UNWTO may not be too far off the mark on its recovery prediction for the Middle East considering the number of hotel openings and new projects in the region. However, the road to recovery is fraught with economic and geopolitical risks.
Middle East Travel Roundup
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Having witnessed a stronger than expected recovery in 2022, the Middle East could see international tourist arrivals return to pre-pandemic levels this year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Data from the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer noted that while all regions enjoyed significant increase in international arrivals in 2022 over the previous year, the Middle East recorded the strongest relative increase as international tourist numbers climbed to 83 percent of pre-pandemic numbers last year. “The region welcomed large events such as Expo 2020 Dubai and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, as well as a highly attended Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia,” noted UNWTO in its report. “UNWTO anticipates a strong year for the sector even in the face of diverse challenges including the economic situation and continued geopolitical uncertainty,” Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili said. UNWTO noted that over 900 million tourists travelled internationally in 2022, which was double the number of those who travelled in 2021 though still 37 percent below 2019.
Passengers travelling on Saudi Arabia’s national carrier Saudia, would soon be able to avail a free four-day tourist visa, according to local media reports. Saudia is set to announce the “Your Ticket is a Visa” program, which enables tourists on board its flights to enter Saudi Arabia for a period of 96 hours, the airline’s spokesperson, Abdullah Al-Shahrani said to the local media. While a date has not been announced for the launch but Al Shahrani said that those coming to Saudi Arabia, through Saudia, would be able to travel across the kingdom and also perform Umrah. The airline has allocated over 25.3 million seats for international flights in 2023 across almost 90,000 flights, up 40 percent from 2022. Seat capacity on domestic flights for 2023 has also been increased by about half a million seats to reach over 17.8 million, with the total number of domestic flights exceeding 102,100.
Saudi Arabia’s megaproject Red Sea Destination would not be imposing any restrictions on tourists visiting the destination and would be governed by international standards, according to Loredana Pettinati, Red Sea Global‘s senior travel trade director. Pettinati made the statement at a briefing about the project in United Arab Emirates where she was taking questions from the audience, as per a report by Hotelier Middle East. She said that hotels would not be asking for marital status to men and women wanting to book a room at Red Sea and women would be able to wear bikinis. Since women in Saudi Arabia are required to cover their bodies in public, bikinis are not acceptable in public beaches. Touted to be a luxury tourism destination, the Red Sea Destination is being developed on the western coast of the country. Managed by Red Sea Global, the project forms part of the Saudi Vision 2030 program. This year, the project will witness the opening of an international airport as well as the first three hotels — St Regis Red Sea Resort, Nujuma Ritz Carlton Reserve and Six Senses Southern Dunes.
Dubai tops the list for medical tourism in the Middle East and North Africa region and ranks sixth in the world, with the city ranking fifth globally on the sub-index of quality of facilities and services, according to the latest Medical Tourism Index. The emirate’s private health facilities hit a record 4,482 in 2022, a 45 percent growth in five years, according to official statistics released by the Dubai Health Authority for 2022. Along with the growth in the number of healthcare facilities, Dubai has also witnessed an impressive 61 percent increase in licensed medical professionals to reach 55,208 in 2022.
Egypt hopes to double its tourism figures to reach 25-30 million by 2028. Ahmed Issa, the tourism minister, made this remark during a debate at the senate. However, he highlighted that to accommodate an increasing number of tourists the country would also need to double its hotel room capacity, offer low-cost air travel options and diversify its tourist products. Issa said the government is currently giving a lot of incentives to the private sector to double Egypt’s inbound traffic. “Egypt has 1,200 tourist hotels, 1,300 tourist restaurants, 12,000 tourist guides, 2,200 tourist companies, 130 archaeological sites and 31 museums currently,” he said. The minister went on to say that Egypt is currently concentrating on attracting more Chinese tourists to the destination. “I can say that there are around 30 million Chinese who are interested in visiting Egypt over the next few years,” he said.
United Arab Emirates’ Al Habtoor Group is looking to spend up to $3 billion this year to expand its real estate and hotel business. The group which owns residential properties and hotels is looking at markets in Europe, including Budapest and Slovakia, for expansion. “We are investing around $2.8 billion to $3 billion this year for expansion,” UAE businessman Khalaf Ahmed Al Habtoor said speaking to Bloomberg TV. Al Habtoor Group has at least 14 hotels in its portfolio, including Waldorf Astoria on the Palm Jumeirah, Metropolitan Hotel and Hilton Dubai Al Habtoor City in the UAE. The group also has hotels in the UK, Lebanon and Hungary. In its earnings report for the first half of 2022, the group had noted an 82 per cent increase in revenues for its hospitality arm Habtoor Hospitality, over the same period in 2021. The company had attributed this to an overall increase in bookings in town and an average daily rate-focused policy.
Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts, which operates 26 properties across the Middle East, Europe and Asia, has become the latest hospitality company to join the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance. With this, “Jumeirah has become part of the responsible hospitality network, with a reach of over 7 million rooms, along with strategic and supply chain partners to create shared solutions for environmental and social challenges,” a release from the company stated. The alliance’s work includes climate action, water stewardship and responsible resourcing, alongside human rights, employability and equity, diversity and inclusion. Highlighting Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts’ commitment to incorporating sustainable and inclusive practices across the business ecosystem, Thomas Meier, chief operating officer of the hotel group, said, “We believe we have the opportunity with the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance to bring about transformative change, by working alongside our industry peers and finding practical solutions that will ultimately set the foundations for long term value creation and sustainable growth.”
The grand reveal of ultra-luxury resort Atlantis The Royal took place during the weekend. The event was marked by a 60-minute performance of American singer Beyonce, her first live show since 2018. “Eight years in the making, Atlantis The Royal has been specifically designed to challenge the boundaries of imagination and reshape what ultra-luxury travel means,” a release from the company said. Reservations are now open for stays from February 10 onwards. “We are excited to begin welcoming guests in February and treat them to an experience that will completely redefine their perspective of luxury,” said Tim Kelly, managing director of Atlantis Dubai. The 43-storey high and spanning 406,000 square metres, Atlantis The Royal, is shaped like Tetris blocks and is located on the outer crescent of Palm Jumeirah.
The Middle East and Africa was the only region to show an increase in overall hotel pipeline activity at the end of the fourth quarter, according to December 2022 data from hotel data giant STR. A total of 238,635 hotel rooms were under contract in the region in December 2022, an increase of a little over 1 percent compared to the same period in 2021. Saudi Arabia with 40,742 rooms and United Arab Emirates with 27,456 rooms have the highest number of rooms in construction in the region. Around 41,086 rooms were in the final planning stage in December, up by 6 percent from December 2021, while another 74,863 rooms were in the planning phase.
Around 20 percent of the infrastructure work at Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion futuristic city Neom has been completed, according to Nadhmi Al-Nasr, Neom’s CEO. The work progress has been on schedule to deliver infrastructure, Al-Nasr told Al-Arabiya TV from Davos. Sindalah, the first luxury island destination in Neom and one of the most important projects supporting Saudi Arabia’s national tourism strategy is expected to open in 2024. Last week a progress film was also released showing footage of the large-scale construction across Neom. “We want to show the world that Neom is really happening,” a release stated. This is said to be the first film in what will be an ongoing series showing progress at the megacity. Hospitality brand Yotel also announced its first hotel signing at Neom. Scheduled to open in 2025, the Yotel property will also be the first hotel to open at Oxagon in Neom.
The Expo Centre Sharjah has announced its event calendar for 2023, which includes 49 economic, commercial, and cultural exhibitions, an increase of 23 percent from the 40 events held in 2022. The calendar also features events to be hosted by its affiliate centres in Khorfakkan and Al Dhaid. The 2023 calendar includes eight exhibitions and conferences to be organised in Sharjah for the first time. The Expo Centre’s 2023 events calendar has been carefully planned to reflect the improved investment climate in Sharjah and enhance the emirate’s business environment, Abdullah Sultan Al Owais, chairman of the Expo Centre, said. Equipped with modern, world-class facilities, advanced technologies, and high-quality services for event organisers from different countries, the expo centre attracts over 2.5 million visitors annually, according to Saif Mohammed Al Midfa, CEO of the Expo Centre.
Emirates has successfully completed the ground engine testing for one of its GE90 engines on a Boeing 777-300ER using 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel. The objective of the ground testing and analysis is to demonstrate the capability of the GE90 engine to run on the specially blended 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel without affecting its performance, requiring no modifications to the aircraft systems, or special maintenance procedures on the aircraft or engine to operate. The ground test results will now pave the way for the airline’s first experimental test flight using 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel in one engine, which is due for take-off this week. Emirates is on the steering committee of the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow initiative, which seeks to promote sustainable aviation fuel deployment worldwide.
Middle East Travel Roundup
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Photo credit: Events such as Expo 2020 Dubai and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar helped the Middle East to witness a stronger than expected recovery in 2022. tommaso picone / Pexels