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Mon 7 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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Middle East: poised for travel dominance?

The region is on its way to being the world’s biggest travel hub, but there are obstacles says Antoine Medawar

Middle East: poised for travel dominance?
Middle East: poised for travel dominance?

I had the misfortune to be stuck in a European airport a few months ago. Not because of a volcanic eruption, or a security scare or anything dramatic, just the routine delay that is the lot of any frequent flyer.

I’m not naming the airport, but frankly, it could have been any: shabby, badly lit, poorly sign-posted, expensive and painfully boring. It made it hard to believe that travel - the journey itself - not the destination, was once viewed as glamorous.

Fast forward a month and a similar routine delay kept me at Dubai International Airport for a few extra hours.

The difference was incredible. The architecture is clean and modern, the whole place buzzed with efficiency and the anticipation of journey’s end. What impressed me was how much attention to detail the emirate is paying as it emerges as a global travel hub to be reckoned with.

Already, Dubai International is one of the world’s busiest airports, and it achieved that without following the “passenger factory” model so prevalent in Europe and the US.

The wider Middle East needs to look to Dubai if it is to establish itself as the world’s biggest travel hub, a remarkable feat that we at Amadeus think could happen by 2025.

There’s a number of factors conspiring to make that ambitious target a reality. The number of tourists  visiting the region is expected to more than double to 136 million by 2020, as Egypt, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon and other destinations vie to bring in the visitors. But it’s not just as a destination that the region can shine.

Geographically, it’s extremely well placed to take advantage of the rising economic might of India, China and other emerging economies in the East. Already, the Middle East connects more major global destinations with a single flight than any other hub. Economically, the Middle East’s own impressive growth can help it pay for the modern, world-class infrastructure needed to support a burgeoning travel industry. Indeed, some $4 trillion is already earmarked for travel and tourism related projects across the region.

Add to that an order book for airliners that would turn any legacy carrier in the West green with envy, and you have an industry that’s definitely going places.

But the Middle East’s primacy isn’t yet in the bag, and there are a number of potential obstacles ahead to the region fulfilling its potential as a travel hub.

Nations will need to work together on a co-ordinated strategy in order to avoid major pitfalls. One of these is competition in the Gulf that could lead to airport and airline overcapacity.

The logic of having three giant airports in the GCC region alone is questionable - surely it would be far better to have a spread of specialised airports, serving different markets. For example, Dubai acting as an international hub; Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt serving package tourists and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia catering for religious pilgrims.

Regulation is probably the biggest hurdle: currently multiple aviation authorities serve a small geographic region, while visa regulations, security screening and air traffic control protocols differ greatly from country to country. Slashing red tape and ensuring all countries in the region act in concert on a single strategy that benefits everyone will be vital to propelling the region to the top of the heap.

Finally, airlines need to look at their hard-fought independent status and ask tough questions about whether they could benefit from tying up with global alliances.

In my view, the benefits such alliances would bring - including increased reach and greater efficiency, far outweigh the potential negatives.

If all that sounds daunting, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

If we can learn one thing from a stop-over in Dubai, it is that in just a few years, aspiration, dedication and innovation can turn a runway made of compacted sand into a truly world-class airport.

If you apply those attitudes across the region, then becoming number one is more than possible - it is inevitable.

Antoine Medawar is vice president, Middle East & North of Africa, of Amadeus, provider of technology solutions to the travel industry.

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mafi rose tinting 9 years ago

I do not see any mention here of the enormous distance you have to walk from the aircraft exit to the car park / taxi rank, or the shambolic meet / greet area