Reflect, restore, recover

Despite the region's tourism industry suffering over the last few months, the future is already beginning to look brighter

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By  John Irish Published  May 14, 2003

|~||~||~|Switching television channels on a warm Arabian evening in the midst of a US-led war on Iraq, you’d hardly expect to stumble across a fascinating in-depth documentary on the eighth century Abbasid Al Qadisiyah palace set in the heartland of Iraq. However, on this night, Syrian state television decided to broadcast a programme on what can only be described as another jewel in the Arab world’s array of picturesque antiquities, stressing that the region possesses a rich history that will always attract travellers from around the globe.

Just a month ago, responding to the outbreak of war, Francisco Frangialli, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) secretary general, singled out the Middle East as an area for special attention. He confirmed that the WTO would pay particular attention to those areas affected by war and terrorist acts, which were consequently vulnerable to a downturn in tourism. The main thrust of his speech was aimed at the Middle East and North Africa.

“During this difficult period for the Arab-Muslim world, it is important to be able to use tourism, as many of its governments wish to do, as an instrument of openness and as a channel of communication with the rest of the international community,” stressed Frangialli. Reiterating international tourism’s resilience, particularly if the conflict in Iraq was short, Frangialli stressed that there were two reasons why he remained hopeful for the general recovery of the industry.

“As an industry, which ensures stability and promotes recovery, tourism has never suffered a deep and lasting recession. It has always bounced back and has always done so quickly,” explained Frangialli. “Secondly, tourism has always come out of turbulent times in much better shape than it has gone into them. The economic and financial crises in Asia-Pacific and Russia in 1997-1998 were clear examples. These destinations came out of the recession stronger and more firmly on the road to sustainable development.”

Frangialli continued, claiming that the performance of the industry prior to war confirmed the WTO’s market analyses, which stated that the need to travel, whether for business or leisure, was too deeply ingrained in society to be easily effaced. He added that the way tourism adjusted to crises by accelerating changes in consumer habits through new initiatives such as low cost airlines indicated that the industry was flexible.

“It has led to restructuring and regrouping, the implementation of new technologies, the modernisation of marketing techniques, the strengthening of co-operation between the private and public sectors, to the benefit of all involved,” he said.
Clearing away misconceptions

Such words of encouragement from the tourism boss must have given hope to the region’s travel authorities, particularly when promoting an industry as competitive as tourism becomes a much more complicated task if the area has a bad image.
Dubai, which struggles in terms of historical attractions, but succeeds with sand swept beaches and luxury resorts, has quickly taken up the challenge to show that it can prosper despite the region’s uncertainties. Although it has been careful not to promote itself too openly during the war, for fear of appearing insensitive, it has begun a recovery programme that targets potential markets, whether previously untouched such as Turkey or not sufficiently developed yet such as Russia.

“We have made ourselves successful by opening new markets almost everywhere, but concentrating more and more on polarities in certain markets. We have that flexibility and willingness to adapt our strategies in times of difficulty and by this I mean in the promotional sense,” Khalid bin Sulayam, director general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing told Arabian Business.

“We are selling a product here. We are working with other departments, we are working with people in the industry in Dubai and attending plenty of international meetings to check market trends and identify our markets.”

By attending road shows, exhibitions and conferences such as the International Tourism Exchange (ITB) in Berlin last February or staging events like the forthcoming Arabian Travel Market, Middle East countries are attempting to counter the images that are broadcast out of the region on a daily basis. The message is quite clear: they have invested a great deal in tourism and are not going to give up so easily.

“We believe we have invested a lot these past few years to put Jordan on the tourist map. We intend to continue our work in that direction, regardless of the current regional situation,” says Marwan Khoury managing director, Jordan Tourism Bureau.
But to achieve a successful change of image, various sectors in tourism have identified the need for media to play a larger role in portraying the Middle East as a region worthy of the tourists’ dollars.

“The tourism industry in general is very much affected by the media, whether written or visual, it gives the consumer the latest knowledge on these touristic destinations,” explains Sami Zoghbi, Le Meridien’s Africa, Middle East and West Asia, managing director. Jordan has set the example in this, by adopting a media blitzkrieg. Last year, for example, the Hashemite Kingdom received 1,700 members of the media.

But with hotel occupancy rates region-wide hovering at an average of around the 40-50% mark during the conflict, the air industry suffering as a whole and the emergence of SARS hot on the heels of the war in Iraq, the region’s hospitality industry has adopted a variety of key marketing strategies to fill the potential gaps.

“These situations are not a surprise. The majority of our business nowadays comes from the GCC markets and they are still travelling,” says Stephen Banks, director of sales and marketing, Fairmont, Dubai.
“There are a lot of things we can do locally, special packages to encourage local travel to the hotel, therefore enabling us to run higher occupancies. We look at people coming from Abu Dhabi and Oman, especially for the weekends.”
The domestic audience

Targeting the local GGC market, as well as residents within the country has also proved extremely popular with the Le Meridien group.

“In this situation, although it’s a crisis we have very little control over, we undertook a sales blitz in Saudi Arabia and GCC countries in March, maybe 3 weeks before the war started, we’re doing one in June and will do one in September. Now we’ll start paying attention to Europe,” says Le Meridien’s Zoghbi.

But the pragmatic Zoghbi goes one step further, highlighting that as far as hoteliers are concerned, the regional crises are not just matters for hotels to deal with on an individual basis, but for destinations, as a whole. The key, he believes is to promote the destination, then think about the competition.

“The biggest mistakes the hoteliers in the city [Dubai] would do is to start a rate reduction programme. That is not going to bring anybody back, what we have to do here is market the destination as a safe destination with all that it has to offer.” says Zoghbi.
Both Le Meridien and the Fairmont have, for example, insisted that their hotels will sit at the stands of their respective cities at the Arabian Travel Market in order to promote the destination rather than the brand.

“Fujairah will have the Al Aqah resort, Beirut will have Le Meridien, Beirut and so on, rather than it all being Le Meridien. When this situation gets better then we’ll go back to pushing the brand because then it becomes essential,” explains Zoghbi.

While marketing the destination may hold the key to persuading people to return, the message is mixed, when it comes to the inbound-outbound traffic.

On the one hand, hoteliers suggest that intra-Arab tourism (travel by Arabs within the Middle East) will fill the initial short-term gaps, with the likes of Dubai, Beirut and Cairo benefiting in particular. “We are expecting summer to be extremely strong with the Arab market, regardless of what happens in the region. We’re anticipating closure to the unrest in the Middle East as soon as possible, so that winter 2003 can be as strong as possible,” said Neal Jones, director of marketing, of the recently opened JW Marriott, Mirage City in Cairo.

On the other hand, encouraging the region’s own tourists to travel outside the region is as much a part of the regional tourism trade as selling the Middle East abroad. According to Sunit Acharya, Thomas Cook’s UAE manager, the outbound traffic may be healthier than at first anticipated, partly, as a result of the knock-on effects of SARS.
He suggests that the Gulf, which has a substantial expatriate community, will see these people uprooting for their holidays sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, the region’s nationals may avoid the SARS-struck Far East in favour of their Arab neighbours or may even begin to return to Europe, where the number of Middle East travellers has been drastically reduced since September 11.

“In terms of the future, I don’t think it will be very long before things bounce back. We’re now in April, traditionally in May, June, people go on holiday anyway, with the Easter holidays,” says Acharya. “As things are better, people are going to travel. I think they’ll make up for the last two months,” he continues optimistically.

The positive feedback from the industry also surrounds the European tour operators. But whereas Acharya is keen to stress that the outbound traffic from the Middle East will pick up, Michael Frese, vice president of intercontinental travel at Detour, emphasises that while advertising and marketing spending may grow as the situation calms down, it is vital that all strands of the tourism industry help each other out.

“We would need the help of the countries and airlines to restart business. It’s not necessarily deals, but just giving people the idea that travel is safe, that it is a joy to travel,” comments Frese.

Whatever happens in the next few months, the tourism industry has come through the tough period and has tightened its belt in anticipation of challenging times ahead. Much like the Abbasid castle that stands firm amidst the chaos in Iraq, tourism will not be easily brushed aside.

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