Some would argue that Sydney is the jewel in Australia’s large gem-encrusted crown, but the Middle East market has been slow to recognise this. ATN reveals the city’s many hidden treasures
Sydney was recently voted the world's number one city by readers of the US magazine,
Conde Nast Traveler
, marking the 11th time Australia's harbour city has won the coveted accolade since the award programme's inception in 1988.
Some 28,000 readers, all of whom were asked to judge cities worldwide on their ambience, friendliness, cultural sights, restaurants, lodging and shopping, gave Sydney a score of 87.7, leaving in its shadow the Italian city of Florence with 86.8, and San Francisco and Bangkok, each with a tally of 85.9.
"Sydney's enviable mix of events, beauty, sophistication and relaxed vibe is what Sydneysiders love about it and it's also what makes it so attractive to visitors,'' according to Sandra Nori, the Tourism Minister for New South Wales (NSW), the Australian state in which Sydney is situated.
But unfortunately, not all travel agents, tour operators and consumers are aware of Sydney's attributes, particularly in the Middle East, which has long regarded the Gold Coast in Queensland as its most favoured Australian holiday destination.
"The Middle East is the only market in the world that needs to be sold Sydney," explains Andrew Oldfield, Tourism Australia's (TA's) distribution development manager in the GCC.
Ian Cameron, manager, international marketing for Tourism NSW, who recently visited agents and operators in Bahrain and KSA, adds: "There is a perception that Sydney is just a big corporate town and therefore doesn't have a lot to appeal to tourists. But there is shopping, entertainment, and plenty of family activities. I have to go back to basics and explain this to agents so they are confident in including Sydney and recommending an extended length of stay. Sydney is more than a one-night destination."
According to Cameron, the Saudi Arabian market has potential to become one of the biggest source markets for both Sydney and NSW.
"We just have to break down a few barriers," he says. "We will endeavour to provide KSA agents with suggested itineraries, and we really want to highlight the shopping, as well as family activities such as the Aquarium, Luna Park, the Powerhouse Museum, Maritime Museum and Taronga Zoo."
KSA-based tour operator, Kanoo Holidays, which works closely with TA to promote Australia, last year launched a brochure dedicated to the destination and expects to expand its content in its forthcoming 2007-2008 edition.
"Most people [from KSA] are visiting Australia for between 10 and 14 nights and spending four of them in Sydney," says the company's sales & marketing manager for the GCC, Zaeem Gama.
"Sydney is a place where everyone wants to stop, particularly as Australia is so far away, and also because most international flights arrive and depart in Sydney," he adds.
According to Gama, Christmas, New Year and trips to Oz during Eid are increasing in popularity and honeymooners are also keen to check out the destination. Kanoo Holidays is currently negotiating concessionary fares with some of Sydney's key attractions to promote in its brochure, he reveals.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures reveal that KSA arrivals to Australia for the first eight months of 2006 were 5494, representing a 14% increase on the same period in 2006 and up 34% on the same period in 2004. This compares to 19,146 visitors from the UAE, which is currently Australia's largest Middle East source market.
The figure was 8% up on 2005 and 17% up on 2004, driven primarily by Emirates Airline increasing its flight frequency and capacity to the destination. Oman also showed positive year-on-year growth for the first eight months of 2006, and overall GCC growth was 7%. However, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar all showed flat or negative growth. The good news for Sydney is that the percentage of GCC travellers visiting NSW is fairly high - Kuwait, 62%; Oman, 24%, Bahrain, 64%; Qatar, 55%; the UAE, 35%; KSA, 62%.
Lack of luxury?
Although visa issues have long been blamed for hindering growth in visitor numbers from the Middle East to Australia, Tony Williams, vice president - resorts & projects at Emirates, offers an alternative theory.
"Sydney has some issues. I don't think enough thought has been put into promoting the city," he says.
The problem, he argues, is that Australians take the many attributes NSW boasts for granted, and therefore find it difficult to view Sydney and its suburbs from the perspective of international visitors.
"I could fly into Sydney and have a twoweek holiday, just travelling around the city and the surrounding areas such as the Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley. The locals perceive the Blue Mountains as a day trip, and have sold it as such, but that is incredibly wrong. You could spend a week there and still not see everything," he says.
Williams also cites the lack of top-end hotels in Sydney as a key barrier to attracting additional visitors: "Australia has always focused on attracting volume, rather than quality. It has done it well, but now it's time to capture the high-spend market," he says.
With this in mind, Emirates Hotels & Resorts is building what Williams argues will be the most luxurious property in Australia to date - Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort & Spa.
The resort, which will be set within a World Heritage site in the Blue Mountains - around a two-hour drive from Sydney - will be based on the same principles as the award-winning Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa in Dubai, but adapted to blend in with Australia's history, culture, heritage and landscape.
Individual suites will be built with Australian architecture in mind and will provide views of the bushland and mountains. Customer service, location, luxury and conservation will be the resort's key selling points. Conservation-wise there are plans to create a feral-free zone whereby almost extinct or endangered animal and plant species can be re-introduced and bred.
"My hope is that after we open (early 2008), 20 more such projects will be built across Australia," says Williams.
Emirates Holidays has already included Wolgan Valley in its 2006-2007 brochure and Davinder Kaur, destination development manager for Asia and Australasia, believes that when it comes online, customers will visit Australia just to stay at this property.
"Usually a destination sells a hotel, but in this case, the hotel will sell the destination."
Kaur says three-night stops to Sydney as part of a twin-stay package with the Gold Coast are typical of booking trends from this region, but triple stay packages, including stopovers in Asia, are also proving good sellers.
"There is a Brisbane flight via Singapore and a Sydney flight via Bangkok, so shopping tours are becoming popular," she explains.
Emirates is looking to gradually increase flight frequency to the four cities it serves - Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth - to four daily each by 2014.
This is based on exponential growth trends to date that look set to continue; between 1996 and 2005, arrivals from the Middle East to Australia grew by 128% and Australia's Tourism Forecasting Committee (TFC) estimated a further 16% increase in 2006.
"We anticipate that there will be significant growth in demand for travel to Australia from the Middle East, Europe and Africa. We do not disclose load factors, but Australia is one of Emirates' top five key markets," says an Emirates Airlines spokesman.
Fellow legacy carrier, Qatar Airways, has also set its sights on operating direct flights from Doha to Australia, particularly now the first of its longrange Airbus A340-600 aircraft has been delivered, with nine more expected within the next two years. The only barrier to the airline's ambitions are the Australian Government, which in a bid to protect its national carrier, Qantas, has been slow to grant air rights to international airlines. UAE flag carrier, Etihad Airways, is also known to be eyeing the Oz market.
Cameron of Tourism NSW says he is keen to "position Sydney beyond its icons", which include Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
"It's about the experience. You have Sydney's café society, the outdoor lifestyle and places like Darling Harbour are fantastic for kids. We need to maximise Sydney's appeal. The people that come to Sydney have a great time. The challenge is to get them there in the first place," he adds.
Some of the main attractions for kids are wildlife orientated and include Taronga Zoo, Sydney Aquarium, and the latest addition, Sydney Wildlife World, built next to the aquarium in Darling Harbour.
Spanning 1km of glass-enclosed walkway across two floors, the venue showcases the world's largest variety of Australian flora and fauna, and more than 130 species of native animals.
Unique animals on show include the Cassowary (the world's most dangerous bird), Ulysses butterfly, Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby and the deadly Inland Taipan snake.
Meanwhile, a short ferry ride away from Circular Quay is Taronga Zoo, where visitors can encounter some of the smallest Aussie animals such as feather-tailed gliders and bandicoots, as well as some of the world's largest living creatures, including red kangaroos, giraffes, elephants and gorillas. Other attractions include the Sky Safari cable car ride, free bird and seal shows and several F&B outlets including the new Taronga Food Market featuring international cuisine. General zoo entry is AU $32 (US $25) for adults and AU $17.50 ($13.70) for children, but there are several packages on offer that combine zoo visits with boat cruises and lunch. Group packages include sunrise and sunset tours and wildlife workshops.
For adventurous adults and older kids, there are endless activities such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb, with prices starting at AU $169 ($133) for adults and AU $100 ($78.60) for kids. During this three-and-a-half hour experience climbers will have the chance to walk over catwalks, climb ladders, and view the harbour from 134-metres above sea level.
Not to be outdone, the city's iconic Centrepoint Tower, now known as the Sydney Tower, offers a Sky Walk experience, offering 360-degree views of Sydney. Participants are harnessed to the moving glass-floored viewing platform on the roof of the building, a breathtaking 260 metres above the city.
If that doesn't get the adrenalin pumping, Oz Jet Boating offers high-speed rides incorporating spins, slides, fish-tails and powerbrake stops on the harbour, taking in famous sights such as the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Fort Denison, Rose Bay, Goat Island and Taronga Zoo.
The experience proved popular for team building events and corporate functions.
More sedate options include walks around the Botanical Gardens, in the Royal National Park, or along the coastal trail from Bondi to Coogee, which is popular with locals.
For a bird's eye view of the city, recommend a seaplane ride, prices for which start at around AU $160 (US $126) for a 30-minute scenic flight. One of the newest operators in this field is Sydney Seaplanes, which also offers seaplane and jet boat combos, as well as fly/dine trips to some of the city's most exclusive restaurants - Jonah's at Palm Beach and Doyle's on the Beach, to name but a few.
Outside of Sydney, the key attractions are the Blue Mountains, where the native eucalyptus, munched on by many a koala, creates a blue hue, and the Hunter Valley, home to some of the finest vineyards in the world.
There are several DMCs that operate tours in and around Sydney, but for agents making arrangements for high-spend nationals, Australian Luxury Escapes is a good option, particularly as bookings are commissionable.
"We spoil our guests with a home-prepared morning tea, a gourmet-style lunch, very knowledgeable guides, unique itineraries and luxury 4WD and 2WD vehicles," says Grant Charlesworth, director of sales and marketing, Australian Luxury Escapes and Australian Wild Escapes. "Our premium products are fully customised and are perfect for families, groups of friends, honeymoon couples, or anyone wanting a totally private experience."
Mercedes, Volkswagen, and a GCC favourite, the Toyota Landcruiser, are vehicles the company operates, some of which can take up to eight guests.
"We have had a few Arab clients and we even provide an itinerary translated into Arabic," adds Charlesworth.
The company's Sydney excursion options include behind the scenes at Taronga Zoo and Sydney Aquarium, harbour cruise and frontof- house Sydney Opera House tours.
Shop ‘til you drop
One of the attractions Tourism NSW is most keen to promote to the GCC market is Sydney's shopping scene, which spans malls, markets and High Street boutiques.
In the city centre, Pitt Street Mall is one of the longest established and most popular shopping areas, featuring mainstream fashion stores, Australian department stores such as David Jones and Myer, and malls-withinmalls featuring smaller and more top-end outlets.
The Strand Arcade, an undercover upmarket arcade running from Pitt Street to George Street, features boutique jewelers and top-end Australian designers and across the road, still on George Street, is the Victorian-style Queen Victoria Building (QVB), again featuring a mix of mainstream and independent retailers offering fashion, homewares, jewellery, toy shops, accessories and several cafes.
Down by the harbour, The Rocks market operates every Saturday and Sunday, come rain or shine, and offers local arts and crafts of good quality, as well as homemade cosmetics and food such as chocolate, jam and chutneys.
Surrounding the market are art galleries, surfwear stores, souvenir shops and plenty of cafes and restaurants.
A short train, bus or taxi ride away from the city centre is Westfield Bondi Junction, dubbed WBJ by locals, a large mall that opened in 2004 and features several Australian and international retailers.
Lastly, your customers may have heard that Oxford Street is a shopping must. It certainly is, but be warned, some of the cultural aspects of this one-mile-long strip of mostly fashion retailers, may be inappropriate in the minds of Arab visitors.
Despite Tony Williams at Emirates Hotels & Resorts claiming that Sydney lacks truly luxurious hotels, there are some big chain names that do the five-star market proud, a couple of which are geared up to receive guests from the GCC market.
The Four Seasons Hotel Sydney, for example, which is located virtually on the harbour and close to The Rocks, provides complimentary early check-in for all morning flights from the Middle East; has Arabic-speaking staff at reception; Arabic Radio Television (ART) station in every room; Arabic newspapers on request; offers prayer mats and compasses, interconnecting rooms and large suites and boasts a concierge that can provide information on local Halal restaurants and mosques.
The hotel's dedicated Arabic language web site can be found at
. From April to September, when Arab guests tend to stay, the hotel operates a stay four nights receive the fifth night free policy on bookings for an Opera View Room or any room category above.
The Starwood Group offers three very different properties in Sydney; the Sheraton on the Park, The Westin Sydney, and The Four Points by Sheraton.
The Sheraton on the Park, overlooking Hyde Park and close to Pitt Street Mall, features 557 rooms and suites and is one of Sydney's largest conference hotels, with a ballroom that can cater to 900 people.
Key selling points according to Gabrielle Danczak, the property's marketing coordinator, include its location in the heart of Sydney's business and retail district, its city views, and facilities that include a 24-hour health club and spa service and round-the-clock business centre and concierge.
"The food and beverage team is well equipped and trained to cater to the eating habits of the Middle East culture. Halal food is prepared by the chef and available upon request, both in-room and in the Botanica Brasserie Restaurant," she says.
Arabic-speaking staff and the private executive club are other key and relevant features, she adds.
The 416-room Westin Hotel, located in the central business district and close to shopping, dining, entertainment and tourist attractions is largely a corporate hotel and was ranked Australasia's leading conference hotel and Australia's leading business hotel at the 13th Annual World Travel Awards last year, while the Four Points by Sheraton, Darling Harbour Sydney is Australia's largest hotel, comprising 630 rooms and 45 suites.
The property is close to Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre, as well as tourist hot spots including the aquarium, IMAX movie theatre, jet boating lift-off points and several bars, restaurants, cafes and clubs.
For guests demanding the ultimate view of arguably, the most stunning harbour in the world, agents should recommend the Park Hyatt Sydney, which is located on the harbour and close to several main attractions including Circular Quay, The Rocks, The Bridge- Climb and some of the city's top harbour-side restaurants, including Doyle's, famous for its fish and chips at top-end prices.
The Park Hyatt has always received a small percentage of guests each year from the Middle East market, but in the past few months, has welcomed a number of high-profile GCC families, including royal dignitaries, according to Christine Haddad, the hotel's director of marketing.
"The hotel is boutique in size and can therefore cater to all tastes , including specific cuisine requirements (including Halal)," she says.
"The rooms have private balconies and guests can stand outside and actually be part of the view and hear the waves."
The property's recently refurbished Governor Suites and Diplomatic suites, which have proved popular with the GCC market of late, boast six and four balconies respectively, she adds. The suites have been decorated by New York designer, Tony Chi, with key features including floor-to-ceiling glass doors.
Other facilities include technology provided by Sony, including a 40-inch LCD TV, DVD/CD player, digital camera, and notebook PC.
The Governor's Suite boasts an exclusive butler's pantry next to the dining room and a private service entrance. Both suites offer a 24-hour butler service.
"We also offer one of the most experienced concierge teams in the country; no request is too unreasonable," adds Haddad.