Dubai's decision to open its doors to sanction-hit Russians has helped the emirate welcome a record number of visitors from the country.
Middle East Travel Roundup
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Dubai welcomed 1.47 million overnight visitors in January as Russia went on to be the second largest tourism source market for the emirate. Registering a 63 percent increase over 2022, for the emirate, 115,000 Russians visited Dubai for tourism. The highest number of international guests were from India at 186,000, while the third-biggest source market was Saudi Arabia with 98,000 visitors. Skift had earlier mentioned in an article how Dubai has proved to be a safe haven for sanction-hit Russians wanting to flee the country. During the year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, air traffic between Moscow and Dubai grew at a whopping 228 percent compared to pre-pandemic, according to travel analytics firm ForwardKeys. While Dubai’s 1.47 million overnight visitors in January is lower compared to 2019’s 1.6 million, it is 50 percent above January 2022’s 980,000 visitors.
Business travel spend in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, according to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA). The association in its most recent Business Travel Index Outlook annual forecast and outlook (2022), noted that business travel in the region is recovering more rapidly than in any other region, having achieved 86 percent of its 2019 levels during 2022, outperforming the recovery in Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe. According to the forecast, business travel spending reached $933 billion globally in 2022, 65 percent of the $1.4 trillion business pre-pandemic travel spend, with the Middle East and Africa region accounting for $23 billion or approximately 2.5 percent of overall spending within the sector.
With Egypt expecting record tourist numbers this year and aiming to attract 30 million visitors by 2028, Tourism Minister Ahmed Issa said the country looks to boost tourism by expanding flight capacity and increasing room capacity. Speaking at ITB Berlin, Issa said the country has made use of digitalisation to make regulating health and safety standards better and more efficient and to ensure the private sector had fair access to the market. “We want to make it easy for the private sector to unleash its potential,” said Issa. The tourism minister further said that steps would be taken to make it easier for private investors to increase room capacity. Tourism products for individual travellers would also be expanded.
Marriott International announced that it has signed an agreement with Neom to open three properties on its luxury island destination Sindalah, situated in the Red Sea off the northwest coast of Saudi Arabia. The multi-deal agreement includes Saudi Arabia’s first Autograph Collection Hotels property, as well as two Luxury Collection properties. “We continue to see growth opportunities for our brand portfolio within the destination and Saudi Arabia overall,” said Jerome Briet, chief development officer, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Marriott International. The first destination in Neom to start welcoming guests, Sindalah is expected to welcome guests from early 2024. The three projects are expected to the first hotels to open on the island.
Airfares from the United Arab Emirates are expected to increase compared to the same period last year, according to online travel marketplace Wego, while revealing the top booking trends for Ramadan. “Cheap flights may be harder to come by as the prices for flights to India and the UK have already risen between 13 to 32 percent,” Wego said citing its data. The fact that this year’s Ramadan is coinciding with school breaks could be a reason for the instant spike in travel demand. “We expect to see a further increase in airfares as we approach the Eid break,” Wego said. Due to a busy event schedule and the upcoming Ramadan season, hotel rooms in Dubai have also experienced slight price increase and limited availability compared to last year, according to Wego. With bookings for Ramadan, Easter, and Eid showing a positive trend, this is expected to continue. Average hotel price on Wego in Dubai last month reached $220, with hotel occupancy at 80.5 percent, around 7 percent higher than in the same month in 2022.
Saudi Arabia has announced a major change to the visa application process with regard to residents of Gulf countries. As per the new amendment, residents of the Gulf are eligible to apply for a tourist visa to the kingdom, regardless of their profession. Earlier, the kingdom allowed e-visas only to Gulf residents with occupations listed on its approved list. As per the new rule, residents of Gulf countries would be able to enter the kingdom with an electronic tourist visa obtained by applying through the Visit Saudi platform, provided that their residency permit is valid for at least three months and passport for at least six months. This also applies to accompanying first-degree relatives of the residency holder and domestic workers arriving with their sponsors. In January, the kingdom introduced a new free transit visa allowing stopover passengers to stay in the country for up to four days. Last year, the Saudi Tourism Authority had launched the integrated digital platform, Nusuk that offers all pilgrims and visitors an easy-to-use planning gateway for their journeys to Makkah and Madinah, and beyond.
Jumeirah Group in partnership with the Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism has introduced Jumeirah Mobile Check-In, an industry-first biometric and digital technology solution. The solution allows guests to complete all check-in formalities prior to arrival through their mobile phone, reducing the check-in process by up to 10 minutes, a statement from Jumeirah said. The contactless check-in solution integrates Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts’ ecosystem with government-approved check-in protocols and security features, a release read. “Jumeirah Mobile Check-In delivers provides our guests with a secure, quick and easy check-in process, in addition to simplifying future reservations and facilitating payment processes,” Thomas B Meier, chief operating officer of Jumeirah Group said.
Hotel management company Rotana announced that it has signed agreements for several new openings, including the management agreement of Bloom Arjan by Rotana located in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. Scheduled to open next quarter, Rotana will make its foray into the Algerian market with the launch of Azure Rotana Resort & Spa in Oran. Luxor Rotana launching by the end of the year is one of six new Rotana hotels planned to open in Egypt, with properties in the pipeline for New Cairo and the popular North Coast in 2024. Rotana has also recently signed an initial deal for a five-star resort in the West African nation of Benin. Rotana presented its burgeoning expansion plans across the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Turkey (MENAT) region, as well as its newest brand Edge by Rotana at ITB Berlin. With an aim to operate around 30 Edge by Rotana properties in the region by 2027, Rotana recently announced the openings of two new Edge by Rotana-managed hotels in the United Arab Emirates — Arabian Park and Damac Hills 2 in Dubai. The group has also signed an agreement for an Edge by Rotana hotel in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia has announced the launch of its new national airline — Riyadh Air, wholly owned by Saudi sovereign wealth fund — Public Investment Fund. The new national carrier will leverage Saudi Arabia’s strategic geographic location between the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, enabling Riyadh to become a gateway to the world and a global destination for transportation, trade, and tourism, the Public Investment Fund said in a release. Riyadh Air will be chaired by Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of PIF, while Tony Douglas, former CEO of Abu Dhabi-flag carrier Etihad Airways, has been appointed as the CEO. Operating from Riyadh as its hub, the airline is expected to add $20 billion to non-oil gross domestic product growth, and create more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Seed Group has onboarded Italian corporate travel agency BizAway as its new strategic partner with an aim to empower and revolutionize business travel experiences for customers in the United Arab Emirates and the region. Seed Group will facilitate BizAway’s growth and expansion with guidance on how to reach the right audience, access top decision-makers in the government as well as the private sector, and contribute to making business travel easier and more seamless. BizAway’s expertise in the region will ease a lot of pain points in business travel, said Hisham Al Gurg, CEO of Seed Group. “BizAway’s solutions are designed to support local corporations and the UAE’s goal of digitalization perfectly. This gives them an edge and the ability to disrupt the business travel industry in the UAE and the Gulf at large, especially when the value of business travel spending in the Gulf region has been pegged at over $30 billion,” Al Gugr said.
Lifestyle hospitality company Ennismore has signed an agreement with Olayan Financing Company to launch the first Mondrian hotel development in Saudi Arabia, Mondrian Riyadh Al Malga. Set to open in 2026, Mondrian Riyadh will also be Ennismore’s first hotel in the capital. The property will be developed as part of the mixed-use Al Malga Urban Village. Located in the northern part of Riyadh, the Al Malga neighbourhood is at the entrance of the recently announced 400-metre-high cube-shaped skyscraper Mukaab as part of the capital’s Murabba downtown plan. The development is touted to be a tourism and cultural destination, including entertainment, dining, and retail, and will have an almost full-height atrium space that will contain a spiralling tower. As part of its global expansion, Mondrian has 17 hotels and branded residences in the pipeline, including upcoming openings in Singapore, Hong Kong, Bordeaux, Ibiza, Cannes, Dubai, Gold Coast Australia, and Abu Dhabi, adding to its existing portfolio of seven open hotels including Mexico City, London, Los Angles and Doha.
Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism has announced an agreement with USA Basketball, under which the U.S. will host three games in Abu Dhabi featuring the men’s national teams from U.S., Germany and Greece. The USA Basketball Showcase Abu Dhabi represents USA Basketball’s first men’s national team activity in the United Arab Emirates. This is the first time USA Basketball’s men’s national team will play in the UAE, said Jim Tooley, CEO, USA Basketball. “It’s set to be an unforgettable summer in Abu Dhabi. We look forward to welcoming players and fans from the U.S., Germany and Greece, to cheer on their national teams and to discover a wide range of experiences in Abu Dhabi that inspire, excite and restore,” said Saleh Al Geziry, director-general of tourism at Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism.
Etihad Airways has successfully switched to the Amadeus Altéa Passenger Service System (PSS). All Etihad Airways flights between Abu Dhabi and its global network of airports are now being managed with the Amadeus Altéa suite of travel technology, which offers a faster and simpler check-in and boarding process. The move to Amadeus has been the largest IT project Etihad has undertaken in the last decade with more than 100 IT processes moved over, and over 6,000 colleagues trained to use the new system, Etihad CEO Antonoaldo Neves said. “Amadeus provides us with the tools we need to continue enhancing our guest experience and improving our operations into the future,” Neves said. The switch to Amadeus Altéa would shape a new era of guest experience, giving customers a more personalised experience, with greater flexibility and control over how they book and manage their flights, the airline said in a release.
United Arab Emirates-based vacation rental company bnbme has signed a memorandum of understanding with Marriott Bonvoy, where members of Marriott Bonvoy can access homes and villas managed by bnbme holiday homes in the UAE and India. Guests will also earn Bonvoy points, and would also be allowed to pay using the accumulated points. “The partnership is a testament to our commitment to constantly strive to bring new offerings to the discerning visitors and holiday seekers,” said Vinayak Mahtani, CEO of bnbme holiday homes.
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Photo credit: Russia is the second largest tourism source market for Dubai. tommaso picone / Pexels