A whole new world

A swathe of new developments and visitor attraction efforts are reframing the Middle East – traditionally regarded as transit hubs – into desirable holiday spots, with the Asian market a prime target

Dubai Frame, a new architectural landmark, holds the record as the world’s biggest picture frame

Home to several major transit hubs between Asia-Pacific and Europe, the Middle East is pushing hard to change its reputation from a stopover spot to a standalone travel destination.

Dubai Frame, a new architectural landmark, holds the record as the world’s biggest picture frame

Several Middle Eastern cities already offer transit visas for passengers passing through to extend their trip and spend more time in the destinations. In 2017, a free transit visa for travellers with a layover of five to 96 hours (four days) in Doha was extended to all nationalities. Abu Dhabi offers a 14-day transit visa, and Dubai offers a 96-hour stopover visa.

While the region is still predominantly regarded as a transit destination, perceptions are shifting with the launch of new attractions and hotels, as well as an increase in flights and marketing campaigns, observed industry players at the recent Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in Dubai.

A new roster of attractions are also helping to fan travel interest to the Middle East. For example, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in November 2017 as the largest art museum in the Arabian peninsula.

Expectations are high that the Expo 2020 Dubai, a six-month mega event that will see a diverse array of activities, entertainment and events take place at a 438ha purpose-built site, will boost the region’s profile and attract more visitors into the future, John Williams, director of business development at Al Hadaf Travel & Tourism in Dubai told TTG Asia.

Said Williams: “We expect Expo 2020 to increase traffic. We are already seeing very strong interest from India and we are trying to (conduct more promotion in) Asia. Expo 2020 will play an important role in raising the UAE’s profile in these destinations and we expect to see a boost (in Asian arrivals) on the back of it.”

Yasser Moussa, deputy general manager at Al Bustan Centre and Residence in Dubai, said Expo 2020 is already proving to be a game changer. “We are already starting to feel the positive effects of Expo 2020 and are receiving a lot of big enquiries looking at longer stays of up to six nights. We expect this to be maintained with an increase in tourists after the expo,” he remarked.

Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, which opened last year on Yas Island, as well as the existing Ferrari World, are especially well received among Asian families, according to Marina Cipriano, general manager of Experience Hub (Yas Island’s trade arm). Upcoming attractions such as SeaWorld Abu Dhabi and a Warner Brothers’ hotel are set to elevate Yas Island’s popularity among the Asian market further, she added.

At the same time, the growing roster of attractions and visitor-friendly policies appear to have the combined effect of encouraging longer stays from the Asian markets.

Cipriano noted: “From Asian countries, a lot of people currently stay in the UAE for three to five days. Many will spend time in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and include Yas Island in (their itineraries). It seems to be a key draw for tourists from Asia, especially China and India.”

Not only is the average length of stay for Asian travellers increasing, Cipriano also observed that seven-day integrated packages are now becoming more popular.

Similarly for Moussa, China is emerging as a strong market, as Al Bustan has recorded healthy bookings between October and April, peaking for Chinese New Year in January 2020. He noted too that interest from South-east Asia is growing, with the UAE appealing as an “all-round destination”.

He added: “(The UAE) is a great place for families and shopping. You have the beaches, desert, entertainment and world-class attractions. We are now seeing people stay for an average of three to four nights.”

Meanwhile, as more Asian hospitality companies expand overseas and introduce familiar homegrown hotel brands to Arabian shores, they also help to bring the Middle East onto the radar of Asian travellers.

Thailand’s Centara Hotels & Resorts recently opened Centara West Bay Residences and Suites in the Qatari capital of Doha, and is poised to roll out a second 509-key Centara Grand property in the city before 1Q2020.

Markland Blaiklock, Centara’s deputy chief executive, said: “We want to develop in the region as we see a great opportunity. (The Middle East) is the gateway between two continents, and it has an exotic nature. Taking buggy rides to bash the dunes isn’t something you can do anywhere.”

Furthermore, the appetite of the Qatari government to push the destination on the global stage also made the country an attractive investment opportunity, he added. The country already hosts an annual tennis tournament, and is gearing up to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Said Blaiklock: “We realise Qatar is still in the early stages of development, not unlike Thailand a few decades ago. Qatar has two million annual visitors so it will take some time (to grow more arrivals), but the elements for success are there.”

Likewise, Thai hospitality company Dusit International also made its first foray into Qatar in April, opening a 264-key property in the heart of West Bay.

Gerhard Stutz, general manager at Dusit Doha Hotel, said: “Qatar is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world in terms of tourism, and its reputation as a destination of choice is only set to be cemented further when the FIFA World Cup is held here in 2022.”

As the region continues to see huge investment pour into the region, stabilising political climes and constant rejuvenation, the industry remains hopeful of the potential the Middle East holds as a leisure and business destination for Asian travellers.

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