x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tourists are beckoned to the Gulf

As the economic crisis shrinks international tourism, the UAE and its neighbours seek ways to present themselves as a single destination.

Jebel Hafeet may be located in the UAE, but its attraction as a tourist site could be marketed to visitors throughout the Gulf region.
Jebel Hafeet may be located in the UAE, but its attraction as a tourist site could be marketed to visitors throughout the Gulf region.

As the global financial downturn takes its toll on the tourism industry, authorities in the Gulf have begun to take steps towards marketing themselves as a single regional destination, rather than as a collection of separate cities and countries.

GCC officials met last week to form the Union of Gulf National Travel and Tourism Committee, which will work to boost tourism into the region. Its headquarters will be in Abu Dhabi. "For the last 10 years we've been calling on the GCC to market themselves as one destination," said Salim bin Adey al Mamari, the director general of tourism promotions in Oman. "We could complement each other, rather than compete with each other."

Tourism around the world is being severely affected by the global financial crisis. As money becomes tight, travellers tend to take holidays closer to home, which could hurt the Gulf states because most of their tourists come from Europe. In both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the number of tourists has reached a plateau. Abu Dhabi has reset its 2012 target, and now predicts 2.3 million visitors annually, up from the current 1.5 million, within the next four years. Before the crisis, it had set a target of 2.7 million.

Dubai has not revised its target and still hopes to attract 15 million visitors by 2015. Last year fewer than seven million visited the emirate. According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, international arrivals across the globe declined by eight per cent between January and February of this year. Overall, the number of people travelling is about the same as it was in 2007. Although the GCC countries are closely linked by their economies and politics, their friendly relationships do not always translate into co-operation.

Within the UAE alone, each emirate has its own tourism authority charged with creating advertising and branding. Five airlines exist: Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, flydubai, RAK Airways and the Sharjah-based Air Arabia. Several months ago, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE, announced the creation of a federal tourism body, but details have yet to be released. Mr al Mamari said that Oman was working to improve the visitor visa system. The country has loosened its visa regulations so people coming to Dubai can enter Oman on the same stamp.

"Within five to six years, people should easily be able to travel between the GCC states with a single visa," he said. According to a report last month by Kuwait's state-owned news agency, Kuna, tourism authorities are creating a single visitors visa for all the GCC states. Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are all constructing museums and other attractions to vie for travellers. Dubai is constructing ever larger malls, including the world's largest, the Dubai Mall. Construction on the world's largest theme park, Dubailand, and the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, are continuing. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi is building a cultural district on Saadiyat Island that will include branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.

Gavin Samson, the director of TRI Hospitality Consulting, which offers tourism advice to hotels, businesses and governments in the region, said these countries could work together to create packages for cruises and tours. Individually, each was less able to draw tourists from Europe and the Americas. If they sold their destinations as part of wider Gulf-state packages, he said, tourism could grow for everybody.

"I think in these troubling times if you can present a rounded product to tourists, especially in the West or in western European countries, that's a positive step," he said. Vying with Abu Dhabi for the title of Cultural Capital, Doha opened the Museum of Islamic Art in December. The building was designed by the architect IM Pei, whose other buildings include the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

As the guardians of Mecca, Saudi Arabia has the greatest number of religious tourists in the Middle East. As many as two million pilgrims visit Saudi Arabia during the annual Haj, bringing about US$1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) into the country's coffers. Before Dubai became the Gulf's hot spot, Bahrain was known as a getaway for expatriates. But its nightlife has dimmed in Dubai's shadow, and Bahrain is now dominated by business-related tourism.

"Traditionally, people would go to Dubai but they forgot about all the others," Mr Samson said. "What Abu Dhabi offers and Oman offers are inherently different." Oman is geographically larger, has a greater variety of landscapes, including mountains and a tropical southern region, and is generally known for its camping, hiking and adventure opportunities. "Oman is a much stronger tourism destination," he said.

However, the countries can offer complementary experiences. Mr Samson said the major obstacle would be whether the GCC countries could co-operate as they remain competitors. "It's a question of whether relevant bodies can get together with a focus," he said. "But they can be forgiven at the moment for focusing on their own markets." @Email:jgerson@thenational.ae