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Saudi Arabia and UAE drive air travel recovery

Flight bookings to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the last quarter of this year are up by as much as 71 percent on pre-pandemic levels Unsplash/Gerrie van der Walt
Flight bookings to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the last quarter of this year are up by as much as 71 percent on pre-pandemic levels
  • Flight bookings up 71% for Saudi
  • Impact of war unknown
  • Top markets include UK and US

Flight bookings to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the last quarter of this year are up by as much as 70 percent on pre-pandemic levels, new figures reveal. 

Data compiled exclusively for AGBI by the travel intelligence company ForwardKeys shows that as of early October, Saudi Arabia led the region for growth in seat bookings, which were up 71 percent compared to 2019 and 29 percent compared to last year. 

The UAE saw a rise of 8 percent on 2019 and 17 percent on Q4 2022.  

Looking to the first three months of 2024, growth in the GCC’s two biggest markets is even stronger based on bookings already made, according to ForwardKeys.

Saudi Arabia is 363 percent up on 2019 levels, and more than 3,000 percent higher than the first quarter of 2022, when aviation demand was still muted in the wake of the pandemic.

The UAE has registered 111 percent growth on 2019 levels and more than 600 percent compared to Q1 2022. 

The substantial rise in Saudi Arabia reflects its relatively new entry into the regional and global travel market.

Most of the regulations it has introduced to lure visitors, such as visa relaxations and new infrastructure projects, have come into play only in the past year. 

But the continued recovery of global tourism after the blow of the pandemic has been an important driver, ForwardKeys said. 

“Throughout the year, there has been a progressive recovery from the dire impact of Covid-19 on travel to the Gulf,” Olivier Ponti, vice-president of insights at ForwardKeys, told AGBI.

“The outlook for the fourth quarter has been significantly stronger [than the summer months], driven by flight bookings for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“The picture for the first quarter of 2024 is brighter still, with bookings for the whole GCC region 41 percent ahead of 2019. 

“The strong growth of Saudi Arabia and increasing popularity of the UAE were again the big stories.”

Ponti said that in the three months from June to September, air travel to the major Gulf countries overtook pre-pandemic (2019) levels.

However, he added that it was a mixed picture with visitor arrivals up 23 percent for Saudi Arabia but down 27 percent, 45 percent and 46 percent for Qatar, Kuwait and Oman respectively.

ForwardKeys only provides percentage growth figures, not the total number of flight bookings.

The data it produced for AGBI on October 16 shows that on average bookings were up across the whole of the GCC, by 19 percent on 2019 levels in the fourth quarter and 41 percent for the first three months of next year. 

The continued recovery of global tourism after the pandemic has been an important driver of growth
Strong start for 2024 forecast

For Q1 2024, growth was stronger still compared to the equivalent period of 2022, with a rise of 248 percent. 

However, the data shows stark variations across the region with many countries failing to register a notable uplift in inbound travel over the past two years and others yet to see a return to pre-Covid levels. 

For example, fourth quarter flight bookings to Bahrain were up just 9 percent on 2022 levels and remain 10 percent below 2019. Oman and Kuwait were up 34 percent and 11 percent year on year, but down 31 percent and 38 percent compared to 2019. 

Qatar has so far recorded a 45 percent drop in flight bookings from last year for Q4, having enjoyed an influx of visitors for the 2022 World Cup. But bookings remain down 10 percent on pre-Covid levels. 

The outlook is stronger for the first three months of 2024 as the Gulf tourism market continues to rebound. Oman and Kuwait are the only two nations that remain below 2019 levels, at 4 percent and 13 percent down respectively. 

Note of caution

The strongest markets for flight bookings were the UK, US and Pakistan.

All have yielded double-digit growth for the final quarter of 2023, while Egypt and Pakistan were “the stars of the show” over the summer, Ponti said. 

He added that flight bookings from the UK and USA are showing “particular promise” for the first quarter of 2024.

One unknown is the impact of the Israel-Gaza conflict. The October data does not take this into account due to the lag between real time and a complete data set.

“A note of caution is necessary, because while aviation data looked strong in early October, that was the moment when the political outlook changed dramatically,” Ponti said. 

Last week ForwardKeys issued preliminary figures indicating that the war had started to slow the pace of international travel. Global flight bookings to all world regions have declined by five percentage points in the three weeks since Hamas launched their surprise attack on October 7, compared to the three weeks before it. 

Bookings to the entire Middle East region, not the GCC specifically, have dropped by 26 percentage points over the same period, the company said. 

“The situation in the Middle East is a huge concern, and we are starting to analyse flight data,” Ponti said. 

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