Indian tourists seek luxury on demand in GCC

/ New Delhi
Indian tourists seek luxury on demand in GCC

Atlantis Dubai has set a new benchmark in luxury

As an increasing number of high-end Indian travellers seek luxury vacations on demand, the GCC region, that combines the advantages of proximity and price, is fast emerging as a preferred port of call.
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In February this year, Simrat Kohli, a 34-year-old housewife from Chennai, was attending a family wedding in Phuket, a popular resort destination in Thailand, when her phone rang.

At the other end of the line was Nikita Vijay, her friend from Chennai and wife of a popular Indian cricketer, Murali Vijay, who asked her if she wanted to head to Dubai within a few days to attend a music concert featuring popular Punjabi singer A P Dhillon.

Nikita Vijay (L) and Simrat Kohli (R) in Dubai

Nikita Vijay (L) and Simrat Kohli (R)

“In the blink of an eye, I agreed since we are good friends and both of us like Punjabi music. Within a couple of days after I came back to Chennai from Phuket, I left with her for Dubai. Though it was a split second decision, we thoroughly enjoyed the entire trip,’’ Kohli tells India Outbound.

‘‘It was my first concert outside India and I could see the huge difference in how it was organised. Everything was so well planned and disciplined. We not only enjoyed the music but also the ambience of the place. It was an amazing experience,’’ Kohli adds.

The two stayed on in Dubai for three days and spent their time in shopping, sampling the variety of culinary offerings of Dubai as well as just hanging out at various chic spots in the city.

“She organised everything, the planning, the bookings and everything around the trip and it turned out to be really a memorable experience. It was my first trip with her, but it was so amazing that hopefully there are more such trips to come,’’ Kohli adds.

Shopping is a preferred activity of high-end travellers

Shopping is a preferred activity of high-end travellers

Though it was a unique experience for Kohli and Vijay, for the Indian travel trade such last minute travels have become a fairly regular thing as an increasing number of well-heeled Indians are taking international trips at a whim, especially to countries that are neither too far away, nor too difficult to access in terms of visa.

Guldeep Singh Sahni

Guldeep Singh Sahni

‘‘While we do not have data to tell us the percentage, luxury travel from India has increased 3-4 fold, especially to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries like Abu Dhabi, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. We recommend passengers to travel to these countries as the quality and service standards are very high. Due to short haul flights, families and couples are willing to travel on short notice if they have US or other visas accepted for visiting some GCC countries. For leisure, weddings, family travel, anniversary and weekend getaways passengers choose these destinations,’’ Guldeep Singh Sahni, Managing Director, Weldon Tours & Travels, a Delhi-based travel company, tells India Outbound.

Radhika Khanijo

Radhika Khanijo

Sahni is not alone in recording a strong growth in demand for repeat travel to the GCC region. Radhika Khanijo, CEO of Welgrow Travels, another travel firm focused on luxury outbound travel, too, has witnessed a remarkable difference in customer behaviour in the recent past.

“Pre-pandemic, the GCC countries were just one-time visit for luxury segment, but post-pandemic as they want to travel three to four times a year, the dynamics have changed and now travellers are looking for events, sports, concerts, high brand exhibitions, along with long stays in villas with families for landmark birthday or anniversary celebrations,’’ Khanijo tells India Outbound.

Khanijo says that for her company currently, the top destination within the GCC is the United Arab Emirates and that she is looking forward to selling Saudi Arabia as the next luxury destination.

Jet, set & go

The boom in luxury travel to the GCC is part of the bigger story that has been unfolding in the Indian outbound travel market for the past two years. Ever since the Indian aerospace reopened to regular flights in March 2022, Indians have been travelling like never before and have taken the meaning of the phrase revenge travel to another level.

In 2024, outbound tourism from India is expected to hit a record high of USD 43 billion, almost double of the USD 22 billion recorded in 2022. Since the end of the pandemic, the scorching pace of growth in the number of Indian travellers packing their bags and heading off on trips at the drop of a hat was not only entirely unexpected but has also left destinations, travel agents and airlines scrambling to get even a small piece of the ever-increasing pie.

Not only has the overseas travel jumped clear of the pre-pandemic peaks and with a wide margin, but there has also been a dramatic shift in how the Indians are travelling now. For a country that was perhaps best known as market for low-cost group series tours that covered multiple destinations in the span of a 10-12 days, India is now a much vaunted, high-value market and Indian visitors have emerged amongst the largest spenders in the world, for a variety of destinations from the United Kingdom and Spain to United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Atlantis Dubai: Benchmarking luxury

One of the icons of sheer luxury in the GCC region is Atlantis Dubai, an upscale hotel group with two large properties located next to each other in Dubai’s exclusive Palm Jumeirah area. Enthused by the success of its first property, Atlantis the Palm, that comes with an integrated waterpark, among other exclusive experiences for its customers, last year it launched its second property, Atlantis the Royal, which has within months of opening zoomed into the listing of World’s 50 Best hotels and on other listings of most exclusive resorts in the world.

India is an increasingly important market for Atlantis Dubai group and the hotel group is keen to gain its share of Indian customers, who have consistently been among its top 10 nationalities, says Kyp Charalambous, Vice President, Sales, Atlantis Dubai.

A view of the Palm Island from Atlantis Dubai

A view of the Palm Island from Atlantis Dubai

The Indian market consistently stands within the top 10 markets and it has been incredibly promising for us at Atlantis the Royal with steady growth in just one year. This has been fuelled by a deep commitment to understanding and meeting the evolving needs of Indian luxury travellers.

Key cities like Mumbai and Delhi have played pivotal roles in driving this growth, along with a notable increase in interest from other regions as well,’’ Charalambous tells India Outbound.

Kyp Charalambous

Kyp Charalambous

He says that the group has received a diverse range of travellers from India, including couples and families with older children. ‘‘What sets us apart is our unique approach to luxury, catering to those who enjoy a uber luxurious experience compared to our sister property, Atlantis the Palm. Our Royal Club and Suite bookings have shown higher percentages, indicating a preference for elevated luxury experiences. While Atlantis the Palm may attract a different clientele, our distinct offerings and appeal to the Indian traveller at Atlantis the Royal have contributed significantly to our success in this region,’’ says Charalambous.

As for any other luxury industry player, for Atlantis Dubai, too, customisation is key to enhancing the client experience at the resort and Charalambous says that his team pays a great deal of attention to every guest’s needs.

‘‘Our approach has been centred on listening to our customers and adapting accordingly, which has been instrumental in our success. The reality is that a luxury resort with opulent suites or celebrity chef restaurants today is an expectation, but ultimately it is the people who deliver the extraordinary and go above and beyond to create that wow factor in a genuine way. The interactions guests have with our colleagues are the silver bullet to delivering a truly ultra-luxury experience. Allowing the team members to be themselves and to genuinely connect with the guests to provide anticipatory personal service. Something hyperpersonalised, something so special it has to be experienced to be believed. Atlantis the Royal is more than penultimate suites or world-class amenities, it offers 24/7 attention to detail, so that every guest has exactly what they want, when they want, how they want it, before they have even dreamed about it or asked for it,’’ he adds.

Charalambous says that almost everything that the guests experience at Atlantis the Royal is extraordinary. ‘‘Nothing about Atlantis the Royal falls in the category of a typical resort. From the incredibly complex feat of building 44 pools in the sky to the innovative architecture of the resort, to hosting Beyoncé for our ‘Grand Reveal’, everything we do at Atlantis the Royal aims to be category-defining and unique to its core. Just last month, in celebration of our first anniversary, we announced a worldfirst partnership with Louis Vuitton to create a unique in-resort experience for our guests, and in January we launched Dolce & Gabbana’s first sky pool takeover at Cloud 22. These surprise and delight moments cannot be found not only anywhere in the region, but in the world,’’ claims Charalambous.

Riyadh in Saudi Arabia is witnessing a boom in hotel construction

Riyadh in Saudi Arabia is witnessing a boom in hotel construction

As part of its strategy to attract more Indian clientele, the hotel group mounts special offers and offers exclusive experiences, notably on key social and religious occasions. ‘‘We pride ourselves in crafting tailored experiences for our Indian guests. Understanding the significance of diverse celebrations like Easter, Eid, Diwali and Christmas, we stay connected with our Events Team to ensure that we honour these traditions authentically.

From customised buffet offerings to in-room amenities reflecting cultural elements, we strive to create a home away from home. Our commitment extends to special occasions, including destination weddings. We curate special ceremonies and personalised experiences, ensuring every detail reflects the richness of Indian culture. At Atlantis, we are dedicated to exceeding expectations and creating cherished memories for our Indian visitors,’’ he says.

Splurging in Saudi

While Dubai has long been a preferred port of call for Indian celebrities and other wealthy travellers, the last decade or sohas seen several other destinations within the GCC emerge as alternatives for that weekend trip, a concert or a sporting fixture.

One of the countries that seems to have tied its fortunes in tourism industry with the Indian market is Saudi Arabia, by far the largest country in the GCC. Historically, though Saudi Arabia has pulled in hundreds of thousands of Indian travellers, they are almost entirely on spiritual tours, either for Hajj or Umra, two important Muslim pilgrimages. An overwhelming majority of these visitors has traditionally been subsidised by the government as it cannot afford the cost of travel and stay.

However, in the past few years, Saudi Arabia has completely reinvented itself as a tourism destination and is now eyeing all segments of tourists, notably the High Net Worth Individuals (HNIs) who can fill in the tens of thousands of rooms at ultra-luxurious tourism destinations like the Red Sea Global and Neom that are currently in various stages of development as part of its ambitious Vision 2030 plan which envisages close to USD 1 trillion investment in tourism.

Alhasan Aldabbagh

Alhasan Aldabbagh

Alhasan Aldabbagh is President, APAC, of Saudi Tourism Authority. Over the past three years, Aldabbagh has put in a lot of effort to develop the Indian market beyond the spiritual dimension and he says his efforts are paying off.

‘‘The Indian market has shown remarkable growth in luxury travel over recent years. We have seen a substantial increase in affluent travellers seeking premium experiences. Along with the metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, there is an emerging segment belonging to the Tier II cities and feeder markets like Chandigarh, Indore, Raipur, Pune and Ahmedabad. The growth rate has been impressive, with a notable increase year on year. Overall, Saudi attracted over 1.5 million visitors from India in 2023 along with a target to reach 7.5 million Indian visitors in the next 6 years,’’ Aldabbagh tells India Outbound.

Doha in Qatar is also emerging as a luxury destination

Doha in Qatar is also emerging as a luxury destination

Saudi Arabia is banking on the diversity of its offer to attract the Indian customers. “Our USP lies in our ability to seamlessly blend traditional Arabian hospitality, which we call Hafawah, with contemporary luxury offerings. From opulent accommodations to bespoke experiences such as exclusive desert safaris, private yacht charters and personalised cultural tours, we strive to provide an unmatched level of indulgence,’’ says Aldabbagh.

“In line with the Saudi Vision 2030, the country will have almost every major luxury hotel brand opening across the country. Hospitality brands like Aman, Six Senses and Ritz-Carlton Reserve will join Banyan Tree, Four Seasons, Rosewood, Habitas, and Shirvan City Yard,’’ he adds.

According to Vision 2030, laid down by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who is also de-facto ruler of the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia will have 320,000 new hotel rooms by the year 2030. Already, Riyadh, the capital, has emerged as the city largest addition to hotel capacity with over 28,000 new rooms.

A large chunk of these capacities will be added to the long list of new luxury projects, notably Neom, the Red Sea and Diriyah. Neom itself features several projects like Sindalah Island and Trojena Mountain Resort, while the Red Sea development includes Red Sea and Amaala islands, with amenities like new airports, marine reserves, yacht clubs, and ski resorts. Diriyah offers a mix of heritage and modernity, with cultural attractions and upscale accommodations, says Aldabbagh..

Qatar queues up, too

Bordering Saudi Arabia, the tiny State of Qatar, too, has pitched its hopes to welcome an increasing number of highend visitors from India, some of whom got the first taste of its luxury offerings during the Football World Cup that Qatar hosted in 2022. Enthused by the turnout of international visitors, including from India, for the matches, Qatar is now trying to leverage the high visibility and profile boost that it received during the month-long competition.

Philip Dickinson who leads International Market Development at Visit Qatar, the tourism promotion body of the country, says that India is a key focus market for Qatar.

Philip Dickinson

Philip Dickinson

“The Indian market has been instrumental in our growth trajectory, especially in luxury travel. We have witnessed substantial growth both in terms of numbers and diversity of travellers from India. Major cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, and some Tier II cities like Raipur, Nagpur, Rajkot and Ludhiana contribute significantly to this growth. Notably, we have observed diverse traveller segments, including groups specifically centred around luxury shopping, exemplifying the multifaceted nature of Indian travellers,’’ Dickinson tells India Outbound.

He says that the Qatar offers a holistic luxury experience that begins from the moment travellers step foot on Qatar Airways and continues from thereon.

“Upon arrival, guests are welcomed into the extraordinary ambience of the first-class lounge at Hamad International Airport, an experience in itself accentuated by larger-thanlife art pieces. From the unparalleled opulence of our hotels and premium shopping destinations to immersive cultural experiences set away from the crowds, Qatar redefines luxury at every turn. Doha is rapidly emerging as a premier luxury shopping destination, boasting grand malls featuring highend brands and exclusive boutiques. Iconic developments such as Place Vendome at Lusail City boast luxury hotels and a multitude of retail and entertainment options, Galleries Lafayette at Katara Cultural Village, Al Maha Island’s highend restaurants, its unique driveway experience for supercars and classic cars and the Corinthia Yacht Club, that offers exclusive invite-only membership, further underscore our commitment to providing unparalleled luxury experiences,’’ says Dickinson.

Qatar is also leveraging another sporting event, which returns to the country every year, unlike the FIFA World Cup, the annual Formula 1 race. During the competition, Dickinson says Qatar offers some unique experiences for F1 fans.

“The F1 Paddock Club offers an immersive and indulgent experience that gets you closer to F1 than ever and complements our diverse luxury offerings for discerning travellers,’’ he says.

Bahrain showcases stunning landscapes of beaches and coastlines

Bahrain showcases stunning landscapes of beaches and coastlines

Customisation is another important aspect of promotion of luxury travel to Qatar. “We cater to the burgeoning trend of luxury weddings, with Indian weddings in Doha often hosted at prestigious properties. These grand events, often attended by 300-600 guests or more, receive comprehensive support from us, encompassing everything from venue selection to coordinating with local vendors, ensuring a seamless and luxurious experience,’’ says Dickinson.

Besides Qatar, another tiny neighbour of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is also keen to project itself as a luxury destination in India and it says that it is receiving good response from India.

“As a short haul destination from India, Bahrain seeks to target India’s luxury spender via its unique offerings such as premium shopping, experiential resorts, annual Formula 1 showcase and a stunning landscape of beaches and coastline to engage beach lovers and golf and water sports enthusiasts. Bahrain offers an array of amenities and support to Indian families looking for the weddings and celebrations which also contributes to notable growth in luxury travel from India, both in terms of numbers and diversity of travellers. Major metropolitan areas such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru emerge as key contributors to this trend, including affluent individuals, corporate executives, and high-end tourists,’’ reads a statement by Bahrain Tourism.

GCC countries are not alone in putting a focus on India as their key source market, practically all other destinations around the world have also put in a substantial share of their eggs in the Indian basket. And their strategy seems to be well-founded for the foreseeable future.

The Indian economy has been registering growth rates that are amongst the fastest in the world and this is a trend that ought to continue at least for a decade. The relatively higher growth rates would mean that despite rising inequality in India, the number of Indians who are better off with each successive year is set to rise further and their desire for splurging on travels and experiences, including attending music concerts, will only increase. Now, that would be the sweetest music to the ears of GCC tourism organisations.

Synchronising luxury with sustainability

Globally travel and tourism contributes to about 10 pc of carbon emissions and with increasing awareness about the importance of protecting biodiversity and partly due to rising preference of some customers, the industry is gradually adopting sustainability and making efforts or at least be seen as making efforts to curb ecological damage caused by their operations.

It ranges from aviation industry taking baby steps towards using Sustainable Aviation Fuel or hotels controlling their food wastage and installing waste treatment plants on their properties.

Retrofitting sustainability into exiting machines or buildings is a very complicated and expensive proposition, often more expensive than building something afresh from zero. And it is this inbuilt advantage that the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are using to the maximum and in the process setting new benchmarks for the global industry to follow.

Two of the most outstanding ongoing sustainable development projects that are also the world’s largest tourism developments under construction are both located in Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea Global and Neom.

John Pagano, Group Chief Executive Officer, Red Sea Global, reels out a long list of actions and initiatives undertaken by the company to promote sustainability.

‘‘Pioneering a global transition towards regenerative tourism, Red Sea Global is committed to not only protecting the local environment but enhancing it, increasing biodiversity in the area and enriching local communities through all areas of project development. For instance, by prioritising a science-first approach, we leverage the use of AI robotics to monitor over 300 coral sites analysing them at a speed and efficiency increase of 92 pc from previous methods. We are the only developer in the region employing such technological advancements in this area,’’ Pagano tells India Outbound.

He adds that with dedicated efforts to safeguard fragile ecosystems and leading conservation scientists onboard, Red Sea Global protects biologically diverse habitats, including mangroves, islands and coral reefs. A million native mangrove seedlings have already been planted and which are carefully nurtured for eight months before being transplanted into designated areas, says Pagano.

Red Sea Global mangrove nursery

Red Sea Global mangrove nursery

‘‘This initiative contributes to carbon sequestration and promotes biodiversity, showcasing how our initiatives and projects align seamlessly with our sustainability objectives. Whether it is collaborating with innovative partners to explore hydrogen-powered seaplanes or developing one of the world’s largest battery storage facilities to enable us to operate off-grid with 100 pc renewable solar energy round the clock, our commitments reflect our unique dedication to sustainable practices,’’ Pagano adds.

He says that element of sustainability and regeneration is inbuilt into the project design and that he expects its impact to go far beyond.

“While we take immense pride in our unparalleled luxury experiences in partnership with globally renowned hospitality brands, our aim is for every guest to embrace the concept of regenerative tourism. By working collaboratively towards this goal with every partner and every guest, we can collectively make a positive impact on our planet and become a force for good in our industry and beyond,’’ says Pagano.

Though not to the same extent as Saudi Arabia, notably with projects like Red Sea Global or Neom, across in Dubai, too, sustainability is increasingly being integrated into the original design. One such example is Atlantis Dubai, an ultra-luxury hotel group.

Kyp Charalambous, Vice President, Sales, Atlantis Dubai highlights the actions taken to promote conservation. “Sustainability is a cornerstone of our approach to luxury, ingrained in every aspect of our operations. The Atlantis Atlas Project exemplifies this commitment as it focuses on preserving vital marine ecosystems and combating threats such as unsustainable seafood sourcing and environment pollution. The initiative is centred around key groups of wildlife including sharks, rays, dolphins, and corals, and reflects our dedication to conservation goals that are essential for the health of our planet,’’ Charalambous tells India Outbound.

He adds that besides the Atlas Project, Atlantis Dubai has implemented various strategies to minimise its carbon footprint. ‘‘From food waste management to initiatives aimed at protecting marine animals, we actively seek innovation solutions to protect our planet. Moreover, our own water bottling plant ensures that the water we serve is not only clean but also sourced sustainably, aligning with our mission to provide luxury experiences that prioritise environmental conservation,’’ he says.

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