Can Dubai hold on to its crown as the Middle East’s most popular travel destination?

When it comes to global pulling power, Dubai has long since accounted for the lion’s share of international inbound holidaymakers to the Middle East. Even during a global pandemic, which saw widespread disruption throughout the travel sector, the emirate’s tourism industry proved impressively resilient.

According to figures released by Global Media Insight (GMI) in May 2022, Dubai welcomed 7.28 million international visitors last year. It appears that this momentum has been maintained, with 3.97 million overnight visitors staying during Q1 2022, representing 214% growth compared to the corresponding period of last year. The emirate also recently topped the global league tables for hotel occupancy, with 82% of rooms filled during the first quarter of the year.

Levels of tourism-related investment are also looking healthy. Research conducted by BNC Network shows that GCC hotel construction contracts worth $4.5 billion are expected to be awarded in 2022, representing year-on-year growth of 16%. While these figures are certainly encouraging from a regional perspective, they are not necessarily representative of the bigger picture.

This is because the vast majority of hospitality-related investment in the Gulf is being driven by two markets in particular: namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the combined value of contracts within these countries accounted for more than 90% of all hospitality contracts awarded in the region during 2021.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear that Dubai’s tourism sector is ahead of the curve when it comes to the industry’s post-pandemic recovery, but what has made the emirate so successful?

The rise and rise of Dubai tourism

Firstly, Dubai boasts a wide range of choices – not only in terms of accommodation (with 769 hotels and more than 140,000 rooms available to visitors) but also with the type and scale of attractions on offer.

Following the unprecedented success of Expo 2020 Dubai, which attracted 24.1 million visits from 178 countries from October 2021 to April 2022, the emirate added to its ever-expanding tourism offering with the launch of the Museum of the Future in February of this year.

Dubai also offers a wealth of high-end eateries and luxurious resorts, which are the staple of any thriving tourism trade. Add to this architectural landmarks such as the Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab, feats of engineering such as Palm Jumeirah and Ain Dubai, and an array of high-octane tourism experiences located right on its doorstep (think Jebel Jais Flight, Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld), and the emirate really does have something to suit every conceivable taste.

Nevertheless, several other destinations in the GCC are eager to increase their market share and perhaps – in the longer term – even challenge Dubai for its crown as the region’s preferred holiday hotspot. And while there are myriad fledgling destinations making tourism-related inroads across the Middle East, two destinations stand out from the crowd.

Qatar: climbing the tourism league tables

Since submitting the winning bid to host FIFA World Cup 2022, Qatar has invested billions of dollars into enhancing its offering for international visitors.

The nation reported a sevenfold increase in GCC and European visitors during Q1 2022, with the London to Doha route proving one of the most popular in the Middle East.

Qatar is also looking to build on its recent success through the completion of a series of tourism-centric megaprojects. The Al Maha Island development, for instance, will include attractions such as the Doha Winter Wonderland theme park, the Nammos Beach Club music and dining venue, and the gastronomy-focused High End District.

Saudi Arabia: a waking giant

Despite growth in Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s ever-expanding tourism offering is arguably the most ambitious and exciting currently emerging in the Middle East – and therefore the most likely to pose a long-term challenge to Dubai. The kingdom aims to surpass 70 million visitors in 2022, building on the 62 million visas issued last year.

One project that has succeeded in grabbing more headlines than most since its announcement is the $500 billion giga-city Neom, which is due to open in 2024. This development combines cutting-edge technology and sustainability to cater to all categories of visitors and interests, spanning corporate travel, sports and leisure, family-friendly attractions and more.

At a national level, Saudi Arabia has also succeeded in establishing a comprehensive calendar of elite sporting events, with high-profile drawcards ranging from the world-famous Saudi Cup horse-racing competition to the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Where does this leave Dubai?

While no one should underestimate the time and resources that international competitors such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have committed to their tourism sectors, can such markets realistically expect to surpass Dubai anytime soon?

In my opinion, we are unlikely to witness a changing of the guard in the near future, but why? Because while the progress achieved by other regional markets is certainly impressive, Dubai has not been standing still, waiting for its competitors to catch up.

Bolstered by the success of Expo, not to mention the emirate-wide infrastructure developed to support this global gathering, Dubai has continued to work tirelessly to enhance and expand its tourism offering for international visitors.

Speaking last month, Issam Kazim, Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing, predicted that the emirate’s international visitor numbers would begin to approach parity with pre-2019 figures by the end of this year. What’s more, Dubai has set itself an ambitious target of attracting 25 million tourists in 2025 – no mean feat in the wake of a global pandemic.

Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely excited to see how the emerging tourism sectors of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations continue to develop over the coming years. However, Dubai’s long-standing track record in this industry represents a significant – and, I would argue, insurmountable – advantage over the short to medium term.

So, can Dubai hold on to its regional tourism crown? What do you think?