By Anil Bhoyrul
Dubai’s Tourism Vision for 2020 will see 20 million tourists a year visit the emirate in just seven years time, more than double today. The man tasked with making that happen, new DTCM director general Helal Almarri, explains how he plans to do it
When it comes to big numbers, big ideas and big plans — few people do it better than H.E Helal Almarri. The director general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) has only been in the job for four months, but is already thinking ahead to 2020.
And what a seven-year ride it promises to be: by then, Almarri wants to see a staggering 20 million visitors a year in the emirate, double today’s figure. Better still, he wants to treble the contribution of tourism to Dubai’s economy to AED300bn a year.
The dream family destination. The perfect business destination. The premier events destination. You name it — anything from marine life to mega concerts, and world-class exhibitions to weekend breaks, Almarri wants it all. The way he tells it to you, it all seems so simple, so achievable.
“If you look at the growth figures for Dubai, and how we have doubled our numbers in the last eight years, well I think we can do that again. Everything is coming together in this city. It is becoming quite spectacular,” he says.
This is all being branded the Tourism Vision for 2020, officially launched yesterday (Saturday). The Vision’s visitor growth targets will be achieved through three priority streams: by maintaining market share across existing source markets — where organic growth driven by economic and demographic factors will deliver an up-lift in visitor numbers; by growing market share across key identified source markets and priority segments through targeted marketing and shaping of the destination’s offer; and by increasing the number of repeat visits, already a significant driver for tourism in the city.
To treble the tourism sector’s economic contribution - in addition to spurring visitor growth - the Vision’s strategy will enhance Dubai’s tourism offering, driving up the average length of stay and increasing the average amount spent by tourists during their visit.
Almarri will be focusing on three key areas: making Dubai the world’s leading family destination, and pushing hard on the emirate’s attraction as both an events and business destination.
“I think when you look at the potential for Dubai to be a premier family destination, the potential is huge. Dubai is not known today for its marine life but it’s actually spectacular. Fly fishing. Salt water. Even the number of birds close to an urban area. All these things, we have not had to push yet, but these things will come through,” he says.
He adds: “When it comes to events, we already have consumer types like the shopping festival, or GITEX Shopper, which is now twice a year. We have large-scale entertainment like Dubai Music Festival [starting this September], Jazz Week, Fashion Week. So many more are being planned. And on top of that, when it comes to B2B events we are already one of the world’s top destinations for exhibitions and conferences. A lot is happening and a lot more is being planned, that’s why we can see 20 million visitors by 2020.”
Much of Almarri’s work in the coming years will be increase visitors from Dubai’s key markets, and to find new ones. Take China: last year the number of visitors from the country grew by 28 percent to 248,000. India, meanwhile, delivered 764,000 visitors, a 9 percent rise. It’s the reason why the DTCM has wasted no time opening new offices in both countries, but Almarri stresses a lot of effort is just to find out how tourism operates in those countries.
“It tends to be different everywhere and we have to adapt to each market. Take India. People there generally just book flights direct to Dubai and they arrange hotels separately. In places like Germany and Russia, most of the bookings come through tour operators. In South America, again a place that is a high growth market for us, much of it is business tourism, so we have to cater for that. That’s why we have just opened an office in Sao Paulo. We have customers everywhere, we have to make sure we can give them the offering they are looking for,” he says.
One of the biggest obstacles in the past has been the complication and expense of arranging tourist visas. Again, Almarri says these issues are being addressed and resolved. “The good news is the government is very responsive and we look at the specific issues that arise, we address the challenges as we face them. All this is being looked at on a continual basis,” he says.
Another challenge is of course the image of Dubai abroad. There has been no shortage of negative media coverage, particularly in some parts of the Western media, but again, Almarri says it is a question of putting everything into perspective.
“When you have over ten million tourists a year, you will have a handful running into trouble with the law. That happens everywhere. In certain countries, the style of media likes to dramatise these things. The way I look at this, we do our surveys and we find that what people think of Dubai and the reality of Dubai is actually very close. We don’t see a huge misconception by the public. It is, of course, something we have to work on all the time, but not all misconceptions are due to the media. It is our job, though, to look at all the markets we work with and make sure we are doing the right thing,” he says.
Assuming Almarri’s plans all take shape, the biggest hurdle to overcome will be the lack of hotel rooms in Dubai. There are already 80,500 rooms in the emirate. You might think Dubai has enough hotels. Well, think again.
“We need a lot more hotel rooms. We actually have a massive shortage. We need to double the number as fast as we can. There are no periods in the year when occupancy in Dubai is not the highest in the world, and I mean throughout the year. If you look at growth rates in terms of guest, last year it was 9.5 percent. At this rate, in the next two years, we will have run out of space. Today, definitely, definitely, we could do with 30 percent more hotel rooms. When you are achieving 10 percent growth a year, you need the capacity or room rates go up, which is something nobody wants to see happen.”
One thing that is clear is that Dubai is definitely “back.” Last week the Dubai Financial Market hit 2,108 points, its highest since November 2009. The economy is forecast to expand by an annual average of 4.6 percent between now and 2015. House prices are definitely rising — the latest Cluttons survey shows that the prices of mid-range villas went up 35 percent in the year to March 2013.
“When you look at property, end consumers are buying in a big way, people are seeing Dubai’s value. The way you know a crisis is over is when the average buyer feels it’s the right price to buy,” he says.
So is he confident the economy is now on a sustainable path of recovery? “The way I see it in terms of the financial crisis Dubai was hit like everywhere else in the word. The difference in Dubai is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed positioned the crisis as a challenge to be overcome by the public and private sector. What happened is the two sectors followed his lead. Nobody stopped. There was no long-term debating of what should be done. We just got on with it. And the reality is that we have come out of the financial crisis much, much stronger.”
For Almarri himself, the new role as boss of DTCM is just the latest in a string of high profile jobs he has — and still continues to — hold. He also heads the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), which is the region’s largest business and consumer event, exhibition and conference hosting and organising group. He is the chairman of Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Sports Complex and a Higher Committee Member for the Dubai Expo 2020 bid organisation. He concurrently serves on the boards of government and UAE-based private sector entities including Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dubai Events and Promotions Establishment, International Humanitarian City, Aramex and Taaleem Education among others.
Almarri has played a key role in the development of several major event and exhibitions in Dubai over the past few years, and is widely credited with cementing the city’s global standing as a premier events and conferences destination. But ever modest, he says: “The difference between an idea and something becoming world class is huge. What I am proud of is putting together the team of people to make them successful. Dubai always looks forward, always goes for world class. For me to be part of that movement is what I am most proud of.”
Helal Saeed Almarri: The man who can
Helal Saeed Almarri is the Director General of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) — the principal authority responsible for strengthening Dubai’s positioning as a world-leading tourism destination and commercial hub. Under this mandate, his role entails leading the planning, supervision and development of sustainable tourism as an economic enabler for Dubai through enhanced partnerships with industry, and active government and public participation.
Additionally, Almarri is responsible for reinforcing Dubai’s growing global significance as the key business hub and networking platform for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
He also heads the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), which is the region’s largest business and consumer event, exhibition and conference hosting and organizing group.
Helal Almarri is the Chairman of Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Sports Complex and a Higher Committee Member for the Dubai Expo 2020 bid organisation. He concurrently serves on the boards of government and UAE-based private sector entities including Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dubai Events and Promotions Establishment, International Humanitarian City, Aramex and Taaleem Education among others.
Having previously been a consultant with McKinsey & Company and KPMG, his experience spans a diverse portfolio of industries across geographies. Helal Almarri holds an MBA from the London Business School, and is a Chartered Accountant from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.