In 2022 the Middle East witnessed the sharpest relative increase in international arrivals of any region in the world, solidifying its rebound from the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic and further raising its profile as an increasingly attractive destination for inbound tourism. According to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), in 2022 international arrivals in the Middle East recovered to 83% of the levels prior to the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, outperforming all other regions.
Road To Recovery
Dubai in particular saw a significant increase in international visitors in 2022, with 14.4m tourists visiting the emirate. That figure represented a 97% jump from the previous year’s 7.3m visitors, surpassing global and regional recovery levels. At 86% of pre-pandemic arrival levels that year, Dubai has become emblematic of the tourism growth trajectory in the Gulf. The surge was due in part to sustained investment in tourism infrastructure, its hosting of Expo 2020 – held in 2021/22 – the emirate’s handling of the pandemic and effective overseas marketing efforts.
Tourism in GCC countries has gained significant momentum on the international stage as the region transforms itself into a competitive leisure and entertainment destination. This trend is catalysed by international events like the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which drew 2.5m visitors to the region, particularly benefitting Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Gulf countries are also working together to boost cross-border cooperation in the travel, tourism and hospitality segments, to create unique but complementary offerings that suit emerging consumer preferences and market trends. All six GCC member countries coordinate their investment and marketing strategies according to a mutually agreed tourism development agenda. These plans include existing and upcoming luxury hotels and resorts, heritage sites, and retail and entertainment offerings.
As the result of collaboration between federal and local authorities, national airlines and private institutions, a tourism strategy has been devised to market regional offerings, develop new platforms and raise the quality of service. The Gulf Tourism Strategy was adopted at the end of the sixth meeting of GCC ministers of tourism in November 2022 in Al Ula governorate in Saudi Arabia. It is a joint initiative among members of the bloc that outlines a roadmap for developing the tourism sector in the region. The strategy, which was endorsed at the 43rd session of the Supreme Council of the GCC in December 2022 in Riyadh, highlights key objectives, including the diversification of existing offerings, the promotion of sustainable tourism practices and improvements in the quality of services. By working together, GCC countries hope to leverage collective strengths and package a more compelling value proposition to tourists, while exchanging best practices, sharing resources and developing joint initiatives.
Several factors position Gulf countries as competitive providers of integrated tourism services. According to the 2023 Numbeo Safety Index, which measures the level of crime in a country, Qatar was the safest country in the world, followed by the UAE, while Oman and Bahrain ranked fifth and 10th, respectively. This high level of security has helped the GCC develop a reputation as a haven for tourists concerned about their personal safety in the post-pandemic environment, as well as a secure place for tourism investment. Similarly, geographic proximity not only makes the region easily accessible for key source markets in Europe, Asia and Africa, but also reduces the travel time and expense associated with long-haul flights.
Robust air connectivity, led by two of the world’s busiest airports in Dubai and Doha, is further strengthened by growing national flag carrier networks. According to a January 2023 report published by the Gulf Center for Studies and Research, known by its English acronym CSRG ulf, the UAE and Qatar have the most extensive national air fleets in the region, with 257 and 200 aircraft, respectively, while Saudi Arabia has 144.
The Gulf Tourism Strategy recognises the importance of collaboration among GCC countries to capitalise on their competitive advantages, create a cohesive regional tourism vision and ensure the benefits are spread evenly across member countries. In tandem with national tourism strategies, the GCC seeks to secure collective commitment among its members to develop and support a common vision that defines and delivers clear outcomes, including job creation and higher levels of contribution to GDP, to facilitate diversification.
As GCC governments implement a methodical approach to tourism, they have become increasingly aware of the crucial role that digital experiences play in every stage of a traveller’s journey. The pandemic further highlighted the importance of digital technologies in terms of enabling seamless and safer travel.
In line with the GCC strategy, the Gulf Tourism Platform was proposed in November 2022 as a digital gateway that provides tourists with a one-stop shop for planning and booking their trips to the region. This platform will use digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data analytics to offer a range of services, including booking accommodations, flights and tours, as well as providing practical tips and information on tourist attractions and activities, all of which aim to facilitate and enhance visitors’ travel experiences.
In a similar vein, the Gulf Tourism Capital programme was introduced in November 2020, during the fifth annual meeting of the ministers of tourism, to highlight, promote and attract investment in new projects and emerging tourism sites. The inaugural Gulf Tourism Capital title went to Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE in 2021, in recognition of its growing popularity as an adventure destination and its effective response to the pandemic.
In 2020 it became the first destination in the Middle East to obtain a Safe Travel seal from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). The Gulf Tourism Capital programme and nomination guide was reaffirmed at the sixth meeting of GCC ministers of tourism in November 2022.
According to the UNWTO, more than 900m tourists travelled internationally in 2022, indicating that the tourism sector was on track to reach 65% of the pre-pandemic total. In 2022, the GCC received 48m international arrivals, and the UAE emerged as the top tourist destination in the region, receiving 22.7m visitors. Saudi Arabia welcomed 16.6m people, while other top tourist recipients in the Gulf that year included Bahrain (3.7m visitors), Qatar (2.6m) and Oman (2.9m).
In recent years the sector has been playing an increasingly large role in Gulf countries due to investment in key areas. In 2021 Qatar ranked highest in the region in terms of tourism revenue, with the sector contributing 10.3% of GDP. Bahrain came in second, with an 8.2% share, followed by Saudi Arabia (6.5%) and the UAE (6.4%). The smallest tourism-related GDP contributions in 2021 were in Kuwait and Oman, at 4.3% and 3.5%, respectively.
Travel and tourism revenue in the GCC amounted to $245bn that year, or around 8.6% of regional GDP, According to the WTTC’s “2019 Economic Impact Report”. Out of total tourism revenue, 83% of spending was for leisure travel while business travel comprised 17%. Some 63% came from international tourism expenditure versus 37% from domestic tourism. Over the years the region’s tourism performance had improved at a steady rate, with an estimated 4.1% compound annual growth rate during the 2015-19 period.
To unlock their full potential, each GCC country has rolled out a national tourism strategy aiming to attract investment and boost arrival figures. Launched in 2019, Saudi Arabia’s National Tourism Strategy is an integral part of its broader Saudi Vision 2030 reform agenda and looks to increase the number of domestic and international tourists to 100m a year by 2030, create 1.6m jobs and bolster the sector’s contribution to GDP to 10% by 2030, up from 4% as the end of 2022. Although a late entrant to the industry – it started offering foreign tourist visas in 2019 – the Kingdom is investing an estimated $133bn in transport projects to improve connectivity.
Meanwhile, the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s $600bn sovereign wealth fund and diversification engine, is spearheading a number of mega-projects, including luxury resorts along the Red Sea and the $500bn futuristic mega-city NEOM.
Although already a top destination for travellers in the GCC, the UAE has sought to future-proof its tourism sector with the launch of the UAE Tourism Strategy 2031. The strategy is part of Projects of the 50, a 50-year programme to secure the country’s competitiveness in the high-value industries of the future. With Dubai targeting 25m visitors annually by the year 2025 and Abu Dhabi 30m by 2030, the strategy seeks to raise the tourism sector’s contribution to GDP to $122.6bn, generating an average annual increase of $7.4bn; attracting up to $27.2bn in tourism investment; and welcoming 40m hotel guests across the country by 2031. The UAE also launched 25 projects that look to strengthen its national tourism ecosystem by developing specialised tourism projects, building tourism capabilities and increasing investment in all related sectors.
Oman’s tourism strategy focuses on luxury, nature and adventure offerings, with the aim of welcoming 11.7m overseas visitors annually by 2040, up from 2.9m in 2022.
By hosting the Global Travel Week Middle East in March 2022, the sultanate’s Ministry of Heritage and Tourism sought to promote Oman as a niche tourist destination – with an emphasis on luxury products and adventure offerings – to key source markets, particularly in Europe and India. Seeking cross-border partnerships, the Oman Tourism Development Company announced a deal with Dubai’s Diamond Developers in March 2022 for the development of the first phase of the Yiti Integrated Tourism Development, a large-scale sustainable project.
Similarly, Bahrain is rolling out its Tourism Strategy 2022-26, which looks to attract 14.1m tourists per year, increase average daily visitor expenditure to $198 and raise tourists’ average stay to 3.5 days by the end of this period, tourism revenue hit $4bn and arrivals reached 9.9m in 2022 – 17% above the target of 8.3m for the year.
Building on the $220bn invested in a large portfolio of hotels and entertainment infrastructure to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in November and December of that year, Qatar launched a global multimedia promotional campaign targeting 17 source markets to raise awareness about its attractions.
Qatar has set a target of increasing tourism’s contribution to GDP to 10% by 2030 and attracting 6m visitors annually. To this end, Qatar launched a two-year World Class Chefs project, hosting chefs from around the world to nurture the local culinary scene and explore investment opportunities.
Albeit a smaller player, Kuwait’s Touristic Enterprises Company, the government-owned agency tasked with tourism development, announced redevelopment plans for 11 projects in 2021, ranging from waterfront marinas to recreational parks, following a capital increase approval of KD250m ($822.8m) by the Kuwait Investment Authority. These activities are anticipated to drive more tourism to the region, create more employment opportunities in the sector and boost the country’s economy.