Etihad Holidays’ packages to Toronto have put Canada on the map as a leisure destination, but there are plenty of other options to explore for on-the-ball travel agents who want to send their clients across the pond
Though some Middle East tourists have found their way to Canada in the past, the absence of direct flights, the long flying time, and the general lack of awareness about the destination, has meant that it is still a relatively unknown holiday option.
Since the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) does not operate a Middle East office, there is little market research available concerning travel patterns from this part of the world, other than visitor numbers.
"The Middle East represented 54,000 visitors in 2005 of which 11, 000 were from Saudi Arabia and 11,000 from UAE," explains Laura Fairweather, executive director of communications and PR, CTC.
"The balance is spread across a number of countries. While the numbers have gone up marginally each year, this is still a low percentage of overall visitors to Canada."
The CTC currently has foreign offices in the US, UK, Australia, Korea, Japan, China, France, Germany and Mexico.
However, since Etihad Airways started flying from Abu Dhabi to Toronto (via Brussels) three times weekly, the region has started to wake up to the idea of travelling to the distant city, either as a destination in its own right, or as the first leg of a fly-drive journey around Canada or the US.
"The flight currently has very high load factors; Etihad has had great success with the route, since it first started," explains Nick Wood, general manager, Etihad Holidays.
"We do have a holiday [package] built around the flight because there is a big interest in Canada as a leisure destination, [but] at the moment we just feature the Toronto area."
Given the size of the country, trips to other popular tourist destinations such as the Rocky Mountains are not practical, because of the long distances that have to be covered, but the Toronto area itself has plenty to offer, he adds.
Nearby areas of interest include that worldfamous Niagara Falls, the CN Tower, historical villages, and activities such as water parks, white water rafting and golf clubs.
"We did consider it for our ski programme, but sadly, although there is lots of skiing in Canada, none of it is close enough to Toronto to make it a practical proposition in our ski programme at the moment," says Wood.
"Most of the really good skiing is on the West Coast, which is Vancouver and the Rockies, and that is quite a long way from Toronto."
Regional skiers are more likely to fly to destinations closer to home, like Lebanon or Europe for skiing, he adds.
But according to Justine Palinska, Tourism Toronto's UAE representative, skiing is a viable option for passengers travelling to Canada for longer vacations: "All the ski resorts are very accessible and one can get to many of them via bus or car," she explains.
If the Middle East's Toronto-bound leisure market has not yet taken off in earnest, business travel has risen steadily in recent years, as the oil and gas industry continues to grow, and trade in commodities such as gems and jewellery lure businessmen from the region.
According to a study commissioned by Tourism Toronto, more than 2.3 million international and domestic visitors come to the Greater Toronto area each year to attend a consumer or trade show, spending around US $1.1 billion between them.
Most of the major trade shows in the area fall in the off-peak holiday season, contributing to the success and year-round occupancies of the hotels and tourism services in the area.
In 2005 the number of overseas visitors to Toronto reached 1.6 million, the highest is has been in four years Airlines and tour operators recognise the potential in linking Canada with the Middle East, as both tourism and commerce flourish.
For Etihad, large numbers of Asians working in Canada means that it has secured regular traffic heading in both directions, particularly coming to and from the Indian Subcontinent.
Trade in commodities such as jewellery and gems, has also led to an increased interest from traders throughout the GCC.
"There is a lot of investment between the two regions in this respect, particularly with the EU connection," explains Kirk Albrow, regional general manager, Europe & Americas, Etihad Airways.
According to Wood, the Abu Dhabi-Toronto route has been a "real success story" ever since it launched, indicating a good chance that the carrier will up frequencies next year.
"We are looking at significant increase in capacity to Toronto next year. We get a lot of comment from the trade that we should increase capacity because it's often very difficult to find space on the flights," he explains.
Crossing the pond
European carriers have also noticed an increase in the number of passengers choosing to fly to Toronto from Dubai via their respective hubs, and many are responding with new routes and increased services.
European carriers Lufthansa and KLM both connect to Toronto from their home airports, Frankfurt and Amsterdam respectively, and both operate regular flights from several Middle Eastern countries.
British flag carrier British Airways has also witnessed significant traffic flow from the Middle East via London to Canada, with 4% of the BA's passengers in the region opting to purchase an onward flight to Canada.
The airline serves Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, and will operate 49 services weekly across these four cities by the summer.
BA flies 10 times weekly to Montreal, three times daily to Toronto and 13 times weekly to Vancouver and on December 1, started a five flights weekly service from London Heathrow to Calgary, served by a Boeing 777.
"BA offers a comprehensive schedule between London and Canada that makes connections to one of the four cities that we fly to a popular option for our Middle East customers," explains Paul Starrs, area commercial manager, Middle East & Pakistan for BA.
"Calgary is an important business and leisure destination; it has a growing oil and gas industry and is the gateway to the Canadian Rockies with a large number of holidaymakers visiting throughout the year."
BA has dedicated lounge facilities for first, business, and executive club members in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto and the carrier witnessed a 3.5% increase in premium class traffic in the first half of 2006, compared to the same period in 2005, he says.
Back in the Middle East, there is speculation as to when Emirates will introduce a Canada route, while Royal Jordanian Airlines recently announced plans to introduce a service from Amman to Montreal next June.
Air Canada is fitting its B777-300ER aircraft with the carrier's new business class flat bed from April 2. Executive First Suites have a seat pitch of 75 inches, and 21-inch wide cushions.
The new aircraft will fly to London on most days, with flight AC856 departing Toronto at 6.10pm, reaching London at 6.25am the next day.
Room with a view
Despite claims that total visitor numbers to Canada are rising, the seasonal nature of the tourism industry means average annual occupancy rates still linger under the 50% mark.
According to Tourism Toronto, there were slightly more than 13,000 rooms in downtown Toronto in December 2005, with an average annual occupancy rate of 48.9%.
However, the growing draw of the convention and exhibition market is helping to boost this figure, attracting visitors in the off-season when hotels are often empty.
Etihad Holidays features a selection of five hotels, from the popular three-star Comfort Suites City Centre Toronto, to the five-star Fairmont Royal York.
The latter, Toronto's landmark hotel, attracts a variety of local and international leisure and corporate visitors, but relatively few come from the Middle East at this stage, according to the hotel's general manager, Ian Wilson.
"This is a very important emerging market for the hotel, especially given our growing presence in the Middle East," he explains, referring to Fairmont's expansion in the region. "Direct flights from Etihad open our doors to this new customer."
Extensive restoration of the hotel's 1365 rooms, meetings facilities and public areas was recently undertaken, and work on other areas, including its eight F&B outlets, continues.
The hotel features a Xerox Business Centre with private workstations, internet access, and an on-site printing house. The Nineteenth Floor Executive Meeting Rooms are a new addition at the hotel, which now offers a selection of 34 conference and banquet rooms.
The Fairmont Royal York is within walking distance of the city's main convention centre, the business and theatre districts, and plenty of shopping and dining options.
Nearby attractions include the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, Hockey Hall of Fame, Chinatown, St. Lawrence Market, Harbourfront and the Air Canada Centre, Toronto's busiest sports and entertainment complex.