By: WOUTER GEERTS Consultant–Travel Euromonitor International
Reviving destinations outpace mainstream destinations in the Middle East and North Africa, largely on account of visa changes, increased tourist safety and the popularity of low-cost carriers leading to redeemed confidence from key source markets. With economies heavily based on the oil industry, countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are increasingly looking to diversify their economic activities, with the latter now opening up to international tourists. With tourism becoming more important for many economies, and despite geopolitical challenges, countries in the region are looking for closer collaboration to diversify the tourism offering.
Family and group travellers seeking experiential travel and solo travellers seeking health and wellness or adventure are key target groups. This translates into investment in theme parks, mid-market lodging, low-cost air travel and package holidays.
The rise of experiential travel has favoured growth of companies such as Airbnb in Africa. Strong travel demand, lacking hotel stock and a general absence of regulation benefit short-term rental platforms. Airbnb aims to invest USD1 million in Africa by 2020 to promote community-led tourism projects. According to the company, Africa is seeing some of the strongest growth in bookings. Egypt, entering a period of renewed stability, saw growth in guest bookings of 134% over 2017-2018, with further strong growth in Kenya (60%), South Africa (60%), Tanzania (53%) and Morocco (50%). Increasingly, Africa is not just seen as a destination, but also as a plethora of source markets. Local companies such as Travelstart and Hotels.ng, as well as Tajawal.com in the Middle East, are able to benefit from this growth by offering services in local languages, having greater understanding of local consumer preferences and behaviour.
Preparing to welcome over 20 million tourists in 2020, the United Arab Emirates remains the region’s tourism hub, with continued investment in the sector as the country gets ready for Expo2020. A new visa-upon-arrival policy boosted arrivals from Russia and China, achieving volume growth of 120% and 41% respectively in 2017. A free transit visa for up to 48 hours has also bolstered growth, as Dubai takes advantage of its position as a regional hub. While tourism is heavily concentrated in key cities, dispersion to Northern Emirates is picking up pace as they are starting to reap the benefits of their marketing efforts.
‘Book your Emirati Experience’ was officially launched by Abu Dhabi to promote authentic cultural experiences in partnership with local residents. Whether this platform can compete with global players such as Airbnb’s Trips is questionable, but the focus on experiences is positive for future growth.
The Middle East and Africa region, and United Arab Emirates in particular, has been at the centre of innovation in an effort to make the travel journey completely frictionless. Biometrics and facial recognition are becoming increasingly common in airports, arguably one of the travel spaces with the most friction. Technology is being used to reduce it. Dubai Airport, for example, has installed a face-scanning Virtual Aquarium, a tunnel equipped with over 80 facial recognition and retina cameras, replacing traditional border gates.
Seamlessness in the destination is also of utmost importance, whether it is facial recognition cameras in hotels, online check-in and keyless entry, holistic mobility solutions and other smart city initiatives, or frictionless payment facilities. Near-ubiquitous mobile connectivity has contributed to expectations of seamlessness through technology. Travellers will increasingly expect to find such solutions in the destinations they visit.
Emirates Airlines has developed an in-house Baggage Management System called Wasla to provide full control of its global baggage operations. This has already resulted in a considerable fall in levels of lost and delayed luggage, but Emirates has much grander plans for the future. Tim Clarke, the company’s CEO, said that building works on the new Al Maktoum International Airport, which will become one of the largest airports in the world and Emirates’ main hub, have been halted, as a redesign is needed to introduce more cutting-edge technology, including robotics and IoT, all to make the customer experience increasingly seamless.
The company sees a future in which robots take care of all luggage handling, from check-in to plane, and plane to belt. Travellers can walk through security without the need to take off items of clothing or empty bags. All phases, from check-in to immigration to boarding, should become easier.
Today, a shift in demand and improving infrastructure means a strong increase in low-cost carrier flights and a drive to increase hotel segmentation. With long-term sustainability of the region in mind, however, it is important that this does not become a race to the bottom, as illustrated by the struggles of some European countries today.