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30 Apr, 2001

Asia-Pacific NTOs Scramble to Tap Gulf Outbound Market

DUBAI: Asia Pacific national tourism organisations (NTOs) are scrambling to get their share of the Gulf outbound market in advance of the peak summer season for outbound travel from this lucrative part of the world.

A better understanding of the cultural nuances of the Gulf countries, growing airline connections and a huge diversity of product offerings at great ‘value for money’ prices, thanks largely to the weakness of most Asia-Pacific currencies, is the background against which regional NTOs are converging here for the annual Arabian Travel Mart, one of the fastest growing shows on the global travel-circuit calendar.

There is no indication that the turmoil in the Middle East has affected outbound travel from the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. On the contrary, some Asia-Pacific NTO representatives in the Gulf say travellers are looking more to the Asia-Pacific as against places like Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, especially for family holidays.

Though small in number compared to the Europeans and Northeast Asians, the Gulf market holds out great promise because it booms in what is traditionally the tourism low-season for nearly the entire Asia-Pacific region. Gulf visitors stay as long as the Europeans but spend twice as much. And unlike the Europeans who dislike cloudy days because it affects their tan, the Gulf nationals, who live in parched countries, love the rain.

At the moment, the ASEAN countries and Australia-New Zealand are estimated to be getting less than 2% share of the total outbound market from the Gulf but that is changing rapidly as travel agents are targeted for roadshows and familiarisation trips, backed up by media campaigns and better research on how to tap this market.

John Felix, Manager of Emirates Holidays, says the division of Emirates Airlines generated 230 million dirhams (about US$62 million) in sales last financial year ending March 31, up from 194 million dirhams the previous year, with a major portion of the growth coming from Asia-Pacific destinations like Australia. This year, for the first time, Emirates Holidays has added New Zealand as an added extension to Sydney and Melbourne.

Malaysia is a big winner, with a 140% increase in arrivals from the Gulf in 2000. The country has made a major marketing peg of its Islamic culture, widespread availability of halal food and the easy access to places of prayer everywhere, just like in the Gulf. The presence of non-Islamic places like the Genting Highlands casino does not hurt.

Malaysia is the only Asia-Pacific country to maintain two promotional offices in the Gulf, in Dubai and Jeddah, opened after the Malaysian tourism minister himself headed a high-profile sales trip through several Gulf cities in 2000.

Singapore will be launching its first TV campaign in the Gulf Co-operation Council countries covering May and most of June. Rather than using the pan-Arab regional channels, which most advertisers tend to do, the Singapore Tourism Board has bought time on the more local TV stations which are said to offer better reach into the family market. The ad itself will emphasise the city-state’s safety, diversity of things to do and lifestyle experiences.

Tourism Authority of Thailand is Governor Pradech Phayakvichien is due to arrive in Dubai on Tuesday and will be giving a press conference and presentation to travel agents and media. His main focus will be the Grand Sale shopping festival to be held nation-wide in June and July. This year, the TAT will be taking along several hundred copies of a publication called “Muslim Places of Worship” in Thailand, originally produced on authorisation from former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan.

The Australians did a major road-show in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait just this month, and put on a scintillating sales pitch at the Emirates Holidays brochure launch that won them unanimous approval as the best presenters amongst the 22 countries and products at the event.

Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore, which give visa-free access to the GCC citizens, enjoy a distinct marketing advantage. The Australians require visas but overcome that through speedy processing and issuance of multiple entry visas for upto five years.

India gets affected by this. Though it has the advantage of being the most closely located geographically, with as good a product and value-for-money positioning as other Asia-Pacific countries, its restrictive visa policy remains an impediment. The tourist office in Dubai has petitioned the higher authorities for a visa-waiver, at least for UAE nationals for starters, but “that will take time to go through the bureaucracy,” says one tourism official.

The only major complaint that the Asia-Pacific travel industry has against Gulf visitors is the male children, most of whom are cared for by Indians or Filipina maids and are quite uncontrollable. Hoteliers say rooms are often left in a total mess if not outright trashed. There have been instances of children ringing the doorbells of every room on a floor and in one instance, even pushing a flower-pot off a ledge straight down into lobby, nearly killing a guest.

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