Intra-regional travel on the rise

Turn on the television or open a newspaper, and advertisements taken by tourism and promotion departments from Casablanca to Beirut stare you in the face.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  August 4, 2002

Turn on the television or open a newspaper, and advertisements taken by tourism and promotion departments from Casablanca to Beirut stare you in the face. For despite the reverberations from the September 11 attacks, the tourism industry in the Middle East is enjoying buoyant growth. And it is Arab tourists that are on the move. Persistently negative reports on how they have been treated when travelling west have given intra-regional travel an unheard of fillip.

Jordan, a country usually at the mercy of the political turmoil next door in Palestine, received 16 percent more tourists from the Gulf states during the first quarter 2002, when compared to the same period a year before, according to the Xinhua news agency. While the effects of the September 11 attacks have eroded Jordan’s tourism revenue, the influx of GCC nationals has limited revenue decline to just 3.7 percent. King Abdullah II’s debut on the Discovery Channel to promote Jordan as a destination for scuba diving, trekking and archaeology is just one indication of the renewed emphasis being placed on marketing as a means to combat tourist jitters.

Like Jordan, Egypt’s tourism sector has also been resuscitated by Gulf nationals, with a 38 percent increase in revenue for the third quarter of 2002, according to official government statistics. While the gains provide for some confidence they remain well below (22%) the results of the same period a year earlier, however. In Lebanon, on the other hand, recent figures released by the Lebanese ministry of tourism claim visitor numbers grew 15 percent in May against the same period last year, with a four-fold increase expected this summer. Once considered the Paris of the Middle East, Lebanon is again attracting visitors from the Gulf, who, according to some industry analysts, spend an average US $1000 per day while in the country.

Dubai, which is heavily promoted in Europe, has recorded 80-90 percent occupancy rates at many of its five star hotels. And as with Dubai’s Summer Surprises campaign, Bahrain’s Summer Festival seems to be luring visitors from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with its bustling Al Bandar Resort and Magic Island. Even Saudi Arabia, with its huge annual influx of religious tourists, aims to capture part of the GCC national market by promoting destinations such as the Fakih Hospitality and Leisure Group’s latest resort hotel in Jeddah.

“While our business is seasonal, and 60-70 percent of the leisure travel takes place during the summer months with the rest of the percentage is spread out throughout the year, my clientele today is predominantly local,” Manoj Kuriakose, marketing manager at Sharaf Travel told ITP.net. “We have a lot of enquiries on Australia and the Far East, but when customers realise that for local nationals it takes 2-3 weeks to process visas to Australia, they opt for the Far East. From a European perspective France - including Euro Disney - and Belgium have picked up.”

In the Middle East, the most popular destinations have been Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Kenya, according to Sharaf Travel, and on the corporate travel side, Beirut, Doha, Kuwait, Riyadh and Bahrain are popular.

“Travel to the US has dropped drastically for both business and leisure,” Syed Sabir Hussain, regional marketing manager, Kanoo Travel, told ITP.net. “Europe has returned to pre-September 11 conditions, and the traffic here has diverted to the Far East and Australia. On the other hand, fares to travel to North America have dropped approximately 10-15 percent to encourage travel. The top destinations in Europe are now France, the UK and Spain.”

Hussain says Dubai remains popular with people from all over the world, followed by Oman, Beirut, and Damascus. Cairo, although remaining a major travel destination, has seen a major drop-off in tourist levels when compared to those of just a year ago. As far as business travel is concerned, Saudi Arabia leads, followed by Oman, Jordan, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Qatar, Hussain said.

Complementing the marketing drive is an overhaul by governments of visa requirements in order to encourage tourism and business travel. Qatar’s newly formed General Tourism Authority (QGTA) has indicated that visitors will witness a relaxation in visa procedures. Visa procedures have already been eased considerably in Oman, which already permits 53 nationalities to get visas on arrival.

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