By Kathi Everden
New airline routes are opening up potential leisure destinations, but many travellers prefer the favourites.
New airline routes are opening up potential leisure destinations, but many travellers prefer the favourites.
It's that time of year when lists abound; new hip hotels, emerging destinations, places to go before the hordes arrive, and more.
Interestingly, the Middle East is making the charts in a big way as mega projects and intensive marketing reap rewards in highlighting the region as a worthy contender in the hot spot register for 2008 and beyond.
The launch of Atlantis, The Palm will guarantee that Dubai continues to make waves, but Abu Dhabi and Oman have also struck gold in marketing terms, while even destinations such as Libya, Alexandria, Iran, Kuwait and Algeria hit the ‘must-see' list in the International Herald Tribune.
On a more considered note, the International Luxury Travel Market (ILTM) released research at the show in December citing the Far East/South East Asia as the top seller for premium travel in 2007/08, followed by the Indian Ocean and India, with Mediterranean Europe making great strides and the Caribbean and Australia also making the top five.
Italy was named as the top destination for luxury travellers in 2007, while other trends included use of private jets, private islands, luxury yachts and the exclusive use of hotels or private houses.
While Italy might not be the top player for Gulf travellers, the Far East and Indian Ocean are in big demand and agents around the region may also be in agreement on other trends with a noted preference for individual air travel as well as exclusive accommodation.
To feed this demand, a 30-strong regional delegation of travel trade management returned from pounding the aisles at ILTM in Cannes with both new ideas and additional resort options to offer customers.
For established wholesalers such as Emirates Holidays, the key necessity was to up allocations at increasingly popular destinations, according to vice president commercial operations, Dina Al Herais.
"We always look for new products in order to keep our offering innovative and exciting, however, at ILTM, we were specifically seeking opportunities to increase the number of allocated rooms in high-demand destinations, such as the Indian Ocean," she says.
"We made contact with some of the private game lodges in Africa, as well as new hotels in the Indian Ocean - we see the trend towards that region continuing, as well as for Malaysia and Thailand, while additional flights to South Africa, including daily services to Cape Town starting March 30, will give more people the opportunity to discover this part of the world."
Given its affiliation, Emirates Holidays is also looking to capitalise on the airline's new launch destinations, and Al Herais confirms that the leisure division expects Brazil and Canada to develop as holiday destinations, following the inauguration of flights from Dubai to both Toronto and to Sao Paulo.
But, given the often-conservative travel trends of the region, most operators are looking to expand options in established leisure destinations rather than broaden their range too quickly in advance of demand.
Dnata Holidays product development manager Nathan Adams says his predictions are for a "slower growth for the leisure market in relatively unknown places like South America and China", compared to established destinations such as North America.
"We are currently reviewing our product for 2009 and are keeping a close eye on the performance of the leisure market in these destinations, and I am sure you can expect to see some of these exciting new regions being included in our portfolio in the near future," he says.
In the meantime, for 2008, Dnata Holidays has focused on Bali, Cyprus and Vietnam as new options in its brochure.
"In Bali we have a superb portfolio including Bvlgari Hotel, Four Seasons Bali at Jimbaran Bay and the holistic well-being resort, Como Shambala Estate, while in Cyprus we are offering a range of products to cater for all clientele including families at Le Meridien Limassol Spa & Resort, the boutique Londa resort for couples and the ever popular InterContinental Aphrodite Hills Resort," explains Adams.
Overall he predicts strong growth for key areas in Europe, Asia and the Indian Ocean, with ‘new' destinations such as Italy - Venice, Milan and Lake Como - growing at a fast rate, along with ever-popular Maldives.
"Clients take their long summer vacation to established destinations within Europe, Asia and Australasia, however, throughout the year, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Jordan, UAE and Oman will all perform well for those seeking a short break," he adds.
These nominations for top sellers are generally echoed through the Gulf, with Vijay Menon, general manager for Dadabhai Travel in Bahrain citing Maldives, Malaysia, Thailand, Geneva, Spain, Italy, Turkey and Egypt as continued favourites for Bahrain clients.
"At ILTM we were looking at South Africa, some unique properties in Italy and exclusive resorts in Phuket, India and Sri Lanka," he says, predicting China, Seychelles, Australia and Greece as promising destinations too for 2008.
"Asia and Europe will definitely predominate as key destinations, with the GCC for short breaks - and we are seeing increased demand for honeymoon packages with exclusive private game safari tours in Africa."
Over in Saudi Arabia, sales at Theyab Travel and Tourism (ATT) reflect the national preferences for vacations in cities in Europe, resorts in Malaysia, Australia and the Maldives, Sun City in South Africa, Los Angeles and New York, plus short-haul breaks to Turkey, Egypt and Dubai.
According to Ibrahim Al Theyab, Europe and the Middle East will continue to be top choice for this summer, but he stresses the growing popularity of places such as Australia as well as the US.
"We are constantly searching for new and exciting products, and at ILTM, Africa, the Seychelles and Mauritius looked most promising, while there were surprising options in Mexico and the Caribbean."
His colleague, tours manager Mirza Abdul Khader Rasheed confirms interest in Australia and the US, but says sales are restrained by visa delays and restrictions.
He claims New Zealand is proving popular for clients taking English language courses while he tips South Africa as a hotspot this year.
"One point to note is that the summer holidays in Saudi Arabia this year run from July through to nearly November and there will be demand for a lot of long stays as the vacation is so big," he says, raising the spectacle of a huge opportunity for those targeting that market this year.
With slow movement away from the favourites of yesterday, one way of igniting interest in different destinations taken by some operators is to segment their products. Qatar Airways for instance has taken this route on its website to highlight spa, romantic, safari and other holiday categories.
At Bahrain International Travel too, niche marketing is paying dividends according to general manager Paul Clabburn, who says The Collection, which he launched last April, specifically targeted luxury travellers by offering something different.
"We are always seeking to broaden and elevate the vacation experience and out-of-the-ordinary' vacations are something we have been offering for a few years now," he says, confirming Maldives, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Switzerland as BIT's top-selling destinations in 2007.
"For instance, we are going to offer Banyan Tree's sailing gulet as a Maldivian ‘extra' and have a Scottish ancestral home, which would be ideal for an exclusive golf group who can test their mettle on some of the country's finest courses - generally niche products are moving forward as people become aware of what is available.
"But, to be successful in these bespoke products, you have to have skilled consultants and this is where The Collection offers something no-one else does, certainly in Bahrain."
"We have also promoted adventure activities and been successful in selling a number of these, ranging from white-water rafting, rock-climbing and mountain-biking to hot air ballooning and on-foot private safaris."
Less strenuously, the majority of operators concur on increased demand for specialist vacations with cruise coming up frequently as demand for a holiday afloat inches up.
According to Dina Al Herais, Emirates Holidays customers are increasingly asking for cruises, while Dnata Holidays recorded its highest number of cruise bookings in 2007.
"Last year, we signed up with luxury cruise line, Silversea, and this has proved successful with both the local and expat market," says Adams.
"In 2008, we are looking to grow our portfolio with a number of additional luxury cruise companies to cater for increasing demand."
He says diving is also becoming increasingly popular, while wellness holidays are on the increase.
"Following the popularity of Chiva Som, we have added a wellness resort in Bali and are also working with the new Six Senses Erawan destination spa in Thailand," he explains.
The Travel Collection's Jacqueline Campbell notes the demand for Chiva Som, as well as Thailand in general, with the country's capability to deliver more than just beaches and shopping.
"We find that both expatriates and Arab nationals want soft adventure, and this is where a destination such as Chiang Mai does well as visitors can go up to the mountains in Burma, see the sights but come back at night to a comfortable and luxurious resort such as the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi or the Chedi," she says.
South Africa, too, has potential here, says Campbell with its "wonderful bush lodges" enabling tourists to experience the wild in comfort.
Asia: particularly Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore
Europe: particularly Spain, Italy, and Geneva
Middle East: particularly Dubai, Jordan, and Oman
Other activity potential for 2008 includes island cruising around Greece and exotic travel to Vietnam, she adds: "Expatriates in particular want to ‘do' something on holiday, maybe a cookery course, walking trips or even white-water rafting - this has become particularly popular on the Zambezi near Victoria Falls."
Along with most agents and operators, Campbell says short breaks are gaining ground, incited by the increase in regional and low-cost flights and extensive hotel development in many destinations.
"Maldives, Greece, Cyprus, Seychelles and even Mauritius are being booked for short breaks," she notes.
It's a trend noted by Isabel Tapp, the managing director of luxury consultant All Details ME, who says the Maldives is her hot tip for 2008.
"With only four hours of flying time and an environment that is a complete contrast to that in the Gulf - with no cars or noise - there is a big and growing interest in the Maldives," she says.
She also stresses that destinations within four to five hours' flying time of the Gulf, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, are also becoming increasingly popular short-break options.
Much of the interest is, of course, determined by hotel development and marketing, as well as growing of air access to any destination.
The launch of Houston, Atlanta and Washington flights will spur a revival of US travel and Emirates Airline is continuing to explore opportunities to strengthen its American network, according to Al Herais, although there are few expectations of a quick return to pre-9.11 demand levels.
"The market is showing interest again in the US, albeit slowly," confirms ATT's Al Theyab.
"People have even flown to New York for a shopping trip pre-Christmas," adds Jacqueline Campbell, while BIT's Clabburn has noted strong growth for holidays to the other side of the globe in China, from shopping short breaks in Beijing and Guangzhou to longer-stay vacations by people wishing to explore the country.
And, with major hotel chains moving into the Gulf and establishing a name and reputation - as well as often a concrete or representation presence on the ground - fans of these brands can be expected to move farther afield following the flag.
With the expansionist portfolios of innovative hotel groups such as Banyan Tree and Kempinski, the potential to sell new and exotic destinations to top-end travellers is growing exponentially.
Banyan has 36 openings in just two years planned, according to the company's senior vice president, hotel operations, Bernold Schroeder who says the group's strategy is to offer short-, medium- and long-haul options for the three major markets in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
For the Gulf market this summer, this means medium-haul opportunities in Morocco for instance - a cluster of riads by Banyan Tree's sister brand Angsana offer eclectic accommodation in Marrakech - as well as long-haul exotica at Banyan Tree resorts in Sanya, China and Bali, to be followed by new resorts in Mexico, Barbados, India, Maldives and more.
Another pioneer, Kempinski, is as equally global in its expansion, currently the fastest growing five star hotel management company in China, for instance.
For 2008, scheduled openings include Istria, Croatia; residences in Prague; Slovakia; Aqaba, Jordan; Soma Bay in Egypt; Jakarta; Khao Lak in Thailand and a former palace in Bruges, Belgium, while other innovative products on schedule include the Tangula luxury train in China.
"China is definitely going to be a hot destination for 2008," says Kempinski's president, Middle East and Africa, Ulrich Eckhardt.
"This is not only due to the [Beijing] Olympics this summer but because it is rapidly growing its tourism and hospitality sector and marketing its different destinations particularly well."
China, South Africa, exotic Asia, European cities, a bit of cruise and a return to the US - the bets are on.
The Caribbean & the US