Various governments in the region are looking to new, alternative tourism models to drive their pandemic recoveries, with an emphasis on ecological options and “staycations”. Both in order to reboot its tourism industry and as part of its drive to diversify the economy away from hydrocarbons, Saudi Arabia is developing several major ecological tourism projects. In April 2021 the Red Sea Development Company announced that it had raised $3.8bn for the Red Sea Project through the first ever riyal-denominated green finance credit facility. The region as a whole is increasingly embracing innovative, sustainable approaches to tourism. “The demand for local, greener and eco-friendly tourism has grown exponentially, in both Europe and the GCC,” Chirag Kanabar, managing director of Pine Wood Building Materials Trading, a company focused on ecofriendly and sustainable modular construction, told OBG. “This is in line with pandemic-related preferences for increased social distance and privacy.”
The UAE, for example, has seen a significant increase in “glamping”, whereby tourists can enjoy the experience of camping while having access to facilities that are more luxurious than those available on traditional campsites. Glamping is part of a broader shift towards the so-called staycation model. With flights grounded and borders closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020 many people around the world took their holidays within their home country.
In 2018 market research company Aritzon predicted that the global glamping industry would reach approximately $1bn in revenue by 2023, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6% over the period. The Covid-19 pandemic has served to accelerate the sector’s growth. According to a report published in March 2021 by Grand View Research, the global glamping industry will be worth $5.4bn by 2028, based on a CAGR of 14.1% between 2021 and 2028. The UAE is particularly well placed to leverage this trend, with its range of natural landscapes close to urban centres offering varied cultural attractions. One flagship project is Sharjah’s Kingfisher Retreat, a tented hotel which won the 2020 Luxury Beach Retreat in the Middle East prize at the World Luxury Hotel Awards. “This is tangible proof that the emirate’s ecotourism model, based on environmentally friendly structures, is working, so the government is seeking to expand it to other locations within its territory,” David Patrick Court, a consultant at Bushtec, a luxury tent manufacturer for resorts and glamping providers, told OBG.
The Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan puts a strong emphasis on sustainability. In a significant move, Glampitect – a leading British eco-resort design consultancy – in March 2021 announced it was opening a site in Dubai. Meanwhile, at the Arabian Travel Market 2021 – held at the Dubai World Trade Centre from May 16 to 19 – the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) announced over 20 sustainable tourism development initiatives across the emirate. As well as glamping sites, these will include eco-hotels and experiential offerings. “The GCC region excels at providing opportunities for experiential travel, given its rich history and culture. A possible way forwards for the region to fully capitalise on this might be for individual countries and emirates to coordinate among themselves in an approach similar to that taken by South-east Asian nations, whereby each one can specialise in their distinctive value proposition,” Tommy Lai, CEO of Gulf-based GHM Hotels, told OBG. “For the region, it is important to promote the idea that ecotourism is multifaceted, and not only associated with rainforests and tropical settings,” Lai added. Echoing these sentiments, Sanjiv Malhotra, executive vice-president of Shaza Hotels, told OBG, “In the UAE every emirate offers a distinct experience. Sharjah, for example, has decisively focused on positioning itself as a capital of heritage and culture, building on an identity tied to education. It also bets on its natural assets, from its Gulf coast to Khorfakkan.”
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