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Can alternative segments reboot Gulf tourism’s Covid-19 recovery?

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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.

As OBG detailed, the Dubai government has launched a virtual working programme designed to attract professionals, entrepreneurs and those working in start-ups.

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.

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Promoting ‘Brand Africa’ to Realize the Continent’s Tourism Potential

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UNWTO’s African Member States will work together to establish a new narrative for tourism across the continent. To better realize tourism’s potential to drive recovery, UNWTO and its Members will also work with the African Union and the private sector to promote the continent to new global audiences through positive, people-centred storytelling and effective branding.

With tourism recognized as an essential pillar of sustainable and inclusive development for the continent, UNWTO welcomed high-level delegates to the first Regional Conference on Strengthening Brand Africa. The conference featured the participation of the political leadership of host country Namibia, alongside public and private sector leaders from across the continent.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili welcomed the common determination to rethink as well as restart tourism. “African destinations must take the lead in celebrating and promoting the continent’s vibrant culture, youthful energy and entrepreneur spirit, and its rich gastronomy”, he said.  

Windhoek Pledge puts people first

On the back of a series of workshops and a Ministerial Think Tank, UNWTO’s African Member States unanimously endorsed the Windhoek Pledge on Advocating Brand Africa. Under the terms of the Windhoek Pledge, Members will engage both public and private sector stakeholders as well as local communities to build a new, inspiring narrative for tourism across the continent. They will identify positive, human-centred stories, and through strengthened partnerships with the media, showcase them to the world, reaching new and diverse tourism source markets.

Over the coming weeks, UNWTO will work with all signatories to create a common roadmap towards establishing Brand Africa. This will include establishing common values and goals and identifying funding needs and opportunities as well as providing branding toolkits for destinations, including guidelines and recommendations and training and capacity building in market intelligence, digital marketing and data management.

Bilateral meetings show support for tourism

Alongside the conference, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, held high-level talks on the restart of tourism with President of Namibia Hage Geingob, as well as with the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah and with the African Union Commissioner for Trade and Industry Albert Muchanga

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New report on single-use plastic products aims to advance sustainability in travel and tourism

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The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), launch a major new report today, addressing the complex issue of single-use plastic products within Travel & Tourism.

‘Rethinking Single-Use Plastic Products in Travel & Tourism’ launches as countries around the world begin to reopen, and the Travel & Tourism sector starts to show signs of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic which has been devastating.

The report is a first step to mapping single-use plastic products across the Travel & Tourism value chain, identifying hotspots for environmental leakages, and providing practical and strategic recommendations for businesses and policymakers.

It is intended to help stakeholders take collective steps towards coordinated actions and policies that drive a shift towards reduce and reuse models, in line with circularity principles, as well as current and future waste infrastructures.

The report’s recommendations include redefining unnecessary single-use plastic products in the context of one’s own business; giving contractual preference to suppliers of reusable products; proactively planning procedures that avoid a return to single-use plastic products in the event of disease outbreaks; supporting research and innovation in product design and service models that decrease the use of plastic items, and revising policies and quality standards with waste reduction, and circularity in mind.

Virginia Messina, Senior Vice President and Acting CEO, WTTC said: “WTTC is proud to release this important high-level report for the sector, focusing on sustainability and reducing waste from single-use plastic products in Travel & Tourism.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the sustainability agenda with businesses and policymakers now putting an even stronger focus on it. As a growing priority, businesses are expected to continue to reduce single-use plastic products waste for the future and drive circularity to protect not only our people, but importantly, our planet.

“It is also becoming clear that consumers are making more conscious choices, and increasingly supporting businesses with sustainability front of mind.”

Single-use plastic products can be a threat to the environment and human health and without deliberate effort across the sector, Travel & Tourism can and will contribute significantly to the issue.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had both negative and positive impacts on single-use plastics pollution.

The demand for single-use plastics items has increased with safety being a high concern among tourists and take-away services being on the rise. According to the Thailand Environment Institute, plastic waste has increased from 1,500 tons to a staggering 6,300 tons per day, owing to soaring home deliveries of food.

However, the pandemic has also catalysed consumer demand for green tourism experiences around the world, with a 2019 global study finding 82% of respondents are aware of plastic waste and are already taking practical actions to tackle pollution.

The report recognises that global solutions are required to address corporate concerns about the use of single-use plastic products. It aims to support informed decision making based on the potential impacts of trade-offs and of unintended burden shifting when considering the transition to sustainable alternatives.

Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of the Economy Division, UNEP said:

“Travel & Tourism has a key role to play in addressing the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, as well as making circularity in the use of plastics a reality.

The advent of COVID-19 and consequent proliferation of single-use plastic products has added urgency to the crises. With this report, we hope to encourage stakeholders in this industry to come together to address this multifaceted challenge. Only by doing so, can we ensure meaningful and durable change.”

With around 90 percent of ocean plastic derived from land-based sources and the annual damage of plastics to marine ecosystems amounting to US$13 billion per year, proactively addressing the challenge of plastics within the Travel & Tourism sector is key.

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UNWTO and Greece to Collaborate on Maritime Tourism Research Centre

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UNWTO is to collaborate with the Greek Ministry of Tourism in establishing a first research station dedicated to measuring the sustainable development of coastal and maritime tourism across the Mediterranean.

The new monitoring centre will be based at the University of the Aegean in Greece. From here, experts will capture and collate measurement data and analysis relating to the environmental, economic, and social impact of tourism.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “Coastal and Maritime tourism is one of the most important economic drivers within the Mediterranean basin. This new research centre can provide key data to guide the restart and future development of the sector, ensuring it fulfils its potential to provide opportunity for coastal communities and to protect and celebrate natural and cultural heritage.”

The United Nations specialized agency and the Ministry of Tourism confirmed their collaboration on the initiative during the UNWTO High-Level Conference on Coastal and Maritime Tourism, held in Athens and co-hosted by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and Celebrity Cruises.

The Tourism Minister of Greece Harry Theoharis said: “I express my immense gratitude for UNWTO’s support in this endeavour. The Research Center will soon become a reference point for the study and protection of our coasts and seas.”

Pierfrancesco Vago, Global Chairman of CLIA and Executive Chairman of MSC Cruises added: “CLIA is pleased to support the UNWTO research and monitoring centre on sustainability and coastal maritime tourism in the Mediterranean. As part of the cruise industry’s commitment to responsible travel, we are pursuing carbon neutral cruising in Europe by 2050, and we work closely with cruise destinations and coastal communities to support economic growth in a sustainable manner.

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