futuristic city in northwest Saudi Arabia, which is being curated as an incubator for cutting-edge technology. Other tourism projects include the Soudah Development as well as the AlUla project. The masterplan ‘The Journey Through Time’ to sustainably develop the historical area of AlUla, will be implemented in three phases until 2035 and upon completion, aims to deliver 38,000 new jobs and contribute SAR120bn to the kingdom’s GDP. Meanwhile, Boutique Group, a new hospitality brand, which will convert the kingdom’s historic and cultural palaces into ultra-luxury boutique hotels, was launched last month.

Other GCC markets
With their economies undergoing economic transformation, other GCC countries are also filling up a promising canvas. Besides playing host to the FIFA World Cup later this year, Qatar is keen to welcome visitors from all over the globe. In 2021, Qatar Tourism launched its promotional campaign targeting 17 visitor source markets. The campaign is part of a strategy to increase tourism’s contribution to the GDP to 10 per cent by 2030, as well as attract six million visitors. Qatar Tourism also announced the launch of a two-year ‘World Class Chefs’ project, to host renowned chefs from around the world.

“Qatar is currently fully focused on the FIFA 2022 World cup. The region is expected to attract a significant inflow of visitors into the countries, thereby boosting the hospitality and tourism industry. In fact, Qatar is adding 105 new hotels to its already large portfolio of properties, as the country gears up to host the World Cup. The new properties include Banyan Tree, Pullman West Bay and JW Marriott West Bay,” says Assy.

Bahrain, meanwhile, aims to attract 14.1 million tourists by 2026, as part of a new strategy to diversify its economy. By 2026, the kingdom aims to increase the average daily visitor spend to BHD74.8 ($198) and raise a tourist’s stay on average to 3.5 days. The tourism strategy depends on seven key pillars: developing marine attractions, business tourism, sports tourism, recreational tourism, medical tourism, cultural tourism, and media tourism and cinematography.

Oman also aims to bolster its tourism landscape. The Oman Tourism Development Company (Omran Group) partnered with Dubai’s Diamond Developers for the $1bn first phase of the Yiti Tourism masterplan, which will focus on constructing a sustainable mixed-use project in the sultanate.

Meanwhile, Kuwait’s Touristic Enterprises Company revealed its new strategy last year with redevelopment plans for 11 projects, following Kuwait Investment Authority’s approval of a KD250m capital increase.

Going forward

With an ever-growing impetus for sustainable choices, a penchant for immersive experiences and a landmark shift in consumer preferences, tourism will continue to evolve, with the modern traveller seeking more than just a hotel check-in and city tours.

Kearney Middle East’s Assy notes: “Modern tourism has undergone an awakening and strong shift in preferences. For instance, travellers are increasingly seeking meaningful, transformative, and immersive experiences to reinvent themselves – 72 per cent of millennials prefer spending more money on unique experiences rather than on material things.”

Pagano builds on it: “We see environmental consciousness and responsible tourism as a significant consumer preference. In fact, a survey by the World Travel and Tourism Council and Trip.com Group revealed that 83 per cent of respondents believe sustainability to be a top travel priority. Social impact is a key factor within the tourism industry, as travellers are becoming more self-aware of their impact on the communities they visit. We are also witnessing an immense increase of technology in the travel lifecycle. Innovative technology, when applied to the tourism industry, translates into smart services that create a seamless travel experience and enhance comfort throughout the entirety of any trip.”

Meanwhile, Phillips adds that they have seen a tremendous change in consumer behaviour across most markets with visitors looking to take longer holidays in one destination to explore new places and the diversity of a destination becoming a new area of interest. “We’ve also seen that consumers are becoming more mindful of sustainability and travelling in a responsible manner.”

With the arrival of the modern traveller embracing a renewed set of priorities, a new sense of travel is manifesting, pushing the region to espouse a dynamic touristic era – for which it appears well ready.

You might also like

© 2021 MOTIVATE MEDIA GROUP. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Scroll To Top