GCC: Tourism Trendsetter

/ New Delhi
GCC: Tourism Trendsetter

Expo2020 opened the doors of world travel

As global tourism revives, the GCC countries find themselves at the centre of the action, with a long list of global events that are being organised there. Not just the events, the GCC is also powering investment in tourism, a sector that has been battered by the pandemic.
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Expo2020, ATM 2022, IIFA Awards 2022 and FIFA World Cup 2022. The list is attractive enough to make any tourism board go salivating over the prospects of receiving hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of tourists from all over the world and especially as all the events come bunched close together in the span of under a year.

Even if the events, all of them global in their appeal, were to take place in different parts of the world, it would have been a boost for a tourism industry that is desperate to see a large-scale revival. But the fact is that all the above events are set within the compact zone that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries represent.

In mid-2021, amidst the comings and goings of various waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, most travel and tourism professionals around the world expected that the return to normalcy in their business would be driven by their key markets, notably China and parts of Asia, with perhaps some push coming in from the United States. After all, China had been the pillar of many a tourism driven economy, in Europe and Asia alike, for years and the numbers from Japan and South Korea may have been smaller, but they were high-value markets.

Fast forward to mid-2022. China remains under a strict lockdown, with city after city battling surprising returns of Covid-19 waves, while Japan and South Korea have only now begun to take baby steps towards letting their citizens fly out or let a limited number of foreigners come to their countries, with strict controls.

But yet, the world of tourism has been gathering pace and accelerating towards normalcy, with almost all of the action occurring a few thousand km east of China, in the GCC nations, most notably the United Arab Emirates, and with Dubai being in the driver’s seat.

(left) ATM 2022 expects a full house (right) 23 million people visited Expo2020

(Left) ATM 2022 expects a full house (Right) 23 million people visited Expo2020

Tourism professionals believe this is mainly due to the vision of the local leadership which invested heavily in creating the infrastructure and taken bold decisions even while the rest of the world was cautious. “Through Expo 2020 Dubai, the UAE has proved that it is possible to deliver an unforgettable event in a safe manner without compromising on the visitor experience. This represents an incredibly useful blueprint for our sector, and we cannot wait to demonstrate why the Middle East’s tourism industry represents such an attractive proposition for global visitors and investors during ATM 2022,’’ Danielle Curtis, exhibition director of ATM, tells India Outbound.

Bold leadership pays off

Indeed, way back in early 2021, even as the rest of the world, or perhaps the entire world, was battling the pandemic and tourism was anything but their priority, Dubai had taken the rather bold decision to go ahead with the Expo2020 from October 1, 2021. The doubters were many, with international air travel literally grounded due to travel restrictions imposed by governments all over the world in place.

Thus, when it opened its doors to visitors on October 1, 2021, many parts of the world were still battling Covid-19 and its numerous variants and many doubters wondered about the wisdom of unveiling a gathering at a scale that world had rarely seen, if ever.

Yet, the organisers of Expo2020 Dubai and the rulers of the tiny Emirate, the most glamorous of the seven that make the United Arab Emirates, went ahead with the inauguration, though with numerous checks and balances in an attempt to keep the pandemic out of the mini-city which had been specially created in the midst of the desert to be home to the Expo2020.

Expo 2020 was originally scheduled to be held from October 20, 2020 to April 10, 2021, but due to the pandemic outbreak, it was postponed and held from October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022. With over USD 7 billion in investment and 240 million hours of labour, the Expo saw over 30,000 events spread over the six months of festivities.

The Expo displayed works and pavilions from 192 countries under the theme of Connecting Minds, Creating the Future. It was aimed at inspiring people via three more sub-themes Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.

Dubai: Dream Destination

Dubai: Dream Destination

The Expo2020 Dubai turned out to be the best and biggest Expo organised so far. At the end of six months, it attracted over 23 million visitors, with a large chunk of visitors recorded during December-March. Not just with the in-person visits, the expo had also conquered the virtual world, with over 197 million online visits registered.

To keep the visitors attracted, the Expo organisers had lined up a series of events with world’s biggest names in music for specially curated concerts. At the concluding ceremony, for instance, Grammy award winning cellist Yo-Yo, Grammy award winning German singer Nora Jones and pop singer Christina Aguilera were some of the performers.

Expo2020 paves road to recovery

The immensely successful conduct of the Expo 2020 has clearly left most of the world, especially the tourism professionals, highly impressed. It has also paved the road to recovery of the travel and tourism industry as is indicated by the line-up of large-scale, global events, many of which were cancelled, delayed or cut down in size during the pandemic.

And the GCC nations, especially Dubai, continue to be the torchbearers for the rest of the world. So, on May 9 when Arabian Travel Market 2022 opens, it will be the first global-scale travel event to be held post pandemic and it is no mere coincidence that it is also happening in Dubai. “Thanks to a combination of world-class international travel links, an unparalleled hospitality sector, incredible venues and attractions, and sustained investment in public transport and infrastructure, the GCC now represents an undeniably appealing prospect for the global events sector. Expo 2020 Dubai, FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and other high-profile events such as Formula 1 Grands Prix in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE provide further proof of this region’s ability to host the world,’’ says Curtis of ATM.

ATM 2022 does not show any signs of suffering due to Covid-19 pandemic. It will have 1,500 exhibitors as well as representatives from 112 destinations. The organisers also say that they expect over 20,000 visitors, making it one of the most exciting editions of the 29-year history of ATM.

Boosting the prospects of a highly exciting ATM 2022 and with lucrative deals being up for taking are a bunch of developments and reports that have been dominating the boardroom discussions in the region and beyond. One is the ongoing preparations for the FIFA World Football Cup that will commence in November in Qatar, the first time that world’s top tournament in any sport comes to the Middle East. The other big talking point at ATM is linked to FIFA, but also goes beyond that. The numerous large-scale, almost giga-sized investments that are occurring in tourism and hospitality industries all over the GCC.

In the starting block here is Saudi Arabia, which has been undergoing a revolution never seen in any tourism industry anywhere in the world. With tourism being one of the key focus areas of the Vision 2030, the document for the decade prepared by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is also de-facto ruler of the Kingdom. As part of his attempt to wean Saudi economy off its overdependence on oil, MBS has targetted large-scale diversification and here tourism is a key. He has set an objective of raising tourism’s contribution to the Saudi GDP from the current 3 pc to 10 pc by 2030.

Thus, the Kingdom will see creation of a record 500,000 hotel rooms in the next eight years as well as numerous ports, theme parks and other tourism infrastructure, besides upgradation of the existing infrastructure. Little wonder then, practically every major tourism-related company has made a beeline to Saudi Arabia in order to grab a slice of the luscious, once-in-a-lifetime pie that Saudi Arabia has prepared.

Etihad Arena in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi will host IIFA Awards

Etihad Arena in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi will host IIFA Awards

Besides Saudi Arabia, fastest addition of hotel rooms in the region is taking place in Qatari capital, Doha. According to new research commissioned by Arabian Travel Market (ATM), conducted at the end of 2021 by hotel market intelligence and global benchmarking company STR, Mecca in Saudi Arabia and Doha are both expanding their hotel room inventory by 76 pc, followed by Riyadh, Medina and Muscat with 66 pc, 60 pc and 59 pc growth respectively. In Dubai, rooms growth stands at 26 pc, which is still extraordinary, considering its existing base and following years of continuous hotel development – it is still more than double the global average.

All these makes participation at ATM even more pertinent, say the organisers. “The recovery of the Middle East’s travel, tourism and hospitality sector is now in full swing, so we couldn’t have hoped for a more opportune time to welcome our global community to Dubai to explore the latest industry trends and long-term opportunities,’’ says Curtis of ATM.

IIFA paints the town yellow

Barely a week after ATM gets over, the next large-scale event and key for the Indian market will open in the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi or to be more precise, in Yas Island, the entertainment park hub. The biggest Bollywood show, IIFA Awards, is back in its in-person format after a gap of two years. The star-studded show will be held on May 20-21.

Before the pandemic brought tourism and entertainment industry to a grinding halt, the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards was the biggest Bollywood show in town. Now, after a gap of two years, IIFA stages a comeback, this time in the backdrop of Yas Island, which will be transformed into a glittering stage and the most glamourous awards show buzzing with Bollywood megastars, global personalities and revered celebrities of the silver screen for the star-studded IIFA Weekend and Awards. The 22nd edition of IIFA returns after two years and Bollywood actor Salman Khan will host the awards at Yas Island’s state-of-the-art indoor entertainment venue Etihad Arena.

Yas Island officials say they are excited about the event and what it could mean for boosting tourist traffic from India. “Yas Island will host the esteemed IIFA Awards, marking the annual achievements for the Indian cinema industry during a sparkling ceremony, toasting Bollywood’s best-loved faces against a backdrop of live music and entertainment. As the most coveted global awards, with its growing popularity and recognition, IIFA is known to bring across a conglomeration of Indian and international film stars, cinema enthusiast and fans from all over the world, global media and dignitaries using the universal language of cinema and entertainment as a platform and we look forward to welcoming them for memorable experiences,” Liam Findlay, CEO of Experience Hub at Yas Island tells India Outbound.

Yas Waterworld, Yas Island in Abu Dhabi

Yas Waterworld, Yas Island in Abu Dhabi

In preparation to receive the Indian tourists, notably families, Yas Island has gone the extra mile. Attractions across the island have been lit up in yellow and a number of packages have been for Bollywood fans from India and other countries have been designed and promoted aggressively through the social media as well as travel trade companies. The organisers say that the stage is set for a breathtaking celebration of Indian culture, musical performance, fashion and style, unlike any other.

Yas Island is banking on the fact that Bollywood actor Salman Khan, one of the biggest names in Indian entertainment industry, will host the awards. To make the visit even more attractive and get the visitors to stay longer, the destination has lined up several music concerts, film screenings, fashion shows and cultural events, and also ensured at a number of celebrities from the cinema world in India would be in attendance.

The island tourism officials say that guests staying on the Island during the IIFA Weekend and Awards can enjoy a host of dining opportunities across the destination including the recently opened Yas Bay, which is a new waterfront destination overlooking the glittering waters of the Arabian Gulf and Abu Dhabi’s newest waterfront and vibrant day to night destination.

Featuring Pier71, a 3-km boardwalk, and a variety of world-class dining, leisure and entertainment brands. From adrenaline fueled rides, fun-filled attractions, to fine dining all set against a backdrop of events, Yas Island is the destination to see and be seen in, the officials say.

“Yas Island offers holidaymakers a diverse mix of award-winning leisure and entertainment experiences. With 10 hotels catering to different categories, the destination also has over 165 dining experiences, line up of events and exceptional packages, we are confident of the positive impact the destination will make on all new and repeat visitors,’’ highlights Findlay.

How important IIFA and Indian tourism market is for Yas Island is evident from the number of steps taken by the destination to lure Indian visitors.

The 22nd edition of IIFA returns after two years

Days after announcing that it would host the IIFA Awards, Yas Island roped in popular Bollywood star, Ranveer Singh, as its brand ambassador and launched a comprehensive promotional campaign across India, covering print, television, digital media, social media and also reaching out to the travel trade.

“We are proud of our partnership with Ranveer Singh as a brand ambassador as he exudes the dynamic attitude of Yas Island which we believe comes across in the Yas Hai Khaas video. Our collaboration with Bollywood superstar, Ranveer Singh, enables us to highlight Yas Island as one of the world’s leading leisure and entertainment destinations, full of vibrancy and non-stop energy. With Ranveer as our brand ambassador we hope to inspire viewers not only from India, but the global Indian audience as well,” adds Findlay of Experience Hub.

But it is not just with IIFA or its immediate impact that the destination is targetting. It is looking at a long-term and sustained growth in tourist numbers from India. “Yas Island offers holiday makers a diverse mix of experiences that suit the preferences of travelers from all age groups. In addition to the award-wining theme parks accessible all year round, we also have a calendar of ongoing events and concerts on Yas Island cater to different categories of holidaymakers such as music concerts with global stars, international stand-up comedy performances, sporting events such as UFC and of course the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix. We are continually refreshing our offerings and bringing something different to the visitors which has enabled Yas Island’s sustainable growth,’’ Findlay says.

Qatar’s eyes on the ball

The list of activities and events in the GCC gets even more exciting post-IIFA Awards. For that is when the neighbouring island nation of Qatar will unfold an aggressive marketing and promotional campaign to get visitors from all around the world to head there in the run up to the FIFA World Cup. While the focus of the campaign is of course the World Cup, but Qatar is looking to create a message that goes far beyond sport and hopes that the impact of the excitement of its campaign and the actual tournament will bear fruits for much longer than 2022.

Villagio Mall, Qatar

Villagio Mall, Qatar

Besides the traditional football-crazed nations in Europe and Latin America, Qatar is also looking to rope in a sizeable contingent from India, a country where the sport’s popularity has been rising. Though so far the number of Indians travelling to World Cup or other premiere football championships overseas has been limited, Qatar Tourism is hoping that the proximity would encourage a far larger number of football fans and others from India to head to Qatar.

“Well, I think India, based on the fact that it is very close, it will be one of the World Cups that is only 2.5-3 hours away for India then we are expecting a lot of visitation for the World Cup. We know already as we are getting an indication from the Match Hospitality, through which they are selling hospitality packages for the World Cup, one of the highest take ups, market wise, is on the Indian market. So the India markets are already engaged on the interest of coming over to the World Cup,’’ Philip Dickinson, Vice President of Qatar Tourism tells India Outbound.

Dickinson says that beyond football or the World Cup, Qatar is looking to position itself as a destination for all segments of tourism – from family getaway to MICE or romantic destination for couples. Dickinson says that the country has been building up in this direction for a while and has created the necessary infrastructure on the ground in terms of most modern hotels, convention halls, entertainment parks as well as shopping destinations. Another key attraction is of course the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha that is reputed to be one of the best and avant-garde museums in the world.

The ripples of these major headways that are being made in and by the GCC countries are already being felt around the world as the global travel industry and governments of most nations have been inspired by the developments in the GCC and have charted out their own course for revival.

But even long after the world of travel has returned to its pre-pandemic levels, many would continue to look at and take inspiration from the bold, timely and yet well-thought through decisions taken by the rulers in Dubai and other key GCC cities.

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