Getting tourism back on track in the Middle East

With all the efforts by the leadership of the United Arab Emirates, last month the country opened for international travellers amidst strict protocols to ensure the safety and security of every individual. In the first session of the second Travtalk ME conclave, three eminent personalities spoke about the tourism industry and its future.

Digital Conclave 2 – Session 1

HE Khalid Jassim Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority

Ready for next phase 

HE Khalid Jassim Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, said,  “After going through the different stages and experiments I believe that life can come back to normal much before we expect. In other countries people with symptoms had to visit a doctor for check-up but here the approach was different, the government tested over 50 per cent of the population so that the citizens, people and the visitors are safe. We are seeing the airlines opening up slowly, and we are slowly building confidence and trust due to these efforts over the past few months. In Phase 2 of this scenario which will start early September we will start seeing more people coming into the UAE and having a higher level of comfort and trust in what the UAE has to offer. I believe that the future will be bright and from what we are seeing from all emirates, with the guidelines of the leadership we are prepared for the next stage.”

Sharjah hits 7.3 million visitors in 2019

As the set goal of 10 million visitors by 2021 approaches, the pandemic has but a short-term impact on the visitor arrivals and the UAE was one of the leading countries in the world to open to tourism once again. HE Midfa shared, “In 2019, we received 7.3 million guests both hotel and MICE guests to Sharjah, the aim was to attract 10 million by 2021, it will be extended to 2022 and we should achieve it. You can see the numbers flowing into the UAE due to our strong infrastructure and road networks, which have a competitive advantage.  In terms of receiving business and tourists to the UAE across the seven different emirates, the road networks and public transport infrastructure is here for the new normal base. I’m very optimistic the near future will be very bright. We will see things slowly coming back.”

Confidence building

“I think we should make sure that we convey the right message, sometimes I have seen some companies going back to the traditional marketing focusing on mixed messages. I think today it is very important looking at the present situation and the demand of the visitors and the people, we should  convey the message that gives confidence to the visitors, always keep that as your main message. You have done a lot of hard work and effort in that regard, so why not convey that message to your visitors, we as government entities as well as private companies or establishments need to always focus on this area to make sure it is given in the proper way to give enough information for the visitors to the UAE.  For the time being, for the coming six months this would be the winning area when it comes to marketing,” added HE Midfa.

Updates   

In other countries people with symptoms had to visit a doctor for check-up but here the approach was different, the government tested over 50 per cent of the population so that the citizens, people and the visitors are safe  — HE Khalid Jassim Al Midfa

 

Suman Billa, Director, Technical Cooperation & Silk Road, UNWTO

MENA, a robust destination

“One of the most important factors in this region is that most oil economies are looking at tourism to see as to how they can diversify from their overhead reliance on oil. And they have got some extremely strong products such as culture, shopping and M!CE.” He opined that the best way forward as we are still to find a vaccine or even a cure for the pandemic is that it is better to look at localised bubbles to be promoted where you could look at targeted market segments to work with first and then go on.

Reassuring safety of the travellers

“They also have a very strong aviation sector and world-class infrastructure. The biggest plus they have is the ability of destinations to work with the airlines. In order to get the tourists in you need an airline and in the Middle East region this is an advantage. They have a very cohesive relationship which will come in stronger, strategically located between Europe and Asia with access, but the most important thing is health and safety protocols at this point of time, and they need to make sure they are in place. If you look at the global experiences the countries that had the first wave of infections, such as Spain and Italy, have now restarted tourism. It is possible to restart your tourism with health and hygiene protocols in place.  Another key advantage the Middle East has is that they have a lot of global players which are rated very highly, which goes a long way in reassuring travellers, because it is not enough to kill the virus but also to kill the panic or anxiety of the travellers.  So quality reassurance is fairly strong in the Middle East, the way forward in the short-term is to develop these bubbles to see how we can get people from key markets in and then to see a very aggressive, very focused and localised targeted marketing programme to connect the markets that are opened up as we go,” stated Billa.

Reprioritise your product portfolio

Billa pointed out, “The immediate bubble is going to be within the region but as you go forward as some of the European countries are opening it will be easier for the Middle East to plug into that and if you look at India they are looking at UAE.”  He further explained what the “bubble does”, when somebody comes from a destination there are certain quarantine elements; they need to be sure that they conform to the safety and hygiene standards as the destination wants to protect their citizens from being exposed to risk or getting infected. So, safety comes first. Second is what the hotels will do in all industry touch points. In terms of markets they will be staggered as they open up.

You don’t have the luxury of pitching your products to the entire world; it has to be very localised, very specific. If Germany is opening up, you need to see what are the products that would be of interest to the German market. Reprioritise your product portfolio and match it with the market you are going to focus on and run a very hyper focus campaign.

Updates

We are looking at a reduction of 1 billion tourists this year in terms of international tourist arrivals and in terms of revenues we are looking at a drop of 1 trillion. Also, there will be a change in the traveller profile until a vaccine comes, you will see a lot of the younger population travelling as the virus doesn’t affect them, and as their ability to cope is stronger  — Suman Billa

Developing travel bubbles

The way forward in the short-term is to develop these bubbles to see how we can get people from key markets in and then to see a localised targeted marketing programme to connect the markets that are opened up as we go. — Suman Billa

 

Raki Phillips, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority RAK, first city to be certified as a ‘safe’ destination

Raki Phillips, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, said, “Ras Al Khaimah is known for its natural beauty, sprawling hotels, mountains. For us, it was very good to focus on safety and security to welcome guests back primarily from the domestic markets but now we are starting to see the international travellers coming back and that excites us. Just last week our hotel occupancy was 60 per cent in the emirate and some of the properties were sold out. The levels of testing are phenomenal in the UAE and we are leading in the world. The safety and security measures put in place have made us a welcoming destination  and I think it all comes from the leadership to drive us in order to have a wonderful offering that is not only exciting to tourists but also safe and secure. I also have to commend the global organisations like the UNWTO and WTTC that have worked very closely with us in coming up with global initiatives that help us drive some of our friends and colleagues around the world. I look forward to a good recovery.”

“It is important for us to know what the consumer sentiment is, the top priority we had in Ras Al Khaimah was safety and security of our colleagues as well as our guests so we put some guidelines together to ensure that we are prepared for the destination during the recovery and as we opened up. One of the things we did was we funded COVID testing for every single employee who works in the hospitality sector especially at our hotels and we put some guidelines together for safety and security but then apart from that what we did is, Ras Al Khaimah was confirmed as the first city and emirate in the world to receive both the prestigious safeguard label from Bureau Veritas and World Travel and Tourism Council Safe Travels stamp. Our international exhibition and conference centre is also the first M!CE facility in the Middle East to be Bureau Veritas certified so that means that we have got all measures and initiatives in place to ensure safe tourism options. When it comes to M!CE, Ras Al Khaimah is very active in the M!CE community; it is one of our key pillars and Indian weddings is a big attraction.”

Travellers look for memorable experiences

“Ras Al Khaimah is a sun and sand, tree and culture and adventure side of the business with a mountain experience. I think consumers will continue to look for experiences that engage them and give them long-lasting memories. Destinations that have a myriad of offerings such as culture, adventure etc. will have a better chance of attracting travellers as they value not only the experience but also the safety aspect. We have made sure that our hotels and attractions are all safe by sanitising everywhere from our zipline, Al Suwaidi Pearl farm, hotels and every area is sanitised and kept safe,” stated Phillips. In terms of M!CE, he said that they have created programmes to attract the M!CE bookers where you can get credit against your booking, then there is the new shortcation campaign and the
webinar seminars with zoom coffee hours.

Tourism is a resilient industry

Phillips reiterated that the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority has taken all necessary actions not only to provide safety measures and protocols but has also waived off some of the charges and fees for the industry.  It is important that the industry bounces back; the stimulus packages by the federal government provide many incentives to the investors. He further pointed out that the United Arab Emirates is just four hours away from most countries in the world and has some of the best in terms of tourism products on offer, which will bring back the tourists very soon. He concluded that Ras Al Khaimah has been able to maintain the highest RevPAR.

Updates

Ras Al Khaimah was confirmed as the first city and emirate in the world to receive both the prestigious safeguard label from Bureau Veritas and World Travel and Tourism Council Safe Travels stamp  — Raki Phillips

Inputs by Shehara Rizly

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