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Why Middle East travel deserves a closer look

September 26, 2018 12:28 pm

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As travelers from the region go more international and digital, the opportunities for travel companies, including Amadeus, Booking.com and, yes, Google, are not going unnoticed.

Clutching iPhones, their fashionable outfits topped by a hijab and often with children in tow, more and more of the Middle East’s female millennials can be spotted exploring the world’s trendiest tourist spots. Often it is the men in the families who are strolling behind. Boosted by the region’s preference for travelling as groups of relatives and friends, 2018’s annual outbound tourist growth from the region is put by data portal Statista at eight percent  – ‘the highest growth of outbound tourism in the world’.

Just about every USP for the players in the travel industry seems on offer in the region: a very young and growing population (unlike the global trend), rising incomes, growing interest in foreign travel, high internet usage, big users of social media, fragmented local industry…and on the list goes.

Travel spend by travellers from just some of the countries, the six who make up the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – is likely, says Statista, to grow from $64 billion three years ago, to $94 billion by 2020. In 2025 the sum could reach $140 billion, it adds. The GCC is assessed by the World Tourism Organization as accounting for well over 60% of the region’s outbound market.

Normally the travel industry’s attention is focused on inbound travel to the Middle East, drawn by the vast amount of investment activity developing giant leisure and air transport hubs. Given those soaring numbers, however, more research attention is now being paid to its outbound travellers.

A closer look

Major looks at trends in the area have recently been done by Amadeus, Middle East travel platform Tajawal and Dubai-based resorts and hotels group Jumeirah, based on research by US research and consultancy group Frost & Sullivan and by Middle East consultants, Insights Middle East. Visa, given the widespread use of credit cards for travel payment, has also had a close look, and the ubiquitous Google has things to say too.

Google has recently carried out a survey in the UAE to see where its outbound tourists were headed. France came out on top, followed by Turkey (despite the local unrest), Egypt, Greece, Georgia and its neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan and then Croatia.

Levant media group Venture Magazine says Middle East travelers are drawn by easy air access, agreeable summer climates, low costs, walking trips to the forested mountains as well as historic sites, not just shopping. And, it adds, they “seem less sensitive to negative news events than those in the west.”

Other countries telling of increasing numbers of Middle East tourists include Ireland (with numbers getting on for 100,000 and rising at an annual seven percent, presumably also drawn by the green landscape and mild summers) and Australia. GlobalData, the UK-based global media consultancy, says that Saudis, for example, “are increasingly willing to explore new destinations outside their comfort zones”.

The GCC covers the most dynamic Middle East countries economically, so is of prime interest. The average spend in the GCC countries for international travel is high, at $9,920 to cover airfare, hotel room, ground transport, travel supplies, and car rentals.

Internet penetration in the GCC is 56% according to the Amadeus report, against 42% in the Middle East as a whole and these numbers compare to 35% globally. “Our research shows that almost half of all leisure travellers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (42%) and Kuwait (41%) plan their travels using smartphones,” states the Amadeus report.

Yet the study found that that most people in the Middle East get their travel information through word of mouth by speaking with family and friends, searching travel websites and online reviews just to get ideas. While value is a key driver in travel decisions, more people admit to being more influenced by friends, family and colleagues (53%) than by search engines and review sites (47%) or actual travel agents (31%).

“The lack of bookings made online through smartphones is surprising, but represents a massive opportunity for the travel industry to improve its online presence and tap into the UAE and KSA travellers who, more and more, are using their phones as a digital concierge,” Ivan Jakovljevic, Head of Travel at Google, Middle East, told a press conference.

Bookings for 13% of all leisure travel plans are made by a family member or a friend, who will opt for packages that offer a range of entertainment activities catering to all members of the family. Reasons given for travelling in a group of friends and family include ‘the feeling of security’ and ‘fewer language barriers’.

Local matters top of mind

Overall, Booking.com is the top travel site in the Middle East, says the Amadeus report. It has undoubtedly counted that Booking.com has been the first global OTA to localise content into Arabic, and this has won it 39% of the online searches.

Most Top-of-Mind travel brands named in the Insight Out Middle East Consumer Travel Report were local, but names such as TripAdvisor and Trivago came up at the ‘dreaming stage’ as did the loyalty programmes of hotels and airlines. ‘The Top-of-Mind travel sites used for searching and booking are highly influenced by the language spoken by the respondents and region of origin. Wego (the Singapore travel search engine), for example, which focused on Arabic content and campaigns, ranks No.3 in the GCC National and Arab ex-pats on the booking sites,” says the report.

In the GCC, names that were near the top of the list included Qatar Airlines, Regency Holidays and Emirates Holidays, which again reflects ex-pat participation in the surveys.

The Visa Global Travel Intentions survey found that GCC tourists are also heavy users of technology while travelling. While 88% of global travellers gained online access when abroad, in the GCC the figures were 97% for the UAE, 93% for the KSA and 95% for Kuwait.

Almost half (44%) of travellers globally use ride-sharing apps to get around once they are on the ground, observed the study. However, travellers from the UAE sharply exceed this figure, with 71% using ride-sharing apps at their travel destinations. Illustrating the diversity in the region, only 11% of KSA travellers and six percent of Kuwait travellers used them.

A sign that the international travel industry is waking up to the Middle East opportunity is the purchase a few weeks ago by Mumbai-based OTA Cleartrip of Saudi-based online travel aggregator Flyin. It says that post the deal it will have a 60% market share in the GCC. Of course, it is already operating in the region, and it has a partnership with Google.

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