With airline connectivity rapidly approaching pre-Covid intensity and an increasing number of destinations scrapping travel restrictions, city tourism is steadily returning. TTN brought together key speakers from around the globe at ATM 2022 to discuss growth strategies and the importance of rebuilding smart and sustainable tourism
The return and rise of city tourism
The need to limit public interaction and restrict international travel during the global pandemic had a huge adverse impact on city tourism globally. Encouragingly, while the after-effects of Covid-19 continue to be felt across many urban areas, we are seeing tangible signs of recovery in certain parts of the world.
As city tourism returns by leaps and bounds, TTN Middle East brought together a panel of experts for a roundtable discussion at the recently concluded Arabian Travel Market 2022 to showcase how cities are recovering from the pandemic in a sustainable and smart manner.
Titled ‘The Return and Rise of City Tourism’ the panel discussion featured field experts Ismail Abouzeid, Research Analyst, Euromonitor International; Deveekaa Nijhawan, Global Head of International Market, Qatar National Tourism Council; Bahruz Asgarov, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Azerbaijan Tourism Board; Emily Jenkins, General Manager, dnata Travel Leisure; and Tom Kiely, President and CEO, West Hollywood Travel and Tourism Board.
Emily Jenkins of dnata tells us: “In the wake of the pandemic, we had seen most of our customers looking for island escapes, beach breaks and countryside retreats but what we’ve seen over the last couple of months, particularly over the long Eid breaks is a lot of people have been looking to go back to cities.
“We’re seeing an increase in medical tourism to Turkey. Likewise, an increase in visitation and spend for wellness tourism in countries that surround the Dead Sea”
– Ismail Abouzeid
“So, in terms of our top cities for travellers over the last 90 days, Dubai is still number one with staycations for us. Istanbul, London, Bangkok, Paris, Cairo are up there. And then you’re also looking at Muscat, Rome, Amsterdam and Barcelona.”
Emily shares some insights into why people are travelling – what drives their travel. “Visiting friends and family is a top priority, big sporting events is a reason. We’re working quite closely with Azerbaijan Tourism Board around the Formula One that is coming up in June. Obviously, FIFA World Cup Qatar towards the end of the year, and even looking forward to next year the Rugby World Cup is on across France.
“Another reason we’re seeing city tourism rise is cruise departures. Cruises have come back really strongly in the last six months. This summer cruise season from Europe is looking really good for cities like Barcelona, Venice and Amsterdam.
“Strong gastronomy continues to drive people – I personally love to travel for food. I’m sure there’s lots of other people who do too. And also for cultural experiences.”
Euromonitor’s Abouzeid discussed the return of travel globally, alongside the Top 100 City Destination Index listing, with a special focus on Amman, Doha, Cairo and Dubai.
“Cruises have come back really strongly in the last six months. This summer cruise season from Europe is looking really good for cities like Barcelona, Venice and Amsterdam”
“Travel is estimated to almost double in 2022 compared to previous year,” Abouzeid told the audience. “The industry is expected to keep growing with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.6 per cent to 2027.”
While leisure travel is predominant, business travel is also increasing but with a bleisure angle, Abouzeid tells us. “We’re seeing people add a couple of days before or after a business trip to relax and enjoy foreign destinations.”
Euromonitor emphasises Amman as one of the cities that imposed the strictest lockdown measures in the region. Jordan chose to invest $9 million to boost domestic tourism, possibly slowing recovery of international tourism for the country, Abouzeid says. “Amman visitors are not expected to reach 2019 level until 2026. Meanwhile, Turkey has suffered from recent currency devaluations which means it’s a cheaper alternative to Jordan and Saudi Arabia is diversifying away from oil and is building new attractions to grow its non-religious tourism.”
While Amman perhaps needs to work a little bit harder to raise international tourism traffic, Doha is preparing to welcome some 1.5 million visitors with FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
“Doha is the safest city in the world. It’s where cultural authenticity meets modernity, and where the sun meets the sea,” Deveekaa Nijhawan tells us. “We have almost 100 new hotels that will be launching this year, and it’s not all about luxury. We are also catering to the mid-market segment, have three- and four-star hotels and we have several quality outlets where you can enjoy a meal for under $20.
“We just want people to understand that you don’t need to have deep pockets to come and experience Doha, a destination full of beauty, culture and authenticity”
– Deveekaa Nijhawan
“From research we’ve seen that people perceive Qatar as a high-end destination, just for the luxurious market. But that’s a misconception. We just want people to understand that you don’t need to have deep pockets to come and experience Doha, a destination full of beauty, culture and authenticity.”
Qatar’s capital city Doha has been positioning itself as a global hub for sporting events, as well as promoting itself as a friendly tourist destination. The capital city hosts many large sporting events such as the Qatar Masters and Qatar Open. Another feather in Doha’s cap is the upcoming F1 Qatar Grand Prix, a 10-year contract starting 2023.
According to research by Euromonitor, MICE tourism accounted for a third of business to Qatar in 2019, and this is projected to increase in the coming years with extensive MICE-specific infrastructure in place. The 15,000 sqm Doha Exhibition Centre, 47,700 sqm Doha Convention Centre and the 40,000 sqm Qatar National Convention Centre all provide cutting-edge, modern facilities to facilitate this rise in MICE events.
“In 2020, international arrivals to Doha dropped by 73 per cent but hotel occupancy dropped by just 10 per cent. The pandemic definitely facilitated the growth of staycations in Doha,” Abouzeid says.
The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism has projected 7 million tourists in 2022, “however, we can expect lower figures due to ongoing geopolitical conditions as Russia and Ukraine account for a third of tourists in Egypt. Bookings from both countries have stopped due to the war and fears that the tourists might not be able to return to their respective countries.”
Mega projects are being built in Egypt to attract tourists to the capital. The much-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum just outside of Cairo, the restoration of the Mohamed Ali Pasha Palace and Egypt’s Capitals Museum located at the City of Arts and Culture in the New Administrative Capital are some examples.
Infrastructure projects include building the new Cairo Metro Line extension and building new, bigger and better roads to help ease the congestion and create safer driving conditions.
Far out in the west, the Californian city of West Hollywood located in western edge of Los Angeles and adjacent to Beverly Hills, has been prioritsing inclusivity, sustainability and smart city initiatives as a way of life. “West Hollywood is really a very forward-looking city. I’m very proud to say that our city council and our city government have been very much at the forefront of equality and fairness for everyone,” says Tom Kiely.
We’ve been investing in the city infrastructure, building bicycle lanes, which connect different points of attraction in Baku. Eventually these will connect the whole city”
– Bahruz Asgarov
“Looking at the environment, we want to make sure that we lead the way by example of how to be good stewards of our environment. There have been several programmes to help residents cut down on carbon emissions, providing free transportation throughout the city for visitors and also for those who might have a difficult time getting around.
“Our city has undertaken a smart city initiative, which really is engaging with our residents in an infrastructure way that allows for quicker, better and more effective communication, where the city government is able to work with our residents and solve any problems that they might have in the most efficient manner.”
The City of West Hollywood with its frequent star sighting and uber expensive real estate is not a stranger among Gulf travellers. “Visitor numbers from the GCC to West Hollywood are among the top 10 globally, but their spending is number one, and exponentially larger than any other visitors, not surprisingly. Number two is the UK, followed by Australia. As far as visitation and spending goes, we also do well from Canada, and Western Europe,” says Kiely.
“I fully expect that the GCC, especially the UAE, Qatar, Saudi, and Kuwait will lead the way for us. There are no more mask mandates. There are no more proof of vaccination mandates, you do still have to take a PCR one day before departing to the United States, but our hotels are fully open and operational. All of our shops, restaurants, nightlife is in full operation right now and doing extremely well.”
Azerbaijan’s capital Baku has been a firm favourite with the outbound Middle East traveller. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were among the top 10 source countries for the country during January-April 2022.
Visitor numbers from the GCC to West Hollywood are among the top 10 globally, but their spending is number one, and exponentially larger than any other visitors”
– Tom Kiely
“The 6th Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix is coming back to the streets of Baku on June 10 to 12. Unlike 2021, this year spectators are welcome to enjoy one of the most unpredictable F1 race weekends while enjoying what the city has to offer to the F1 enthusiasts,” Bahruz Asgarov says.
On the question of coming back sustainably, at the end of 2021, Azerbaijan Tourism Board joined the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI) as part of its commitment to building sustainable tourism in the country. “By joining the GTPI, ATB commits to stimulating the elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and items by 2025 and involving local stakeholders in this process through discussion platforms and meetings with key players such as industry experts and experts in plastic pollution. ATB’s commitments within the initiative also include to encourage change in traveller behaviour on recycling and reuse during their journey in Azerbaijan through tour guides trained and educated in the matter in question.”Now, not only Baku Boulevard, but also some of the central streets of the capital are also available for cycling with dedicated bicycle lanes. “Currently, about 200 metres of lanes are in use as a pilot project. The design of bicycle lanes and roads is primarily intended for routes connecting the main points of interest in the central part of the city. Later, it is planned to coordinate these routes and create a larger network of bicycle lanes,” Asgarov tells us.