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Middle East beats pre-pandemic tourism numbers

Lionel Messi and family Saudi tourism Saudi Ministry of Tourism via Reuters
Lionel Messi and his family star in a new drive aiming to attract 150 million tourists to Saudi Arabia
  • Visitor arrivals in Q1 15% up on 2019, says UN tourism agency
  • GCC records 33% rise, thanks to big increases in Qatar and Saudi
  • Middle East is first region in world to sustain recovery for a full quarter

The Middle East has become the first region to return to pre-pandemic tourism levels for a full quarter, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation.

In the first three months of 2023, international visitor arrivals to the Middle East were 15 percent higher than in the same period of 2019, the UN agency said. The Q1 figure for the GCC was 33 percent, driven by huge increases in travellers visiting Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Arrivals were 98 percent up on Q1 2019 in Qatar and 64 percent up in Saudi Arabia, making them the fastest-recovering tourism markets in the world.

The UAE returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, according to the agency’s World Tourism Barometer.

Nearly 730,000 people visited Qatar in the first two months of the year. Its tourism authority said the 389,000 international arrivals reported in February was the highest monthly figure for a decade – with the exception of the World Cup months, November and December 2022.

Some 389,000 tourists arrived in Qatar in February – its best performance in a decade, outside the World CupQatar Tourism
Some 389,000 tourists arrived in Qatar in February – its best performance in a decade, outside the World Cup

Morocco (up 17 percent) and Turkey (up 14 percent) were also up on 2019 levels during the first quarter. Worldwide, international arrivals were still 20 percent below pre-pandemic levels in Q1.

An estimated 235 million tourists travelled abroad in the first three months of the year, more than double the number in the same period of 2022. 

International tourism receipts hit the $1 trillion mark in 2022, growing 50 percent in real terms compared to 2021. Worldwide, receipts stood at 64 percent of pre-pandemic levels. In the Middle East, this figure was 70 percent.

Among the world’s top 20 destinations, Saudi Arabia recorded the largest increase in tourism earnings – a 43 percent rise to more than $23 billion. Tourism earnings in Turkey more than doubled in the first quarter compared to Q1 2019. Morocco reported a 52 percent jump and Jordan a 31 percent increase.

Saudi Arabia ranked 13th on the World Tourism Organisation provisional index for 2022 arrivals, with 16.6 million international tourists. It has risen 16 places in a year.

The UAE was at No 12 with over 22 million visitors. The list is topped by France and Spain and the highest-ranked Mena country is Turkey, which is at No 4 with more than 50 million.

Saudi, which aims to attract 100 million visitors a year by 2030, recorded about 7.8 million international arrivals in Q1.

Hot air balloons hover over Goreme, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. The country had more than 50 million international visitors in 2022Rita Franca/NurPhoto
Hot air balloons hover over Goreme, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. The country had more than 50 million international visitors in 2022

Flynas, a low-cost Saudi airline, said on Sunday it was benefiting from the kingdom’s tourism push as it reported a 47 percent rise in revenue for Q1. Passenger numbers increased 26 percent to more than 2.4 million. 

Saudi travel giant Seera Group has also reported growth in its first-quarter results, announced today. Gross booking value hit SAR2.7 billion ($720 million), 59 percent higher than Q1 2022. Revenue rose 61 percent to SAR794 million, resulting in a net profit of SAR55 million, compared to a SAR63 million loss in Q1 2022.

Seif Sammakieh, partner at management consultancy Oliver Wyman in Riyadh, told AGBI that Saudi Arabia was “fundamentally changing the tourism landscape in the region, with visionary projects creating a “positive spillover effect for the wider GCC". 

Faisal Durrani, partner and head of Middle East research at Knight Frank, pointed to the “recent unveiling of the year-round Saudi calendar."

Durrani said: "This increase in activity isn't just a temporary boost; it ensures a continuous influx of tourists throughout the year. We anticipate a positive impact on hotel performance, particularly with the projected supply increase by 2025.”

Last week Minor Hotels, which operates 530 hotels and resorts in 56 countries, announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Development Fund. The partners will jointly develop mountain resorts, wellness sites and urban hotels across the kingdom, with the first project set to be announced this year.

Hyatt has also signed a deal with the Tourism Development Fund to establish a number of luxury hotels in Saudi Arabia.

The World Tourism Organisation predicts that international travel will continue its recovery throughout the year, thanks to strong pent-up demand, the sustained recovery of air connectivity and the recent reopening of China.

However, against the backdrop of high inflation and geopolitical tensions driving up oil prices, tourists are expected to increasingly seek value for money and travel closer to home, the agency added.

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