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Mastercard's Travel Industry Trends 2023 report highlights the significance of personalized experiences and flexible payment options in meeting evolving consumer expectations. By prioritizing these factors, travel businesses can cultivate stronger customer relationships, boost loyalty, and thrive in a highly competitive market.

Series: Middle East Travel Roundup

Middle East Travel Roundup

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In the Middle East and Africa region, travel and entertainment spending by small businesses was up 49 percent in March 2023 versus a year ago, according to the Travel Industry Trends 2023 report by Mastercard Economics Institute. From March 2019, it is up 78 percent. Large businesses observed growth as well, but at smaller rates.

And for the first time in the history of the report, Egypt and Saudi Arabia joined the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the top 10 destinations list. In 2023, a new dynamic emerged, with travelers exploring destinations closer to home, according to the report. Egypt and Saudi Arabia landed in seventh and eighth place, respectively even as UK, U.S., UAE and France remain the most popular international destinations for travelers leaving the Middle East.

Source: Mastercard Economics Institute

The report also notes that consumers from the region, are increasingly embracing leisure travel and exploring new travel corridors worldwide. The report indicates that both leisure and business travel are growing at the same pace globally, with corporate flight bookings catching up to leisure travel in regions prioritizing a return to office culture. From January to March, leisure flight bookings in the UAE were up 49 percent in 2023.

Another significant trend is the preference for experiences over material possessions, with travelers seeking unique and immersive cultural experiences. Social media and entertainment have influenced tourists to venture into lesser-known destinations. In the Middle East and Africa region, spending on experiences has surged, with Morocco experiencing a remarkable 117 percent year-over-year increase in experience-oriented spending by March 2023.

Daily Passenger Numbers at Dubai Airport Expected to Exceed 252,000

Dubai International Airport is set to witness a significant surge in passenger numbers during the upcoming weeks. As the UAE’s summer school break aligns with the six-day long Eid Al Adha holidays, Dubai airport is preparing to welcome an estimated 3.5 million guests between June 20 and July 3.

Average daily traffic is anticipated to reach 252,000, with a notable increase in departures from June 23 to 25, exceeding a quarter of a million outbound travelers. The peak day for departures is forecast to be June 24, with almost 100,000 passengers leaving the airport. Additionally, the end of the Eid Al Adha holiday is expected to witness even higher arrival numbers, surpassing a record-breaking 305,000 passengers on July 2.

To ensure a seamless travel experience despite the peak traffic, the airport said its teams are working collaboratively with state-of-the-art operations control centers, monitoring and addressing operational situations proactively.

GuestReady Harnesses Power of AI in Region

Global hospitality and property technology company GuestReady is harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the first time in the Gulf region. The two new AI-powered technology features are within the company’s innovative, all-in-one property management system, RentalReady, which offers comprehensive functionality for managing short-term vacation rentals. It is believed to be the first integration of AI of its kind in the Gulf region. RentalReady is currently used by GuestReady as well as independent property managers, hosts, and guests.

Among the new AI-driven updates is the introduction of personalized, on-demand guest itineraries for destinations that include Dubai and Riyadh among others in the GuestReady global network. “Incorporating information that includes property address, guest demographics and details, trip purpose and length of stay, AI generates a custom day-by-day itinerary for guests,” the company said in release.

The Gulf region remains a priority market for GuestReady given the tremendous growth and opportunity that exists here within the short-term rental market, said GuestReady’s managing director in the region, Reem Alkhatib. “Following 220 percent year-on-year sales growth in the UAE alone last year, we are expanding our regional footprint. These new AI integrations further bolster our service and experience for our regional guests, property investors and stakeholders.” 

Almosafer Partners With Klook to Launch Almosafer Activities

Saudi Arabia-based travel company Almosafer, part of the Seera Group, has partnered with Klook, an Asian travel and experiences platform, have joined forces to launch the first-ever holistic tours and activities platform for the Saudi Arabian market – Almosafer Activities.

The B2B digital marketplace aims to offer a comprehensive range of tours and activities specifically tailored for the Saudi Arabian market. The collaboration between the two companies, established through an agreement in early 2022, aims to create an all-encompassing B2B marketplace for activities within the kingdom. The platform is set to launch for distributors in the third quarter and will leverage Klook’s global presence as a leading distributor of experiences and services. Almosafer Activities looks to provide both domestic and international tourists a seamless booking experience for a wide array of activities.

Saudi Arabia Railways Joins Forces With Uber

In an effort to offer commuters and tourists greater access to seamless travel, Saudi Arabia Railways has partnered with Uber to integrate its Reserve productfor the first time globally — on a rail platform. The partnership enables passengers to pre-book up to four Reserve rides to and from 7 train stations across 6 cities in Saudi Arabia via the railways website and app when purchasing train tickets. The new service will be available to and from stations in Riyadh, Majmaah and Qassim on the North Train line, and for the East Train, Riyadh, Hofuf, Abqaiq and Dammam. Later, services will be activated for Hail, Jouf and Qurayyat, a release stated. Bookings can be made up to 90 days in advance.

“Our collaboration with Uber charts a way forward for our efforts in enriching the logistics sector, in addition to supporting tourism in the kingdom,” said Khaled Al Harbi, senior vice president passenger, Saudi Arabia Railways. The new launch ushers in the second phase of Uber’s strategic partnership with Saudi railways, following the signing of an agreement in 2021 to facilitate more streamlined pick-up and drop off for commuters at Saudi Arabia railway stations.

Middle East Gets Its First Nature Trail-Inspired Adventure Park

Dubai’s indoor tropical rainforest, The Green Planet, is set to introduce the Middle East’s inaugural outdoor nature trail-inspired play park for families. Scheduled to open in the third quarter, the outdoor extension is said to offer an array of features, including a tree house exploration trail, encounters with colossal bugs, a botanical garden housing nine flora zones, a dedicated kids’ play area, and dining options that highlight the essence of nature. “This new edutainment and adventure experience will be complemented by knowledgeable biologists, who will serve as guides, immersing guests in the captivating world of insects and emphasizing their crucial role in our ecosystem,” a release stated. Moreover, the facility also aims to offer school tours and field trips to the rainforest enriching educational programs and a deeper understanding of the biodome.

Etihad Airways Partners With Pine Labs for Asset Management Solution

Pine Labs’ Qwikcilver, a provider of end-to-end gift card and stored value solutions, has partnered with Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates to enable seamless issuance of refund and compensation vouchers through Qwikcilver’s Asset Manager solution. Integrated with Etihad Airways’ online and offline systems, the solution looks to allow efficient, automated, and instant issuance of refund and compensation vouchers to customers.

The integration will ensure that customers of Etihad Airways receive their vouchers in a timely manner, which will improve customer experience and customer retention, a release stated. Qwikcilver has migrated the existing vouchers to this platform to ensure a seamless usage experience for all the customers of the airline irrespective of when they received the vouchers. “Our asset manager solution enables efficient and automated issuance of refund and compensation vouchers. We are confident this will help to reduce operational costs and improve customer retention. We look forward to a successful partnership with Etihad Airways,” said B Amrish Rau, CEO of Pine Labs.

Central Hotels Posts 9 Percent Revenue Growth in First Half of Year

UAE’s Central Hotels & Resorts reported a surge in revenue and occupancy rates in the first half of the year. Compared to the same period last year, Central Hotels & Resorts reported a 9 percent growth in overall year-to-date revenue.

“The first half of 2023 has been a remarkable period for Central Hotels & Resorts, with substantial growth in revenue and occupancy rates,” said Abdulla Al Abdulla, chief operating office, and group general manager. The company said its success could be attributed to several factors, some of which included its successfully rebuilding of relationships with online travel channels and local/international travel agencies. While guests from Saudi Arabia, UK, France, Germany, and Central Asia made a huge chunk of the arrivals, the Israeli market has emerged as a significant contributor to the performance of all Central Hotels & Resorts.

The hospitality company also reported observing a shift in guest booking behavior, with more guests opting to book through online portals such as Booking.com and Agoda

Futurecraft Ventures Acquires Stake in Travel Platform Holiday Swap

UK-based fund Futurecraft Ventures has acquired a stake in travel platform Holiday Swap, marking its first investment in the travel industry. The Futurecraft collaboration is set to offer “smart money” support in addition to funding. As a result of the investment partnership, Holiday Swap aims to both launch new travel options and services and enhance the existing ones. Futurecraft had recently opened an office in Dubai.

With this investment, Futurecraft hopes to capitalize on the global travel market, expected to reach $16.9 trillion by 2030. “The unique landscapes, historical landmarks, and rich cultural experiences make the Middle East travel market particularly attractive for investment and expansion,” Futurecaft said in a release. Through its collaboration with Holiday Swap, Futurecraft  aims to tap into this lucrative market, offering tailored travel options and services that cater to the preferences and needs of travelers in the region.

Region’s Leisure & Amusement Industry Accelerates Towards Net Zero

Efforts towards achieving net-zero goals in the Middle East and Africa region are gaining momentum as governments and private institutions work together to develop a comprehensive sustainability roadmap. Given that tourism contributes approximately 8 percent of global carbon emissions, the focus on decarbonization initiatives is of utmost importance. The Middle East and North Africa Leisure and Amusement Council (MENALAC) has been emphasizing the long-term commitment to sustainability and the organization’s dedication to building a responsible leisure and entertainment ecosystem.

The council also spoke about how several operators are implementing sustainability measures as the region increasingly recognizes the risks posed by climate change and works together to drive real change. COP28 is scheduled in the UAE later in 2023.

Commenting on the council’s outlook towards sustainability, its President Mishal Al Hokair said, “Sustainability is a long-term commitment. We are deeply committed to building a leisure and entertainment ecosystem that’s not only dynamic but also responsible in the way members operate, sharply focused on how their offerings and actions impact people and the planet. As a platform, we ensure learning about and sharing our experiences with members to build a robust sustainability roadmap for the entire industry.”

SalamAir to Lease Three Airbus A330Neo Aircraft from Avolon

Omani low-cost carrier SalamAir has announced its commitment to lease three Airbus A330neo aircraft from Avolon, the international aircraft leasing company. The first delivery is expected to be in October 2023. The introduction of three new Airbus A330neo wide-body aircraft will bring significant advantages to SalamAir and support the airline’s fleet and network expansion plans.

These modern aircraft feature a dual-class configuration with 365 economy seats and 12 premium flatbed seats, allowing for enhanced passenger comfort and capacity. The A330neo offers a substantial increase in distance compared to SalamAir’s existing fleet. By adding the A330neo to the fleet, SalamAir aims to enhance its capacity, meet the growing demands of the market, and attract more inbound tourists, aligning with the objectives of Oman’s Vision 2040, said Mohamed Ahmed, CEO of SalamAir. “The extended range of the A330neo will allow SalamAir to efficiently serve medium-range destinations, particularly in the Far East and Europe,” Ahmed said.

Turkey’s Missafir Enters Montenegro

Turkey-based home accommodation and property management brand, Missafir, has expanded its services to Montenegro, its second stop in Europe after Croatia. The brand began offering services simultaneously in six cities in Montenegro. “We plan aggressive regional growth by leveraging Montenegro’s huge tourism potential. We will also drive the digital transformation of this country’s untapped home accommodation sector. Montenegro is an important step towards our European leadership goal,” said Missafir CEO Mehmet Yüksel.

Having recently acquired the Croatian company Golden Leaf Properties with its high-end portfolio, Missafir serves a wide range of needs with over 2300 homes across 100 popular locations in Turkey, Northern Cyprus, Croatia, and Montenegro. Missafir is also said to be in talks with European investors to increase its growth and brand awareness in Europe and to continue its investments in technology. The company is assessing the potential and competitive landscape of all major markets in Eastern Europe, said Mehmet Onarcan, Missafir’s investor and chief strategy officer.

Riyadh Air Vows Sustainability

Riyadh Air CEO, Tony Douglas, made a bold promise that the Saudi startup would prioritize both commercial success and environmental sustainability, cautioning that carriers failing to embrace climate concerns would face significant challenges. While not revealing specific financial expectations set by the owners, the Public Investment Fund with over $620 billion in assets, Douglas emphasized their commitment to rigorous standards. The announcement came ahead of the Paris Airshow.

Riyadh Air, scheduled to commence operations in 2025, showcased its new indigo livery on a 787 aircraft. Douglas remained tight-lipped about cabin details, teasing a progressive rollout with a meticulous attention to detail. Employing systems akin to Amazon or Spotify, the airline aims to track passenger preferences extensively. Asked whether Riyadh Air would serve alcohol in its cabins given Saudi Arabia’s strict laws on drinking, Douglas said the airline would always follow applicable regulations.

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Tags: artificial intelligence, corporate travel, dubai international airport, Etihad Airways, experiences, leisure travel, middle east newsletter, net zero emissions, Riyadh Air, saudi arabia, short-term rentals, theme parks, uber

Photo credit: Egypt and Saudi Arabia join the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the top 10 destinations list in the report. Pixabay / Pexels

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