GCC’s Tourism Evolution Towards Diversification & Collaboration

  • “What sets the GCC apart is its exceptional resilience and swift expansion in the travel sector.” – Bader Ali Habib
  • “The GCC region has witnessed a remarkable surge in tourism, driven by a strategic shift towards a greener economy” – Philip Dickinson
  • “We are entering a new era of connectivity, mobility and trade within the Gulf region, enhancing the economic synergy between the six GCC states.” – Abdulla Yousuf Mohammad
  • “There’s a noticeable shift towards balancing cultural preservation with catering to the interests of young tourists.” – Mahmood Khaleel Alhashmi

With a surge in consumer spending on international travel, coupled with increased flight capacities and a booming global travel market, the GCC region is experiencing a significant rise in attracting travelers to its member states. GlobalData reports that the total number of international arrivals in GCC amounted to 49.08 Mn in 2022, and generated total inbound expenditure of $66.06 billion. Recent insights and developmental initiatives indicate glimpses of a shift towards diversifying product offerings, challenging existing tourism narratives, and fostering cooperative efforts among member states to sustain and grow tourism within the region, in line with the respective 2030 vision. This study explores how these visions are being realized on the ground, poised to usher in a new era for the region’s tourism industry.

Mahmood Khaleel Alhashmi, Director General of the Ajman Department of Tourism Development; Philip Dickinson, Leading International Market Development at Visit Qatar; Bader Ali Habib – Regional Head of Proximity Markets @ Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism; and Abdulla Yousuf Mohammad, International Operations Department Director, Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) talk to T3 and share perspectives on above.

Growth story, Contribution to the region, India as a source market

Mentioning about the tourism growth in the GCC region, Mahmood Khaleel Alhashmi, Director General of the Ajman Department of Tourism Development  says, “Tourism in the GCC region has been on a steady rise, with each emirate in the UAE contributing uniquely to this growth”. He also added that India, as a key source market for Ajman, has seen a notable increase in visitors over the years. This is attributed to Ajman’s exceptional visitor experience, high-quality services, and strategic marketing efforts targeting Indian travelers. With over 60k Indian visitors constituting more than 12% of Ajman’s tourists, India remains a crucial market for Ajman’s tourism growth.

In the same regard, Philip Dickinson, Leading International Market Development at Visit Qatarmentioned that in recent years, the GCC region has witnessed a remarkable surge in tourism, driven by a strategic shift towards a greener economy. This diversification is said to have revealed the immense potential of the region to cater to various segments of the tourism sector, from luxury travellers to those seeking cultural immersion, as well as large-scale international events. Moreover, the GCC has emerged as a global connectivity hub, seamlessly linking the East and West through the operations of leading national carriers including Qatar Airways.

Bringing a Qatar perspective in the same, Dickinson says “Qatar, in alignment with its National Vision 2030, has been at the forefront of transformative initiatives in tourism development”. Dickinson says Qatar to be swiftly evolving into a premier tourist destination, with rapid strides in luxury hospitality, public transportation, infrastructure and a national carrier that offers extensive global connectivity. Notably, the hosting of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar drew 3.4 million visitors, showcasing the nation’s state-of-the-art stadiums, the stunning Hamad International Airport, efficient metro networks, and awe-inspiring modern architectural wonders. As for India, it holds significant importance as a key source market for the region’s burgeoning tourism growth.

In accordance to above, Bader Ali Habib – Regional Head of Proximity Markets @ Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism opines that the UAE Tourism Strategy 2031 aims to attract 40 million hotel guests by the year 2031. It is expected to contribute towards encouraging tourism investment in various related sectors, including travel, aviation, and hospitality. According to him, what sets the GCC apart is its exceptional resilience and swift expansion in the travel sector.

“Dubai has seen remarkable growth in tourism with more tourists than ever before in 2023. Dubai witnessed 17.15 million international overnight visitors representing a 19.4% YoY growth over the 14.36 million tourist arrivals in 2022. The performance of the tourism sector aligns with the goals of the Dubai Economic Agenda, D33, launched by our forward-thinking leadership to further consolidate Dubai’s position as one of the top three global cities for business and leisure”, mentions Habib.

He further adds that in 2015, India became Dubai’s No.1 source market for international visitors for the first time and it continues to be the top priority market ever since. In 2023, Dubai welcomed a record 2.46 million overnight visitors from India, marking a 34% YoY growth. “With exceptional flight connectivity, a convenient e-Visa process, and our ongoing commitment to Indian market, we are confident that our upcoming initiatives will further amplify awareness about Dubai’s diverse attractions, cultural value, and immense business potential, making it the top choice for Indian tourists.”

Infrastructure & developmental initiatives

The recently inaugurated ‘Heritage Path’ is a testament to Ajman’s commitment towards infrastructure developments as well as preserving its cultural heritage, says Alhashmi. He also highlighted shared cultural initiatives such as Liwa Ajman Festival, Ajman Folklore Festival. “Additionally, Ajman lays focus on sustainable tourism is evident through initiatives like planting mangrove trees, aligning with national efforts for environmental conservation”, Alhashmi adds.

Mentioning about the infrastructure development, Dickinson says that Qatar has been making significant investments in its infrastructure, reflecting its status as a dynamic destination that honours its heritage while embracing the future. “Notably, Doha’s Hamad International Airport (HIA) which was recently named the World’s Best Airport for 2024 by Skytrax, has propelled Qatar into a global transport hub. Qatar Airways, the national flag carrier, has further bolstered this reputation, earning popularity among travellers worldwide. The Meryal Waterpark is an indication to innovation and leisure, along with upscale retreats like Habitas Ras Abrouq and Rosewood Doha offer luxurious accommodations, catering to discerning travellers seeking unparalleled comfort and service.

When asked about developments with regards to infrastructure and collaborations in Dubai, Habib mentions that Dubai remains committed to elevate standards in tourism through world-class infrastructure and attractions. “Dubai has a unique model of collaboration between the government and private sectors, with our 3,000 partners in more than 80 markets that we operate in. This has seen us actively engage with our partners to create a diverse destination proposition and to promote the city as a global destination”, Habib adds.

Is the region now ‘competing collaboratively’?

A collaborative approach is now seen getting emerged within the GCC region. It is important therefore to analyze how the GCC states are looking at developing an environment in the region that preaches the idea of ‘competing collaboratively’. When asked about the unified visa system, Alhashmi mentioned that the implementation of the same is expected to streamline visa processes, reduce barriers to travel, and promote cross-border tourism. For Ajman, the unified tourist visa system will likely result in increased tourist inflows from neighboring GCC countries, fostering cultural exchange, and boosting economic activities related to tourism.

The initiative brings specific benefits to Ajman, notably enhancing regional cooperation and collaboration in tourism promotion. This raises stronger ties with other GCC countries, increasing accessibility for tourists from the region and consequently boosting visitor numbers. Additionally, Alhashmi mentions that the initiative strengthens partnerships with other GCC destinations, paving the way for joint marketing and promotional campaigns that amplify Ajman’s appeal on a broader scale.

In the case of Ajman, Ajman can leverage this approach by participating in joint marketing and promotional strategies with other GCC destinations, as mentioned by Alhashmi. Collaborative initiatives can include cross-promotional campaigns, shared cultural events, and cooperative efforts to attract specific tourist segments. By nurturing partnerships and alliances within the region, Ajman is said to capitalize on the collective strengths of GCC countries while maintaining its unique identity and offerings.Abdulla Yousuf Mohammad, International Operations Department Director, Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi)mentions to T3, “We are entering a new era of connectivity, mobility and trade within the Gulf region, enhancing the economic synergy between the six GCC states. The upcoming Unified GCC Tourist Visa is part of this process, as well as the Cruise Arabia initiative. To foster the growth of the region’s cruise tourism industry, the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi enter into an unprecendented collaborative agreement last year with other GCC tourism bodies.”

He further added that on a federal level, the Unified GCC Tourist Visa is paving the way for collective success and tourism growth. It will strengthen the region’s potential as a multiple stop travel destination, enabling more visitors to experience both Abu Dhabi and the wider region, with a more enriching and extensive travel itinerary.

“For Abu Dhabi, the growth in visitor numbers due to simplified visa applications, travel logistics and costs will contribute to the 2030 strategy’s ambition to attract over 39 million visitors by 2030 while stimulating growth in sectors like hospitality, F&B, healthcare, and retail”, added Mohammad.

Adding to above, Dickinson mentions, “We strongly believe in the power of collaboration to drive tourism growth. And both Qatar and Saudi are seeing phenomenal growth in terms of inbound tourism, therefore we have recently launched ‘Double the Discovery’ campaign in collaboration with the Saudi Tourism Authority and DMC Discover Saudi, which will showcase the rich historical and cultural treasures of both Qatar and Saudi. With this partnership, we hope to provide immersive experiences for travellers, thereby increasing tourism growth in both nations.”

Perceptions of having limited access to leisure & welcoming more young tourists to the region

Countering about the perception, Mohammad says that Abu Dhabi is remarkably diverse in that regard, delivering truly unique experiences that cover adventure, nature, entertainment, luxury, wellness and more. By expanding access to more visitors and strategically raising the Emirate’s profile in global visitor markets in line with the 2030 strategy, more people will swiftly learn about the dynamic city’s hidden gems and unique experiences.

He further claims that Abu Dhabi is strategically located between the East and West offering a world-class travel and transportation network that makes access seamless. “As part of the tourism strategy, we are investing in further enhancing that infrastructure and mobility and expanding our range of offerings that will, without a doubt, strengthen Abu Dhabi and the region’s attractiveness to travellers across diverse categories”, says Mohammad. 

Adding to this perspective, Alhashmi mentions that Ajman prioritizes the preservation of its culture and heritage, which often translates into conservative practices and regulations, especially concerning leisure activities. Each country within the GCC has its unique set of rules and traditions governing entertainment and nightlife, reflecting the diversity of the region.

“However, despite these limitations, there’s a noticeable shift towards balancing cultural preservation with catering to the interests of young tourists. Ajman, for instance, has been exploring innovative ways to offer one-of-a-kind experiences that appeal to this demographic while still staying true to its roots”, Alhashmi opines.

He further adds that as tourism continues to thrive in the region, there’s a gradual evolution in the perception of limited access to leisure and entertainment. “GCC countries are increasingly focusing on developing tourism infrastructures that blend tradition with modernity, thereby creating a more welcoming environment for young tourists. This includes expanding options for nightlife, clubbing, and leisure activities, albeit within the framework of local regulations and cultural norms”, mentions Alhashmi.

Contrary to any perceived notions, Qatar, alongside other GCC countries, has made significant developments in the last few years towards creating diverse attractions and entertainment offerings for travellers, mentions Dickinson. Dickinson highlights an array of captivating attractions in Qatar, from the iconic Museum of Islamic Art, or the landmark National Museum of Qatar to the bustling Souq Waqif, where traditional Qatari culture comes to life. He also highlights the futuristic skyline of Doha, and the awe-inspiring Aspire Zone.

Dickinson further adds that “From expansive amusement parks to luxury shopping destinations, museums and galleries as well as cutting-edge event facilities, GCC nations offers a plethora of options for leisure travellers, seeking downtime, adventure, cultural enrichment and more. This continued effort and developments will surely debunk any misconceptions and attract a diverse demographic of tourists, including young travelers, to experience the vibrant offerings of not just Qatar but entire GCC.”

With the same accord, Habib mentions that to attract and cater to families, young couples and children, Dubai is replete with fun-filled and unique indoor and outdoor attractions. During the summertime, to leverage summer vacations in India, Dubai continues to run annual Kids Go Free discounts and offers for affordable and budget friendly itineraries.

Kuhelika Roy Choudhury