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The expansion of travel and tourism in the Middle East

The Middle East represents the present and the future of global travel and tourism thanks to its approach in developing the industry throughout the years and during the COVID-19 era.

The Middle East is a region full of wonders that experienced an outstanding growth, especially throughout the last two decades. This development continues influencing every sector of the area’s economy nowadays, including the travel and tourism industry. It’s in this particular sector where the achieved growth can be appreciated, a regional expansion that is turning the Middle East in the next focal point for global tourism.

What are the Middle East’s growth factors?

The combination of several factors brought prosperity in terms of travel and tourism to this area. In terms of both the number of international tourists’ arrivals and the contribution of travel and tourism to the area’s GDP, the region shows a staggering expansion that was initiated in the mid-90s and that continues up to this day, with the exception of a demand drop in 2010 caused by the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

The location of the area meands the countries in the Middle East are at the centre of key global regions and counties such as Europe, North Africa, India, and China. This factor facilitated the formation of international business relationships that boosted the countries’ economies through the years. An additional factor that propelled this development, and the beginning of new trading relationships for the Middle East, was the abundance of energy resources (especially oil) through the Arabian Peninsula.

Altogether, the Middle East initiated urbanization and other development projects that nurtured the region with the infrastructures and attractions needed to start offering travel and tourism services. Therefore, the nations from the Middle East embraced visitors gradually and started to position the travel sector as the main pillar of their economies. One effect of this favorable approach towards tourism was the creation of both megacities and international cities. From Dubai, to Riyadh, to Amman. All of these gather key features like large populations, state-of-the-art infrastructures, and excellent transportation networks which, overall, make these cities attractive for global travellers.

The creation and development of these cities in the Middle East is aligned with the current global trend which shows that around 50% of the world’s population live in cities nowadays. Besides, in the next decade this trend is expected to keep growing with an increase in the number of megacities worldwide as well as a bigger percentage of global population moving permanently to cities. Therefore, the affluence of visitors to the big metropolises of the Arabian Peninsula presents an opportunity for the region’s destinations to cater for more cosmopolitan ways of travelling and doing business.

According to the latest Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index elaborated by the World Economic Forum, the Middle East outperforms other regions mainly in indicators related to business environment and price competitiveness. The Middle East was the second-best performer in travel and tourism showing an annual growth rate of 5.3% in 2019. In terms of nations, Oman showed the best improvement in aspects like international openness and environmental sustainability. Meanwhile, the United Arab States lead in air transport and tourist service infrastructure. In the same way, Saudi Arabia achieved the best overall performance from the region in all the travel and tourism indicators of the report.

From Saudi Arabia’s tourism strategy to Dubai’s embracement of global travel

The case of Saudi Arabia is the best example to show the growth experienced by a destination within the Middle East. This Kingdom elaborated an innovative tourism strategy that expanded the nation’s travel and tourism sector by around 15% while supporting 1.5 million jobs in 2019. This plan aims to open the nation to the world by investing in giga projects designed to retain both Saudi travellers and international visitors. Parallel to this, the mentioned strategy focusses its efforts in developing both Halal tourism and religious tourism by issuing more visas and including non-touristic ones as well. Altogether, Saudi Arabia seeks to attract 100 million visitors by 2030 and pose itself as a remarkable competitor to other destinations like the United Arab States.

Another example to be analyzed is the case of Dubai. This destination represents one of the most important aviation hubs not just in the Middle East but in the world. The city reached this status by attracting travellers from key markets like China and India through direct flights and by easing the procedures to obtain visas. At the same time, the metropolis developed world-class hotels and retails along with other attractions and experiences that aim to attract different travel segments from families to cultural tourists.

Although it could take up to three years to restore the pre-COVID levels of tourism spend in the Middle East, the region continues to move forward on its way to recovery. Two aspects that make a difference for the Middle East include aviation and events. Airlines from the region like Emirates, Qatar Airways or Etihad Airways are ranked on top of the best world airlines’ lists in terms of the quality of the services they provide. These air carriers have the capacity to secure the region’s air connectivity plus they all have embraced measures that facilitate a safe return for international travels like testing travel passes that provide reliable evidence that passengers have been either vaccinated or tested negative before flying. In the same way, the Middle East is a global reference for the MICE industry. Despite the pandemic stopping the organization and celebration of big events, the region shows its resilience by showing a wide offer of them. From hosting the FIFA World Cup next year in Qatar to the celebration of hybrid events critical for the tourism sector like the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai next month.

The role and impact of the Middle East’s destinations in the present and the future of global travel is unquestionable. As the comeback of leisure travel worldwide gets closer and new types of travellers continue emerging, this region shows the roadmap to recovery for when global travel restrictions are lift. The region’s response to the crisis that strikes the travel industry is quite clear. Well-defined tourism strategies, investments in giga projects, development of excelsior aviation hubs, organization of world-class events, and the application of measures like easier processes to get visas or the utilization of travel passes against COVID are the main features of the Middle East’s travel and tourism.

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