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Region's tourism tipped to more than double by 2020

The United Nations body UNWTO sees growth outperforming rivals because of continued investment in the sector.

The number of tourists to the Middle East will more than double by 2020 because of continued investment in the sector, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) predicts. The region will experience a growth rate almost double the world average, Amr Abdel-Ghaffar, the UNWTO regional representative for the Middle East, told a seminar in Abu Dhabi to mark World Tourism Day.

The number of tourists arriving will increase to 136 million by 2020, up from 54 million last year, he said. The number of tourists arriving in the Middle East in the first seven months of this year dropped 13 per cent compared with the same period last year as a result of the global economic slowdown, according to the organisation. Last year, the region experienced sharp growth of 18.2 per cent.

The organisation expects the pace of decline to slow during the rest of the year. "Generally speaking, the GCC countries appear to be showing a fair degree of resilience to the global economic downturn," Mr Abdel-Ghaffar said. The UAE saw tourism growth of 3 per cent in the first quarter of the year, according to the UNWTO. Abu Dhabi is aiming to more than double the number of hotel guests to 2.3 million a year by 2012, down from a forecast of 2.7 million earlier this year. Dubai is aiming to attract 15 million visitors a year by 2015, which is about double last year's figure.

"The impact of the H1N1 flu, coupled with the global economic crisis, is likely to boost regional and domestic hotel occupancies, as increasingly travellers may opt for destinations closer to home, within the region or even within their home countries," Mr Abdel-Ghaffar said. He added that sports tourism in Gulf markets had not experienced any negative impact from the global economic crisis, which was a positive sign for events such as Abu Dhabi's inaugural Formula One race on November 1.

Although the corporate and business travel segment had been affected, the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) industry was continuing to grow in the UAE and other Gulf destinations, he said. There was also enormous potential for the region's fledgling cruise industry, Mr Abdel-Ghaffar said. The Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) earlier this month announced a new cruise terminal for the emirate. The terminal, scheduled to open in January, will be able to handle up to four ships at a time.

"Dubai has invested heavily in the tourism sector and is better placed to remain sound during this challenging time," said Hamad bin Mejren, the executive director for business tourism at DTCM. "We strongly believe that Dubai may emerge faster than other regions when the global economy improves." Mr Abdel-Ghaffar said that despite a number of delays and cancellations of projects in the region, there was still a lot of development taking place.

The Middle East has 477 hotel projects, or 145,786 rooms, in the pipeline, with 53 per cent already under construction, according to a report by the US research firm Lodging Econometrics. rbundhun@thenational.ae

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