Feature This year's Arabian Travel Market has been described as the most significant in its 17-year history.
A world of choices
Never before has the region been quite so clearly centre-stage. With declining visitor figures from the rest of the world, the Middle East market is the one that everywhere else wants to tap. This is the one place where the graph is going up, and several countries are pinning their hopes for their nations' economies on attracting more of us. Tourist chiefs from Sri Lanka said the growth in visitors from the Gulf region for the first three months of this year had been 106 per cent year-on-year. Thailand, too, reeling from the current political instability, said its first-quarter figures showed an increase in visitor numbers. The minister of tourism, Chumpol Silapa-archa, handing out his personal business card, urged me to tell readers not to be put off by the television images. Outside a few defined areas in Bangkok, "it's just another day in paradise," he said.
It is the same story from Ireland. Simon Gregory, director of markets, said that last year the country suffered a 13 per cent fall in business,"but the GCC numbers continue to grow and it is looking stronger for 2010. That is why we have to be here." Etihad's 10 direct flights a week to the country are having a strong impact on tourism. Nor is it just countries. The Breidenbacher Hof hotel in Düsseldorf reopened two years ago, having been rebuilt from scratch. Sales director Britta Germann said the GCC provides its biggest market outside Germany. "Last year it was 20 per cent and we expect this summer to exceed that." The highest revenue comes from Saudi and Qatar and the most rooms taken are by guests from the UAE. "We provide Arabic staff, Arabic TV, halal food and directions to Mecca."
The even stronger message from the halls is that the region is well placed to attract as well as to be attracted. While Europe and northern America spent 2009 pulling in their horns, several ambitious projects were embarked on last year and a host of new hotel openings are in the pipeline. The vast ice food bar sculpted for the opening party at the Address hotel in Dubai Marina could have served as a symbol for tourism here. No matter how much the ice melted in the face of the heat, the surface remained surprisingly solid, and the fare on offer could not have been more varied.
Starwood - the hotel group which reinvented the bed and forced the whole industry to reassess what it gave guests to sleep on - announced that it has 20 new properties planned for the Middle East, taking its portfolio in the region up to 70. Three are in Abu Dhabi, and the St Regis in the imposing Nation Towers on the Corniche is due to open this autumn. "It is incredible, they are building one floor every four days at the moment," said Guido de Wilde, the regional director for the Middle East. Starwood announced at the show that it has signed for the first W in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi. The super-cool brand brings with it its own message about the emirate. "For us it is all about getting the right location for the right brand," said de Wilde. The owner had stayed in its Seattle property and specifically requested that the new hotel, on the waterfront at Al Bateen Wharf, be a W. By the time the boutique hotel is ready in 2013, Abu Dhabi is expected to be a very hip place.
The Viceroy Hotel Group, which is part-owned by Mubadala, also announced plans for a new hotel for Abu Dhabi. In the mid-market, City Seasons, an Al Ain-based company, is expanding in the capital, and Accor plans 17 new hotels providing 5,000 new rooms across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE. The annual show is also an indicator of where we are likely to be heading for our holidays over the next few months. The biggest queues were at the Maldives stand. A new government last year promised to broaden the visitor base and make the islands affordable to more people. But it was the luxury brands which dominated this week. Viceroy is constructing a resort on the crescent-shaped island of Vagaru, an hour north of Male, which will open in December. Anantara Kihavah Villas opens in October, giving the group properties in the south and the north Maldives, which it hopes to connect by offering a cruise between the two. The Ritz Carlton is another newcomer.
Part of the islands' current attraction, though, is the value-added deals. Jens Moesker, the general manager of Shangri-La Villingli's eye-watering resort that opened two years ago, said it has maintained high occupancy by offering deals. "People are paying the same rate as they did two years ago," he said. Another Indian Ocean destination attracting attention is the Seychelles. With visitor figures plummeting in the first three months of last year, the destination repositioned itself as "Affordable Seychelles", sending out a message that there were lots of small guesthouses and budget accommodation available. "It has worked for us," said Alain St Ange, the director of tourism. "We went from a position of minus 20 per cent in the first quarter to just minus one by the end of the year." He also stated that the Middle East was its most promising market, showing a 129 per cent increase year-on-year. With Emirates Airline about to increase its flights from six days a week to seven, it is expecting the numbers to rise further.
The hot places continue to be Syria and Lebanon. Hector de Gallard, the general manager of Le Gray in Beirut, said it anticipates being really busy in the high season of July and August. "It's cooler here, and it's cheaper than Europe. Though the big question with Ramadan being in August is whether our GCC clients will [stay] home." And the country that looked most concerned was Greece, whose economic troubles are doing nothing to boost its waning popularity.
There are some good offers to be had as companies compete for the summer market. British Airways is offering return flights to Heathrow for Dh2,200 if you book now for flights until September. Etihad Holidays has promotions for children to fly free to 10 holiday destinations - Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Munich, Muscat, Larnaca, Istanbul, Athens, Beirut and Tokyo - when with two adults. They are on sale until May 31 for travel until June 10. The Shangri-La hotel in Abu Dhabi is offering 50 per cent off its rack rate for the whole of the summer, and the Six Senses resort Evason Ma'in in Jordan is offering a two-night stay for the price of one from June 1 to September 7.
It is Six Senses that had the most innovative offering at the show - a tented tepee camp experience in the spectacular Musandam peninsula. Using its Zighy Bay resort as the base, from November 1 there will be three camps, one deep in a wadi, one high on a rocky plateau in the mountains and one on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. All are in the remotest areas only accessible by 4x4 - by boat in the case of the coastal one - and with special government permission. The idea being that you get the ultimate "at nature" experience but with top service, comfortable accommodation and a bathroom. Don't, however, expect that because it's a tent it will be cheaper - prices are expected to be around $1,500 (Dh5,500) a night.