When it comes to achieving global travel goals, the Gulf’s tourism industry is well ahead of the curve

On its official website, the World Tourism Organization describes itself the international agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.

In layman’s terms, it is the global tourism body that decides what is (and is not) best practice.

As part of its ‘Management Vision’, the organisation has established five pillars that represent the foundations of its global activities:

  • Making tourism smarter through celebrating innovation and leading the digital transformation of the sector
  • Making tourism more competitive at every level through promoting investment and entrepreneurship
  • Creating more and better jobs, and providing relevant training
  • Building resilience and promoting safe and seamless travel
  • Harnessing tourism’s unique potential to protect cultural and natural heritage, and to support communities both economically and socially.

Ultimately, the World Tourism Organization is working to promote tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability, while using it as an instrument for the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by reducing poverty and fostering sustainable growth.

The World Tourism Organization’s goals are clear and succinct, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking objection to the organisation’s stated aims. Nevertheless, achieving these goals is easier said than done.

It’s for this reason that the organisation has committed to delivering practical support to tourism markets around the world and, fortunately for Gulf countries, our region appears to be somewhat of a flagship for the organisation in this respect.

GCC tourism in focus

Earlier this year, the World Tourism Organization and Saudi Arabia agreed on a set of joint steps designed to cement tourism’s status as a driver for growth, opportunity and development across the Middle East.

The announcement came less than a year after the organisation officially opened its regional office in Riyadh, in a move intended to strengthen its links with the kingdom.

As part of their joint strategy, the stakeholders will introduce the World Tourism Organization’s Global Tourism and Rural Development Programme’s ‘Best Tourism Villages’ initiative to the region.

Other focuses will include knowledge creation for policy and business practices; training and skills development; and ground-level technical assistance, with plans already in place to establish the first Tourism and Rural Development Observatory in the Saudi Arabian capital.

At the same time, the World Tourism Organization’s ‘Digital Futures Programme’ – which is being conducted in conjunction with market leaders such as Amadeus, Mastercard, Cisco and Telefónica – will support our region’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to embrace digitisation. On a global level, this initiative aims to provide training on connectivity, e-commerce, big data and analytics, and online payments and security to as many as 20,000 SMEs across 22 countries, including 5,000 in its first year.

Stronger links between the World Tourism Organization and the Middle East, with an on-the-ground presence in Saudi Arabia, is clearly a positive step for our region’s tourism sector, and one which already appears to be bearing fruit. Nevertheless, countries across the Gulf will also need to do their bit to realise the organisation’s global vision.

Encouragingly, the priorities of GCC tourism markets already seem to be largely aligned with the long-term travel goals set out by World Tourism Organization.

Ideally placed

Consider, for instance, our region’s efforts to build state-of-the-art hospitality offerings. Dubai especially is home to an array of tech-empowered hotels, while artificial intelligence (AI) is being leveraged across the sector to improve both efficiency and the visitor experience. Thanks to the GCC’s track record of harnessing innovation, our tourism industry is already smart and digitised – and this trend is only likely to accelerate in the future.

Similarly, few tourism markets on the planet could claim to be as competitive as the Middle East’s Our region is a hotbed of entrepreneurship, proving itself fertile ground for innovators working within the tourism space.

Gulf tourism has benefitted from sustained investment over successive decades, and, despite the challenges posed by the global pandemic, this trend also looks set to continue. GCC hotel construction contracts worth $4.5 billion are expected to be awarded in 2022, according to research from BNC Network. Findings released by STR, meanwhile, show that more than 169,000 pipeline rooms are currently under contract across the region.

The Middle East is also home to some of the world’s leading travel, hospitality, events and attractions brands, making it an extremely popular location among hospitality professionals.

For me, it seems that a focus on professional development will offer the key to ensuring the sector retains its leading position over the longer term, but the building blocks are already in place.

Safe and seamless travel, meanwhile, has been the mantra of the Gulf’s tourism sector for many years, with world-class airlines such as Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, SAUDIA and others leading the way on the global stage.

Indeed, nations like the UAE have taken this philosophy to a whole new level, establishing integrated visitor experiences from the second passengers step onto their aircraft to the moment they return home.

Cultural riches

Last but not least, the Middle East is second to none when it comes to the protection of cultural and natural heritage – not to mention capitalising on the social and economic benefits that tourism offers. Entire industries have grown up around these sites, and they are – in turn – helping to preserve these treasures for future generations.

From the Jebel Hafeet Tombs in UAE to Bahla Fort in Oman and the breath-taking petroglyphs of Saudi Arabia’s Ha’il Province, the Gulf boasts a wealth of cultural and natural heritage sites that have simultaneously enriched and been protected by the tourism industry.

As such, our region is home to countless communities that are benefitting both socially and economically, thanks to tourism built upon their heritage and culture.

Of course, that’s not to say that the Gulf has already fulfilled the goals set out as part of the World Tourism Organization’s pillars; there is always more work to be done.

Even so, our region is building from the perfect starting position, meaning that the future of GCC tourism looks very bright indeed.