Over the past decade, Middle East has developed into a global hub for tourism and leisure, attracting visitors from all over the world. With the paradigm shift in the global economic power, the region has taken a centre stage amongst world’s fastest growing markets and is also one of the fast-growing tourism regions in the world, led by strong political commitment. According to UNWTO, the Middle East received 58 million international tourists in 2017, recording an overall growth of 5 per cent, with sustained growth in some destinations and a strong recovery in others. Middle East airlines recorded the strongest jump in passenger traffic, posting a growth of 11 per cent in 2016 over 2015. Factors like visa facilitation policies, currency fluctuation and travel restrictions have had variable impacts, both positive and negative on tourism performance in different destinations in the transcontinental region.

The digital disruption is going to benefit Middle East the most with young tech-savvy population and smartphone penetration in the GCC amongst highest in the world

The disruption that digitisation has brought to the travel and tourism industry is going to benefit Middle East the most, with young tech-savvy population across the spectrum and smartphone penetration in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) amongst highest in the world – 78 per cent in the UAE and 77 per cent in Saudi Arabia. According to Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017 of World Economic Forum, Middle East has improved its Travel & Tourism Competitiveness through better ICT infrastructure, lower prices, enhanced international openness and progress in nurturing cultural heritage.

The prospects for tourism in the region are bright, with international tourist arrivals projected to reach 149 million by the year 2030. UAE with its star destinations, namely Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have received a record-breaking number of international travellers in 2017. Dubai alone, registered 15.79 million foreign tourists in 2017, establishing itself as one of the leading tourist capitals in the World. Dubai is nearing its 2020 tourism target of 20 million visitors per year with an annual growth rate of 6.2 per cent. It is not only home to some of the world’s popular landmarks like Burj Khalifa, but also offers a lot of varied activities for travellers. The year 2017 has seen a host of initiatives in the tourism sector.

Dubai’s major theme parks – IMG Worlds of Adventure and Dubai Parks and Resorts (DPR) – had their first full year of operations in 2017. Among the other openings towards the end of the year were Dubai Frame and Dubai Safari, both already a huge hit. The city’s newest beachfront district La Mer, the Etihad Museum and La Perle in Habtoor City have broadened Dubai’s appeal to a wide spectrum of visitors. Dubai International Airport today has become a key link, connecting the economies of the East and the West and placing UAE within a four-hour flight reach of 40 per cent of world’s population.

The policy of UAE to open itself to the mass markets is paying dividends. India, today has become the top source market for UAE. Abu Dhabi and Dubai together welcomed over two million visitors from India in 2016. The number of visitors to the GCC from India has been steadily increasing due to the excellent political, trade and business links the region enjoys.

In fact, India has civilisational links and overarching relationship with the countries in the Middle East. The Gulf region is one of India’s largest trading partners with bilateral trade over $110 billion in 2016-17. The region hosts over nine million strong and growing expatriate community and is a source of about $35 billion annual remittances. The MoU between India and UAE on tourism, signed during the meeting of Joint Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation in September 2015, accelerated mutual cooperation in the tourism sector and opened new opportunities with increased travel between the people of both the nations.

The Air Services agreement, inked by India and UAE in 2014, paved the way for growth in the number of flights to India and an increase in travel opportunities for Indian travellers. Today, carriers from India and the UAE fly over 1,30,000 seats a week, each way.

In view of increased tourist arrivals from India, UAE has expressed its interest in further enhancing its air transport relation with India and seeking extra seat capacity. The increase in aircraft seat capacity will undoubtedly benefit the people of the two countries and create tremendous economic benefits through trade and tourism.
The visit by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to India as the Chief Guest at the Republic Day Celebration in 2017 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to UAE in February 2018 has provided momentum to the long-standing historical ties and bilateral relationships between India and the UAE.

It is noteworthy that while Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two major destinations of UAE have respectively registered a growth of 15 per cent and 12.5 per cent in tourist arrivals from India in 2016 over 2015, the growth of tourist arrivals from UAE to India was an impressive 20.3 per cent during the same period. However, in terms of percentage share, the contribution of UAE and West Asia in India’s total foreign tourist arrivals is 0.76 per cent and 5.13 per cent respectively. The shares of this region in India’s total FTAs are quite low, as against 24.93 per cent of South Asia, 8.47 per cent of South East Asia and 7.01 per cent of East Asia.

The general perception about holidaymakers from UAE is that India is a “been there done that” kind of destination. India needs to dispel this perception. India’s strategic plan should highlight its price competitiveness; excellent air connectivity; lesser-known destinations, rich history, cultural heritage, diversities, wildlife, beaches, mountain adventure, cinematic tourism and exotic locales.

With India becoming a leading hub of medical tourism and with a liberal e-visa medical regime, India should pitch for a larger share of medical tourists from the Middle East. Indian tourism statistics 2017 indicate that 63 per cent of travellers from Iraq, 40 per cent from Yemen and 20 per cent from Oman travelled to India as medical tourists. India should, however, aggressively project its high quality, yet affordable and cost-effective medical facilities, to influence medical tourists in rest of the Middle East and West Asia.

The bilateral friendly relations between India and the Middle East have benefitted both regions in their economic prosperity and in augmenting travel and tourism. While the tourism offerings from the Middle East and GCC to India varies from leisure, retail shopping, luxury stays, theme parks, desert adventure, entertainments, sun and sand, to business and professions, India offers its rich and diverse natural and cultural heritage, Himalayan adventures, exotic beaches, medical tourism, wellness and yoga, and Bollywood to the travellers from Middle East and GCC.

The UAE can be a perfect stopover destination for travellers from India who are travelling to countries such as the US and Canada, both of which have large Indian populations. Similarly, travellers from the Middle East and UAE can travel via India to other Asian destinations and Australia. The recent intraregional travel restrictions and embargo within the Middle East may affect the inflow of travellers into UAE and some other countries in the Middle East. To fill this void, UAE and other Middle East countries may have to accelerate their efforts to attract a larger number of tourists from India, China and South East Asia.

In the backdrop of UAE occupying the centre stage of leisure and business travel and with Dubai, the commercial capital of UAE and a cosmopolitan oasis, becoming one of the leading global tourism hotspots, the Silver Jubilee edition of Arabian Travel Market (ATM) 2018, scheduled from April 22 to 25 in Dubai, will provide a platform to the Middle East and UAE to market their latest products, destinations and innovations before the world. UAE can showcase its best practices and success stories of building state-of-the-art infrastructure, flying the most popular airline, bringing in new tourist attractions, hosting cosmopolitan cuisines, augmenting adventure activities, facilitating favourable US-local currency conversion and establishing a liberal visa regime. ATM can also be a good opportunity for them to address the intraregional issues of the Middle East with a view to iron out solutions for the overall development of tourism in the region.

India is all set to showcase itself in the forthcoming ATM as a year-round multi-faceted tourist destination for all ages, all seasons and all reasons, and to promote luxury, wildlife, yoga, wellness and medical tourism. India, which has done exceedingly well at the recent ITB Berlin 2018 by bagging the best exhibitor award in the category Asia/Australia/Oceania is expected to repeat its sterling performance at the forthcoming ATM.

(The author is former Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. He can be reached at vinodzutshi@gmail.com)

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