The GCC’s barriers to growing tourism numbers can be overcome, says Michael Fahy
The report published by management consultancy Booz & Company last week stating that GCC countries need to develop a better tourist offer if they are to take advantage of market opportunities made for interesting reading - and is of relevance to contractors.
As it points out, tourism has a “multiplier effect” on the economy, leading to a higher spend in other areas like construction and retail.
The report values worldwide tourism at $2.68tn – or 9% of the world’s economy. It is also set to rise by 70% over the next 20 years.
However, it warned that the GCC overall is underachieving, with only Qatar and the UAE ranked in the top third of a worldwide competitiveness index.
The GCC’s problems are that attractions on offer in many countries are too narrow – Saudi Arabia relies heavily on religious tourism, for instance, while Bahrain and Qatar focus on attracting business and conference travelers. Also, a lack of proper environmental monitoring can lead to rubbish-strewn streets and beaches that are a turn-off for many visitors.
Another big problem is visa restrictions. Anyone who has travelled regularly within the GCC will have their own horror stories about the length of time they were forced to wait at passport control, and the surliness with which tourists can be greeted by some only adds to the feeling that they are not receiving the warmest welcome. First impressions count – and in the GCC they are often unnecessarily negative.
The report argues that a lack of ‘heritage’ sites also counts against many GCC countries – although let’s face it, the millions who already flock to Dubai are generally not coming with heritage village on top of their to-do lists.
Thankfully, these are problems that are easily solvable with a bit of planning and some governmental will.
The GCC has many advantages, such as long periods of pleasant weather – particularly during the ‘off’ season for most of the northern hemisphere. The fact that three of the world’s best airlines are based here, and that airports have been undergoing massive upgrades to boost capacity are also in its favour.
Perhaps its biggest advantage, though, is its spending power. Dubai has led the way with a ‘build it and they will come’ spirit over the years, developing one-off wonders like the Burj Al Arab and Palm Jumeirah. Its hotel stock has grown exponentially, yet the emirate is still achieving occupancy rates that tourism heads in more established locations would envy.
Abu Dhabi is following suit with its world-class museum sites at Saadiyat Island, while Oman has set up investment vehicles to develop tourism around areas of natural beauty. Saudi Arabia is also reportedly planning a $1.33bn (SR5bn) fund for tourism projects.
Given that governments in the US and Europe could be hampered by a lack of funding for major tourism projects for a while, the opportunity is there for the taking. Priority number one is to sort out the immigration queues.