An Industry In Transit?
Gulf Business|Gulf Business April 2018

The GCC’s travel and tourism industry is continually in flux, and set for some big changes in the coming months. We find out how industry players are faring in the current climate, and how confident they feel as Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular look to boost the region’s travel market

Neil King

WHEN SAUDI ARABIA announced plans to carve a reputation as a tourism hotspot earlier this year, the shape of the GCC’s travel and tourism industry took on a new and intriguing design, adding a fresh and largely unexpected element to an already ambitious blueprint.

Under the wide-reaching Vision 2030 – designed to position the kingdom’s economy away from a dependency on oil – Saudi Arabia aims to develop a tourism market to rival any other across the world; bold plans given its history as a largely closed destination for visitors, complete with visa restrictions and a distinct lack of obvious tourist attractions.

But since the launch of a new 30-day general tourist visa (also available to single women), a pledge of $49bn for tourism projects per year until 2020, and the unveiling of plans to both cultivate existing potential tourist sites and build new ones, prospects have increased dramatically. All added to the growth of the country's religious tourism through Hajj and Umrah.

In launching these plans, Saudi Arabia joins other GCC members in seeking to make the most of the region’s tourism appeal.

Dubai’s long-standing ambitions to attract 20 million visitors by 2020 appears to be firmly on track, while the UAE’s capital continues to boost its attractiveness with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, among other attractions, and Ras Al Khaimah solidifies its reputation as an outdoor pursuits hub.

The new Muscat International Airport is a signal of Oman’s intentions, with capacity to handle more than 20 million passengers per year, and plans to increase capacity to 48 million passengers in the future.

Without doubt, exciting plans are afoot for the future; but for businesses operating in the present, travel and tourism is already proving a thriving sector, with steady growth in recent months.

“In the past two years we have seen a constant level of progression for both inbound and outbound visitor growth,” says Muhammad Chbib, founder and CEO of Dubai-based online travel agency for Middle Eastern travelers, tajawal.

“For example, in 2016-2017 we experienced a 300 per cent sales increase, and we expect it to gain even further momentum in the next few years. This year we projected sales growth of nearly 100 per cent, and at this point we are looking on target to supersede this.”

Mais AlNuaimi, co-founder and CEO of fellow Dubai boutique travel agency Mundana, agrees; adding that people’s shifting approach to travel is helping to keep the sector strong. “The sector is buoyant at present,” she says. “We are seeing a similar volume of travelers, though our customers are much more value-driven than before. At the same time, when it comes to price, suppliers are offering a more competitive product. Acting as the middle-man, it is Mundana’s job to match the two, and as such we are as busy as ever.

“Attitudes to travel are changing. Where once a holiday was seen as a luxury, it is now viewed as a necessary part of annual household expenditure – both as a stress buster and an educational experience.”

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