Exclusively to The National, we look at where we've been going in 2017
Google reveals UAE's most popular travel search queries
Where did you go in 2017? According to Google, which has just released data showing the 10 most popular travel searches in the UAE, you’re most likely to have visited, or at least planned on visiting, France. Its algorithm, which has revealed the most popular travel searches for this year, indicates that this was followed by Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Armenia, Montenegro and Cambodia - in that order.
The list offers a fascinating insight into current travel trends in the UAE and the travel habits of you, the leisure traveller, who is influenced by a combination of global trends, geography and the expansion of networks by the world’s best airlines, which offer a choice of direct routes to all these countries. This is combined, it seems, with a strongly adventurous streak.
Also in the background is the fact that in general, tourism, the world’s biggest industry, continues to grow strongly year-on-year. According to the most recent data from the Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), between January and August 2017, destinations worldwide welcomed 901 million tourist arrivals, 56 million more than the same period of 2016, a robust increase of 7 per cent. Travel to Europe, already the world’s most visited region, recorded an 8 per cent overall increase in tourist numbers, with many Mediterranean destinations reporting double-digit growth.
In this way, it’s perhaps not surprising that France, which is, and has been for decades, the world’s most visited country, tops Google’s UAE list. According to the UNWTO, tourism to France has grown by 7.5 per cent in 2017, up from a total of 82.6 million in 2016. There is a particular rush to France in the long summer months, when those travelling on Schengen visas are able to travel to a number of Continental European countries on one visa, so from France, travels are easily continued to next-door countries such as Germany, Spain, Belgium and Italy. The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi this year could also have caused a spike in bilateral tourism.
Turkey, next on the list, is also no surprise even given recent political events, which have taken place outside of the country’s extensive holiday resorts, which offer a halal, family-friendly atmosphere in a Mediterranean setting, in addition to numerous cultural attractions. Frequent, relatively low-cost air routes and a four-hour flight time make it a no-brainer for many. According to UNWTO data, although Turkey has slipped to 10th in the list of the world’s most visited countries, down from number 6 in 2015, numbers are up 31 per cent year-on-year to this year, from a still-respectable total of 30.3 million in 2016.
Egypt, too, has proved similarly robust, though recent terrorist attacks may yet dent an impressive 52 per cent increase in tourist numbers so far this year. So strong was Egypt’s recovery from the negative results in previous years, through improved security, promotional efforts and increased confidence, that until October at least, the country had been driving tourism growth in the whole of the Middle East. What seems clear, not least from Google’s data, is that Middle East-based travellers are in any case less sensitive to negative news events that those in the West.
Moving on further down the list, Greece was also popular, both as a destination for affordable Mediterranean beach breaks and cultural trips to Athens, again, just a four-hour flight away. UNWTO data confirms that tourism to Greece is up 10 per cent on last year, in which almost 25 million international travellers visited.
The middle part of Google’s 2017 table is taken by Georgia and Azerbaijan, neighbouring countries which between them span territory from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. They are closely followed by neighbouring Armenia, which comes in at number 8 on the table. All these destinations are served by low-cost direct flights from the UAE; their proximity to Turkey may also be a factor in their popularity. While the capitals of these countries, Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan respectively, have been popular for the past few years, UAE travellers are now exploring further afield, attracted, for example, by Georgia’s agreeable summer climate and extremely low costs, opting for hiking trips to the mountains which can cost just a few thousand dirhams. Return Flydubai flights to Tbilisi cost from just Dh1,234 return including taxes. From next summer, Flydubai will also operate flights to Kutaisi.
This year Flydubai also launched new seasonal direct routes from Dubai to Qabala in Azerbaijan and Batumi, which is Georgia’s second-largest city and located on the Black Sea coast. Qabala is a popular summer destination thanks to its mild climate, forested mountains and historic sites. With both routes operating from June to September, it seems that many in the UAE agreed. This year also saw an increase in the number of new multi-country trips to this region, allowing travellers to take in, for example, both Armenia and Georgia in one cultural tour.
Croatia, number 7 on Google’s list, has been trending for about the last 15 years, as travellers woke up to its clean Mediterranean environment, low prices and good food. Something of an “Italy without the crowds”, UAE travellers are also able to take advantage of direct flights and the country being a shorter flight distance than Italy or Spain. This year, Emirates launched flights to Split via Zagreb, Croatia’s capital; while Dubrovnik and the Istrian coast has always been popular, UAE travellers have started to explore secondary bases such as Zadar and Sibenik.
Montenegro, a small country on the Adriatic next to Croatia and number 9 on the list, also shows that travellers are making inroads here. In the summer travellers can fly direct to Tivat (near Kotor) with Flydubai; travellers from Abu Dhabi can fly via Belgrade with its Air Serbia codeshare. Tivat's proximity to Dubrovnik in Croatia – that country’s most popular tourism destination thanks to its spectacular, Unesco-listed old city, plus Kotor, Montenegro’s own Unesco-listed walled city, and the relatively unspoiled nature of its lakes and mountains, makes it a summer draw. Throughout the year from last month, travellers have also had the option of flying to Montenegro's capital Podgorica via Sarajevo, with Flydubai. Again, this makes the possibility of a trip involving two or more countries simple. Next year, things will get even more exciting: for summer 2018, Flydubai is adding Dubrovnik to its schedule.
Last but not least, since Emirates’ new service to Phnom Penh only launched in July, is Cambodia, one of the last pieces of the South East Asian travel map to be ticked off after Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. According to the UNWTO, tourism arrivals to South East Asia in general are up 8 per cent this year, with Cambodia up 12 per cent on last year. Coming in at number 10 on the list, 2018 is sure to see further demand thanks to the spectacular and unmissable Unesco-listed ruined city of Angkor, which was once the capital of the mighty Khmer empire, then ruling across a huge swathe of territory far beyond the modern day borders of Cambodia. And, with travellers now able to fly with UAE airlines both to and between South East Asian cities, it seems they are doing the same.