Billed as ‘Middle East meets Middle Kingdom', an audience comprising PATA members and some of Dubai's leading travel and hotel operators recently gathered at Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel to hear what advice PATA's market analysts had for those who want to stay ahead of the pack.
It’s essential to have a very reliable and trustworthy partner on the ground in China.
Speakers included PATA director of strategic intelligence John M. Koldowski; Dr Grace Pan, senior manager, The Nielsen Company Shanghai; and Rohit Talwar, futurist and CEO of UK-based consultancy firm Fast Future.
The conference focused on Asia Pacific tourism forecasts up to 2009 and outlined the key issues the Middle East travel industry needs to get to grips with if it wants to take a slice of the potentially mega profitable pie that is the Asian market.
Speakers also gave stark warnings that responsible tourism and having a solid environmental policy were no longer an option for the big operators - they were essential for business survival.
Arabian Travel News spoke to the panel members individually after the conference to find out how travel agents should approach the Asian market in general and how they saw the relationship between the Middle East and China panning out in the next few years.
PATA's director of strategic intelligence John Koldowski is responsible for the association's collection, analysis and interpretation of travel and tourism statistics, as well as the identification and monitoring of factors which may affect travel to, from and within the region:
How should travel agents go about selling the UAE to the Chinese market?
First and foremost it's a case of understanding the differences within the market. People just think China is another market - it's not - even within China there are idiosyncrasies that differ from province to province that you need to understand.
It's essential to have a very reliable and trustworthy partner on the ground in China. It is a very complex market so you need someone to help steer you through.
The UAE and China are two very different markets, however, as the branding studies show, two areas where the UAE performs really well are dining and shopping and these are real hot buttons for Asian travellers - it's just a matter of working out which Asian travellers.
They're all very, very, different.
In that case, what should the smart travel companies be doing?
Well you know the saying ‘follow the money' - that's what the smart ones will be doing. So, you go in to China and you have a look where the money sits - where the higher than average earners are and begin to understand what they're lifestyle preferences are and you begin to market directly to them.
You can't market to China as a whole; you have to take chewable pieces one at a time - so you pick the best pieces.
How do you see the relationship between the Middle East and the Pacific Asia region developing?
The boundaries are moving all the time and I can only see a positive future where China and the Gulf countries having a lot more interaction. I think it's going to be a very interesting few years.
Can you see any pitfalls?
All over the place! You can spend a great deal of time building up a market place and then you get a few operators who are, shall we say, less than transparent - and they can collapse the market for everyone.
If you say you're going to deliver on a promise you need to deliver on a promise, and you need to do so consistently.
There's competition appearing all over the place, so you need to be aware of that and you need to continually reinvent yourself.
This is where we need the new generation to come in - the forward thinkers.
Are the Middle East's key travel and tourism players taking environmental issues seriously?
If you take the aviation sector for example, there's a financial imperative for them to improve.
It's almost as if the environment is a secondary beneficiary.
The less fuel they burn and the more efficient the aircraft is in its operation, then the better it is for the bottom line - but the environment also benefits from that.
These days, when you look at the profile of Chinese travellers, they are often well-educated professionals.
That aside, they're looking at the issue as important because they've got potential corporate customers asking "what's your environmental policy?"
I've always been impressed with the Middle East. The region is certainly very conscious of potential water supply issues and knows the need to move away from being an oil-based to a service-based economy and all that has started happening.
Dr Grace Pan joined The Nielsen Company, Shanghai in 2006 to head the travel and leisure research at Nielsen China. She has been actively involved in China outbound travel research for 10 years.
You say that the profile of Chinese travellers is changing dramatically - particularly the young people. How should Middle East travel companies target the Chinese market?
They should be thinking about which markets they want to target; they should look at whether they want a mixed market or a niche market and then market to that sector accordingly.
How can they best sell the Middle East to the Asian tourist?
I would say, again depending on the market you want, it's the unique selling points like the desert, which the Chinese will see as very mysterious.
But the market hasn't really opened up yet for the Chinese tourist coming to the Middle East - there are still all the visa issues which put them off.
From your own research, are Asia Pacific travellers interested in the environmental damage that could be caused by expanding tourism?
I would say that people in China as a whole are interested in the environment and people who can afford to travel overseas are now more concerned about the impact they are having.
These days, when you look at the profile of Chinese travellers they are often well-educated professionals and so they know about these issues and care about them.
Businesses I think will take more time - but Chinese tourists are getting more conscious and so the businesses will simply have to keep up.
Rohit Talwar is a futurist speaker, specialist advisor and strategic-change agent. Founder of the consultancy Fast Future and the think tank Global Futures and Foresight, he was nominated as one the top 10 global future thinkers by the UK's Independent newspaper.
He specialises in the evolution of the emerging economies and the future of travel, tourism, meetings and events.
You claim that there are no "absolute certainties" in terms of predicting a new market, so what should smart travel companies be doing now?
I think at the moment obviously there's a huge excitement because of the growth in the region - there's money here so there are investments going on and everyone's keen to build the future.
That's great, but we would suggest that you be aware of some of the storm clouds on the horizon and really think through what you would do if certain things happen.
Whether it's a security incident or a disease, if it suddenly reduced visitors from certain parts of the world - what would you do about it? Which regions would you still market to?
Would you drop your prices? Think about it now rather than responding in crisis mode when the worst happens. So if there's a downturn in a market, you're prepared.
Similarly on the infrastructure - we need a more concerted effort between the tourism developers and the authorities, because if the infrastructure isn't there you can't build and you can't get your tourists in. It's all about planning ahead.
How long did the PATA survey take and how comprehensive is it?
We started our research back in January 2007; what we've done in the last few months is go back over everything and conduct a complete update.
We went back to all the websites of the main travel players, press releases etc and made a list of the biggest operators - hotels, travel companies and so on - and asked if they could validate our data.
We got some very good responses, but the results can never be comprehensive when you've got 900 hotels that are due to open and thousands already in existence.
It's a snapshot, that's all we can say - more of an evolving picture.
Did any surprises come out of the research?
Yes, the number of projects that have ‘disappeared'. I'm not going to name them - but a number of projects that were high profile in May/June seem to have dropped off the radar and there are a number of others that seem to have not moved on.
So there were big initial announcements, but then nothing to follow up on them, which don't necessarily mean there's nothing happening, but there has been no more clarity or information.
What is the reason for this?
I think people rushed to make these announcements to tie them in with big events such as ATM, the Hotel Show, Hotel Investment Conference and Cityscape - but when those events are over, the pressure is off.
Another big shock for us was just the sheer scale of some of the investments and trying to understand how something like Dubailand will operate.
What is the model for it? What is the impact on the economy? Where does it drive the economy? How many staff will Dubailand need?
Our estimate is that it could be half a million - that's a lot of staff. What we would love to understand is the masterplan and the resourcing. Where are these people going to live?
Do you think the Middle East travel industry is considering the environmental impact of its ambitious plans?
I think it is starting to get on the radar now. Four of the top 10 polluters, emissions per capita, are from the GCC (report by World Resources Institute).
I think what will happen is that more people will start to sign up to green protocols.
You're likely to see new green legislation and really big imperatives and then people will just fall in like they did with HR legislation.
Whether people do it from an emotional commitment or because they're forced to - it doesn't really matter so long as they do it. You'll still get people cutting corners, but then it's about sanctions.
But I think it would be inappropriate to expect everyone to buy in on moral grounds - that's imposing values - but commercially long-term it makes sense to get on board.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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