UNWTO Ministerial Forum urges Middle East destinations to look local to boost visitor numbers
The UNWTO Ministerial Forum at Arabian Travel Market 2015 saw 20 Middle Eastern tourism ministers and private sector leaders agree the need for an intra-Arab tourism strategy to increase the number of tourists travelling between the countries of the region.
H.H Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development and Chairman of the National Council of Tourism and Antiquities opened the forum by calling for a collaborative tourism strategy to push forward intra-Arab tourism.
He referred to co-operation between the Arab countries with regard to practices, procedures and policies that cover religious, historical and sustainable tourism to eliminate barriers, improve ease of travel and using tourism to improve the standard of living for nationals.
The panel of the region’s private and public sector leaders at the forum discussed a number of topics to be part of the strategy, including a GCC visa, similar to the European Schengen visa to allow easy cross-border access for both the region’s national and expatriate residents, and an Open Skies agreement to increase air capacity between Arab countries.
Regarding a GCC-wide visa, World Travel and Tourism Council, President and CEO David Scowsill recommended the expansion of automated and electronic visas in the region, an idea endorsed by tourism ministers from within and outside the GCC including Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. In addition, an Open Skies agreement was proposed by H.E. Mr Helal S.K Al Marri, Director General, Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Dubai: “There should be a true open skies policy, similar to Europe, enabling travel anywhere, anytime,” he said.
Addressing both the GCC visa and Open Skies topics, Qatar Tourism Authority, Chairman Issa Mohammed Al Mohannadi said the moves would also encourage the high number of expats working in the region to act as tourists and visit neighbouring countries more. UNWTO research suggests that within the Middle East, around 40 per cent of tourists come from within the region compared to figures for other parts of the world such as Europe where this total is more than 60 per cent – leaving considerable scope to grow this ‘domestic’ traffic. Research by YouGov reinforces the fact that residents in the region are taking more regional trips, emphasising the potential to lock in to this market to boost year-round travel figures.
The newly released Travel Oracle – Aviation Insights report showed that two-fifths of MENA residents (41%) took one or more short-haul leisure trips in the last 12 months, with 12% taking three or more trips by air - additionally, more than one-third of MENA residents (36%) are planning to increase their leisure travel over the next year, with 15% anticipating a big growth in outbound travel, according to the YouGov data.
Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UNWTO, concluded the ministerial forum by recommending the region’s tourism industry develop more packages that cross country borders, highlighting the cruise sector as an example of how this is already working.
He also urged the region to make the most of the spotlight it will receive from both Dubai 2020 and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.