As the global travel landscape continues to evolve, GCC countries join forces to position the region as a major tourism hub for visitors seeking all-encompassing, wholesome experiences
- Nasser Al Nowais, Chairman, Rotana
In the last few decades, tourism has proved itself an effective lever for the diversification of the Middle East's oil-based economy. The sector's contribution to the region's GDP is steadily rising, with countries in the GCC recording an average of 6.6 per cent during the last Statista survey for 2021 – which was still a year of recovery for the global industry.
As the tourism landscape continues to evolve, faith in the industry remains strong. The UAE recently pledged its commitment to raising the sector's contribution to the GDP to US$122 billion by the year 2031. Saudi Arabia is well on track to welcome 25 million foreign tourists this year, with this figure reaching 100 million by 2030. Qatar is working hard to position itself as a sports tourism hub and Oman is investing heavily in its tourism infrastructure while promoting its cultural assets.
With these destinations continuing to enhance their offering, the region's visitation figures are seeing a tremendous boost. Recognising the massive potential this presents, GCC countries are now collaborating on an even larger scale to establish the region as a global economic and tourism epicentre.
During the meeting of GCC ministers in November 2022 in AlUla in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Tourism Strategy was established, providing the region's tourism sector with a roadmap for collaborative development. Further endorsing this strategy, the meeting of the Supreme Council of the GCC that took place the following month highlighted key objectives for the new strategy, including the promotion of sustainable tourism practices, the diversification of existing offerings and improvements in the quality of services. By working together, the countries hope to leverage their collective strengths and offer a more compelling value proposition, while exchanging best practices, sharing resources and developing joint initiatives.
The FIFA World Cup 2022, which took place in Qatar, served as an effective test pilot for cross-collaboration in the Gulf. While Qatar welcomed 1.18 million international visitors during the games in November and December, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also recorded an increase in footfall in their respective countries. With the World Cup showing that the concept of unified travel would serve GCC countries well, it sparked discussions for permanent region-wide travel policies, among which a system similar to the Schengen-style visa in the European Union is at the top of the agenda.
Tourism chiefs say that they want travellers to look at the region as a whole and not just one country. The move to simplify visa formalities, meaning that visitors will only need to go through a single visa procedure to access all of the GCC countries, will add immense value. It will attract more long-haul travel and entice tourism from Western Europe, the US and Oceania as well as increase the length of stay and, therefore, tourism spend. From a business perspective, this will bring more foreign investment into the region's hospitality and leisure segments, which makes it a winning proposition for all parties.
Land of plenty
One of the significant drivers of tourism growth in the region is the Gulf's unique blend of modern and traditional experiences. A rich cultural heritage, state-of-the-art entertainment venues, inspiring art hubs, world-class shopping malls, unique natural attractions and avenues for religious tourism can all be found in the Middle East, meaning that every traveller segment is well catered to.
Adventure seekers with a taste for the outdoors will love the Arabian desert's rolling dunes, which not only offer the chance for thrilling pursuits, such as off-roading, but also the opportunity to discover the region's flora and fauna in their natural habitat. And with the spectacular coastline, sun seekers will enjoy lounging at some of the world's most scenic beaches.
The Gulf region is also synonymous with luxury; there is no dearth of five-star hospitality establishments in the region, while the world's most renowned fashion labels promise visitors a high-end shopping experience across a host of glamorous malls.
Undoubtedly, our world-renowned hospitality remains the biggest draw. Centuries ago, caravans traversing trade routes in the region found respite in these lands, with the locals knowing just how to make visitors feel welcome. From serving a traditional cup of Arabic coffee or offering a plate of dates, these traditions remain deeply rooted in our way of life even today. Interacting with the locals will reveal so much about these time-tested customs, with stories that date back generations. It all comes together to offer a wholesome travel experience that will long live in the memories of those who visit the land we call home.