With Saudi Arabia’s flagship Red Sea tourism project securing $3.8bn in green financing, various governments in the Gulf region are looking to new, alternative tourism models to drive the coronavirus recoveries in this important sector, with an emphasis on ecological options and staycations.
Both in order to reboot its tourism industry and as part of its drive to diversify the economy away from hydrocarbons, Saudi Arabia is developing several major ecological tourism projects.
In April the Red Sea Development Company – which is owned by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund – announced that it had raised $3.8bn for the Red Sea Project through the first ever riyal-denominated green finance credit facility.
The project is being built on a 28,000-sq-km site that contains 90 islands. It is set to welcome its first visitors in 2022, and when it is fully operational in 2030 it will feature 50 hotels, a luxury marina and a range of entertainment and leisure facilities.
The site’s entire transport network, including a new airport, will be powered by renewable energy.
Four banks in Saudi Arabia – Banque Saudi Fransi, Riyad Bank, Saudi British Bank and Saudi National Bank – contributed to funding the construction of the project, while HSBC acted as green loan coordinator.
Alternative tourism on the rise
The Gulf region as a whole is increasingly embracing innovative, sustainable approaches to tourism.
“The demand for local, greener and eco-friendly tourism has grown exponentially, in both Europe and the GCC,” Chirag Kanabar, managing director of Pine Wood Building Materials Trading, a company focussed on eco-friendly and sustainable modular construction, told OBG. “This is in line with pandemic-related preferences for increased social distance and privacy.”
The UAE, for example, has seen a significant uptick in “glamping”, a phenomenon whereby tourists can enjoy the experience of camping while having access to facilities that are more luxurious than those available on traditional campsites.
Glamping is part of a broader shift towards the so-called staycation model. With flights grounded and borders closed as a result of Covid-19, last year many people around the world took their holidays within their home country. This year, even though vaccine programmes are being rolled out and borders gradually reopened worldwide, international tourism is expected to recover slowly, and “staycationing” is leading the way.
Back in 2018 market research company Aritzon predicted that the global glamping industry would reach revenues of approximately $1bn by 2023, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6% throughout the period.
However, it would seem that the coronavirus pandemic has served to accelerate the sector’s growth. According to a report published in March this year by Grand View Research, global glamping will be worth $5.4bn by 2028, thanks to a CAGR of 14.1% between 2021 and 2028.
The UAE is particularly well placed to leverage this trend, with its range of naural landscapes close to urban centres offering varied cultural attractions.
One flagship project is Sharjah’s Kingfisher Retreat, a tented hotel in the Middle East, which won the 2020 Luxury Beach Retreat in the Middle East prize at the World Luxury Hotel Awards.
“This is tangible proof that the emirate’s ecotourism model, based on environmentally friendly structures, is working, so the government is seeking to expand it to other locations within its territory,” David Patrick Court, a consultant at Bushtec Creations, a luxury tent manufacturer for resorts and glamping providers, told OBG.
Meanwhile, the recently announced Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan puts a strong emphasis on sustainability.
In a significant move, Glampitect – a leading British eco-resort design consultancy – in March announced it was opening a site in Dubai.
Elsewhere, at the Arabian Travel Market 2021 – held at the Dubai World Trade Centre from 16-19 May – the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) announced over 20 sustainable tourism development initiatives across the emirate.
As well as glamping sites, these will include eco-hotels and experiential offerings.
“The GCC region excels at providing opportunities for experiential travel, given its rich history and culture. A possible way forward for the region to fully capitalise on this might be for individual countries and emirates to coordinate among themselves in an approach similar to that taken by South-east Asian nations, whereby each one can specialise in their distinctive value proposition,” Tommy Lai, CEO of the Gulf-based GHM Hotels, told OBG.
“For the region, it is important to promote the idea that ecotourism is multifaceted, and not only associated with rainforests and tropical settings. The multifaceted potential of ecotourism can be developed on the basis of the unique habitats in the GCC, including its deserts,” Lai added.
Echoing these sentiments, Sanjiv Malhotra, executive vice-president of Shaza Hotels, told OBG that, “in the UAE, every emirate offers a distinct experience. Sharjah has decisively focused on positioning itself as a capital of heritage and culture, building on an identity tied to education. It also bets on its natural assets, from its Gulf coast to Khorfakkan.”
New trends in the industry
RAKTDA said that its plan reflects Ras Al Khaimah’s new destination strategy, which is focused on nature, leisure, adventure, accessibility and authenticity.
These focuses broadly correspond to six key trends identified by Euronews Travel in a recent report on the post-2020 future of tourism, namely: wilderness tourism, ecotourism, nomadic tourism, wellness tourism, authentic tourism and mindful tourism.
Nomadic tourism, or “long stay travel”, corresponds to the significant growth in digital nomads. Such travellers relocate for longer periods and, while they spend less on a daily basis, it is possible to capture substantial value from their presence.
While many emerging economies are scrambling to position themselves as digital nomad hubs, Dubai is already an established leader in the field.
Given its strong ICT infrastructure and healthy start-up scene, Dubai is an attractive option for digital nomads, with officials marketing the emirate as a place where people can live and work by the beach.
In short, from ecotourism and glamping, to staycations and digital nomads, the Gulf region is at the cutting edge of the latest developments in tourism, providing a recovery model which other regions should be able to build on going forwards.
Time to rethink tourism, an economic lifeline for millions
Hopes that the tourism industry would rebound from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been dented by the wildfire spread of the Omicron variant. In an exclusive interview with UN News, Zoritsa Urosevic, Executive Director of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), called for new ideas to restart the sector.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is one of the 15 specialized agencies of the United Nations, which aims to promote tourism around the world, and make it the driving force of economic growth and sustainable development.
Speaking to Bessie Du of UN News at the end of 2021, shortly after the agency’s general assembly, Ms. Urosevic began by outlining the devastating impact the COVID-19 epidemic continues to have on tourism, and the prospects for recovery.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Zoritsa Urosevic: Tourism has been the sector hit hardest by the crisis, as well as all the people and the livelihoods that depends on it. Basically, this has been a very tough two years, but we see that, in the future, we will have to fully rethink the sector, and that’s maybe an opportunity.
Developed countries were much better prepared to support the hit, mostly with financial packages to support the industry and small businesses, and to try to preserve people’s jobs. Developing countries have been really struggling to do that.
We created the tourism recovery package, a tool to rapidly assess what needs to be done in a particular country, and we have created the first ever code for the protection of tourists, because building confidence is really a very important element for people who decide to travel.
We are totally aligned with the World Health Organization (WHO) on the importance of engaging in safer travel protocols rather than stopping travel altogether, because we know how many livelihoods depend on tourism, not only directly, but also those working in the industries that depend on the sector, such as food production, services, and manufacturing.
At a time when populations are increasingly moving to urban areas, rural development through tourism is certainly going to be one of the major trends in the sector. We have launched an initiative called Best Tourism Villages, and we are going to have a global centre for rural development of tourism.
UN News: Would you say the hit on tourism is unprecedented?
Zoritsa Urosevic: This has been certainly the biggest crisis ever for the sector. Basically, it’s like we went back 30 years in 2020. Over the last three decades, tourism has been steadily growing by around four per cent every year, so now we have a situation where we have a lot of supply, a lot of businesses, and no tourists.
Countries which had the size and purchasing power for it, such as China, were able to switch to domestic tourism, but for small, developing countries like Fiji, which have been the hardest hit by the crisis, and where tourism represents between 40 and 70 per cent of GDP, this isn’t possible.
We are calling for the harmonization of travel protocols, which have been very volatile because, even if countries reach an agreement, a change in the pandemic situation means that it can’t be applied.
The most successful countries have been the ones that were able to communicate very clearly, and spell out the protocols. Greece is a great example: they opened up in July 2020, but communicated well in advance, and many tourists who had been planning to go elsewhere went to Greece instead, because they were well informed.
UN News: How do you inform the everyday tourists on the progress made in internationally coordinating travel protocols?
Zoritsa Urosevic: We have really scaled up our presence on social media, and have a hundred times more followers than we used to have. We are trying our best, but it’s never enough, so we are very welcoming to new ideas and new opportunities.
UN News: What do you say to the people whose livelihoods depend on tourism?
Zoritsa Urosevic: First, I would say that this sector is very resilient: we all dream，and we all want to travel. For now, we need to improve education and training, but I think the future is bright. Tourists will come back, and they will be more respectful than before: there will be a new path for happiness in tourism and cultural exchange.
New ADB Facility to Help Southeast Asia Revive Tourism
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has set up a $1.7 million technical assistance facility to accelerate Southeast Asia’s tourism recovery from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, boost inclusive, sustainable development in the sector, and help local tourism entrepreneurs, especially women and youth, adopt digital platforms to grow their businesses.
The Southeast Asia Sustainable Tourism Facility will help countries identify and prepare environmentally sustainable tourism projects and catalyze private financing to support them. It will help businesses better operate tourism facilities and deliver digital tourism services. The facility will also help policy makers design visa, online short-term rental, and other policies to attract longer-staying, higher-spending visitors and remote workers, allow more small entrepreneurs to legitimately operate accommodation services, and boost tourism tax revenues.
“This new facility aims to help ADB’s developing member countries in Southeast Asia revive tourism, which has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said ADB Principal Tourism Industry Specialist for Southeast Asia Steven Schipani. “Projects supported by the facility will develop green and resilient urban and transport infrastructure in secondary cities to improve the tourism sector’s competitiveness, help create jobs, protect the environment, and accelerate inclusive digital transformations.”
In 2019, travel and tourism accounted for 12.1% of Southeast Asia’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employed 42 million workers, mostly women working for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). But international visitor arrivals dropped 82% in 2020 from 2019, while domestic tourism remains constrained by travel restrictions and reduced economic activity. The sector’s contribution to regional GDP fell by 53% in 2020, pushing more people into poverty.
Even before COVID-19, Southeast Asia trailed global tourism competitiveness benchmarks for ground, port, and urban infrastructure, information and communication technology readiness, and environmental sustainability. Governments hope to address these challenges in tandem with efforts to revive tourism. The facility will support key tourism-related priorities set out by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and subregional tourism strategies in Southeast Asia.
The facility includes a $500,000 grant from ADB’s Technical Assistance Special Fund. In addition, ADB will administer a $225,000 grant contribution from the Project Readiness Improvement Trust Fund financed by the Nordic Development Fund, a $500,000 grant from the Republic of Korea e-Asia and Knowledge Partnership Fund, and a $500,000 grant from the Spanish Cooperation Fund for Technical Assistance.
COVID-19: WHO urges Europeans to be smart and safe this holiday season
The World Health Organization (WHO) is reminding Europeans to remain vigilant against COVID-19 spread as they round out the year with friends and family.
The COVID-19 threat remains high across the continent, which was already the epicentre of the pandemic even before the emergence of the new Omicron variant.
Use the tools
“My message to the people of Europe and central Asia is to exercise caution this holiday season. Use the many tools we have at our disposal. These stabilizers help us to manage the virus and keep people safe,” said Dr. Kluge.
He urged people to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
“Vaccines remain the best way to prevent severe disease and death, even with the arrival of the Omicron variant,” said Dr. Kluge. “If you are eligible for a third dose and it is available to you, take it.”
Families and friends meeting up should keep these gatherings small, he added,while recommending that people should take a lateral flow/antigen or PCR test beforehand to ensure they are not infectious.
“Follow other preventive measures, even if you are fully vaccinated,” Dr. Kluge advised. “Avoid crowded or confined places, wear a well-fitting mask, observe physical distancing of at least one metre, ventilate indoor spaces by opening windows and/or doors, and keep your hands clean.”
Finding the right balance
In separate advice to governments and health authorities, WHO Europe called for “a balanced and risk-based approach” to COVID-19 prevention measures this winter season.
As people socialize more indoors, or travel to visit loved ones, the opportunities for further virus transmission are significant.
WHO Europe said with the right mix of measures, countries can find a balance between keeping coronavirus transmission down and societies and economies open.
Government response should be centred around preventing severe COVID-19 disease and stabilizing transmission.
Measures include continuing to vaccinate, targeting those most at risk, and prioritizing eligible groups for booster shots. Governments should also strengthen public health actions such as testing, contact tracing and regulations for mass gatherings.
Regarding international travel, WHO Europe said while countries may apply appropriate measures to reduce virus transmission, particularly in response to new variants, blanket travel bans will not prevent their international spread.
Additionally, decisions on mass gatherings should “rely on a risk-based approach”, and WHO has produced a policy brief and risk assessment tool to support authorities in this regard.
New assessment tool
WHO Europe recently launched an online mechanism to help governments decide on the type and level of measures to implement in their territories.
The COVID-19 Public Health and Social Measures (PHSM) Calibration Tool brings together the crucial information required to make an assessment, and then provides a situational report with recommendations on appropriate measures.
The (PHSM) Calibration Tool will allow governments and local authorities to quickly adjust measures as needed, which in turn should help reduce virus transmission, among other benefits.
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