Middle East tops tourism league

05 December 2003
The Middle East enjoyed a 17 per cent increase in tourist arrivals to 28 million last year, making it the fastest growing travel market in the world, according to a recent report issued by the World Tourism Organisation. Political instability in the Occupied Territories and the invasion of Iraq in March impacted neighbouring countries heavily in early 2003, but both Egypt and Jordan have seen a rapid rebound in tourist arrivals in the summer months. Dubai and Beirut have also enjoyed record tourist numbers this year, in part due to a substantial increase in intra-regional travel. International tourism receipts for the region - excluding North Africa - grew to $13,000 million in 2002, corresponding to $470 per tourist arrival.

'All major destinations consistently showed double-digit increases [in 2002], ranging from 10 per cent for Jordan to 32 per cent for the UAE,' says the report. 'This evolution can on the one hand be seen as the result of the substantial investment in tourism infrastructure in the region, and on the other as the reflection of the strong potential of the intra-regional market, with Saudi Arabia becoming an important player, not only as a destination but also as a source market.'

Egypt enjoyed an 11.2 per cent year-on-year increase in tourist arrivals to 4 million for the first nine months of 2003, with a record level of tourists in August. 'All our marketing strategies are focused on places where we think we can attract the Arab traffic, and it seems to have paid off,' says Maha Saad, regional director of public relations for the US' Starwood Hotels & Resorts. 'In the first six months Egypt was very down, then it started picking up in July and it is now above expectations, mainly because of the huge number of visitors from the Gulf. You also see a lot of Saudis and Gulf businessmen investing in real estate in Cairo and Beirut, and along the Red Sea coast. The Arab business is growing rapidly and it really does seem to be here to stay.'

Lebanon in particular has benefited from the growth in intra-regional travel, recording a 14.2 per cent increase in visitors last year to 956,000. However, hoteliers say that in many other countries the increase in traffic is unlikely to translate into equivalently high revenues until industry confidence returns and room rates begin to rise again. 'Part of the problem for traditional markets like Jordan is that they now have too many hotel rooms,' says the regional director of an international hotel chain. 'If anyone approached me now, I'd tell them not to invest there until you see signs of long-term recovery. Syria, on the other hand, has a huge potential because they've had very little investment for more than 20 years. It's an overripe market. But there, too, they're under the shadow of the political cloud in Iraq.'

Infrastructure investment has soared in the Gulf, on the other hand, with most of the activity focusing on the regional hub of Dubai. The wave of new hotel and resort projects is predicted to translate directly into a surge in international traffic, with 15 million visitors expected to arrive in the emirate in 2010, compared with 4.7 million in 2002. In mid-2003 Dubai had 268 hotels providing a total of 25,564 rooms and suites, with an additional five hotels containing 1,500 rooms due to open by the end of 2004. 'Occupancy rates at the moment are about 95-100 per cent in the winter months and up to 80 per cent in the summer on average, which indicate there is definitely sufficient demand for these new projects,' says Barbel Kirchner, director of the UK office of the Dubai Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing. 'It is very much an international market as well, whereas other countries [in the Middle East] tend to concentrate on marketing themselves to particular regions.'

Several other Gulf states have taken notice of Dubai's success, and Qatar is in the early stages of a major infrastructure programme aimed at luring some of the international traffic further north. The airport is undergoing a $150 million expansion intended to double annual capacity to six million people, while Qatar Airways is increasing its fleet to 52 aircraft from 20 under a five-year deal signed with Airbus in August. 'We're not after massive tourism on the scale of Dubai, and the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity,' says Bassem al-Terkawi of the Qatar Tourism Authority. 'We're concentrating on some of the big sporting events like the Asian Games, but also working to keep our cultural identity and heritage. In some of the neighbouring countries in the Gulf, you could be anywhere else in the world.'

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