As mounting cancellations shake up an already stalled industry, our panel of experts discusses everything from the need for compulsory travel insurance in the region, the necessary evil of social distancing and the rise of soft adventure
In partnership with the inaugural Arabian Travel Market (ATM) Virtual Event, TTN organised a roundtable discussing the latest travel updates, upcoming trends and near-, mid- and long-term projections.
This was one in a series of roundtables that TTN organised in the lead up to ATM Virtual Event, which takes place from June 1 to 3 next year.
Our panellists came from all over the world.
From the destinations side, joining us from the UK was Tricia Warwick, Director Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa (APMEA), Visit Britain. Matthias Albrecht, Director GCC, Switzerland Tourism joined us from his Dubai home, and Dr Trust Lin, Director, Taiwan Tourism Bureau Singapore Office, tuned in all the way from Southeast Asia.
On the agency side, we hosted Nasir Jamal Khan, Chief Executive Officer, Al Naboodah Travel & Tourism from his home in the UAE; Ramsumesh R Menon, Chief Executive Officer, Gosaibi Travel, joined us from Bahrain; and Muzzammil AHussain, Executive Vice President – Consumer Travel, Almosafer of Seera Group, from Saudi Arabia.
"What is the new normal going to look like? I think that there’s going to be a significant, permanent change to the way we do things, going forward"
– Tricia Warwick
Together, they shared interesting insights with Team TTN and a live audience.
Visit Britain’s Tricia Warwick, who has 15+ years of Middle East experience having worked in Dubai with Jumeirah Group, Kerzner International as well as Viceroy before joining Visit Britain, kicked off the conversation with how important the Gulf market is for the revenue it brings into Britain.
“Before the unfortunate situation regarding Covid-19, the Gulf market was the number two market for us after the US in terms of value,” Warwick tells us. “The two markets that top the GCC for us displayed a strong growth, with the UAE seeing a 12 per cent annual growth and Saudi Arabia a little lesser than that. London was obviously numero uno, we were very successful in getting people to London but we had also started getting people outside of London.”
This was followed by Matthias Albrecht, who has worked for Switzerland Tourism for the last ten years, seven of which as the director for Gulf markets based in Dubai. He said: “In 2019, we were just shy of one million overnights from the GCC. We had a brilliant first two months of the year, both January and February were up 20 per cent year on year - we would probably be having a record year this year but for Covid-19. Our biggest destinations are Geneva, Zurich and Interlaken, and while this will remain the case but we clearly see more diversion and a better distribution into the whole country, places like Lucerne, Gstaad, Lugano, Crans Montana, St. Moritz and Basel.”
More than four million Covid-19 cases have been diagnosed globally, but the island nation of Taiwan has continued to report no new Covid-19 cases for weeks, leaving the total number of diagnosed cases at 440 as of May 18.
"Taiwan’s ‘do ahead, think ahead’ strategy has paid off. We were the first country to ban international travel from China. Today, our schools, businesses and offices are all open – however, we continue to practice social distancing"
– Dr Trust Lin
Last year, Taiwan welcomed nearly 12 million international visitors, a 7 per cent growth year on year from 2018. “This March, we dropped 92 per cent international arrives due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Dr Trust Lin, Taiwan Tourism Bureau, told our panel, “but Taiwan’s ‘do ahead, think ahead’ strategy has paid off. Our schools, businesses and offices are all open - we continue to practice social distancing voluntarily, despite no new cases.”
Nasir Jamal Khan, CEO of Al Naboodah Travel & Tourism Agencies & Al Naboodah Travel – extensive retail operations as well as a strong GSA arm dedicated to 10+ airlines – said: “We had a fantastic 2019 and a very good start to this year. In fact, by the end of February this year, the agencies business was 25 per cent over last year. Overall, the UAE business was in the positive, whether you consider inbound or outbound. The year was buzzing with excitement, until it was not.
“There are no inbound and outbound flights at the moment – though there are the repatriation flights we don’t consider this as a business. We have been a profit-making business for the last 60 years, and this is not the time to make profits, this is the time to give back to society. We are helping the needy get on these repatriation flights – embassies and governments are involved – we are supporting people without charging any fees and making sure the fares they are paying is as less as possible.
“There is no income – nothing. On the other hand, interestingly, our cargo business is doing very well. Cargo tonnage has increased by 50 per cent, and even 100 per cent in some cases.”
Seera, the reimagined Al Tayyar Travel Group of Saudi Arabia, deals in consumer travel, travel management, Hajj & Umrah, hospitality, car rental, corporate ventures as well as KSA destination management. Our expert from Seera, Muzzammil AHussain, said: “Last year, we had a dramatic transformation, a rebranding exercise and a very good year overall. We were continuing our journey across consumer travel, the consumer facing businesses that I lead - a brand in Saudi Arabia called Almosafer and Tajawul in the UAE. We saw about 200 per cent growth year on year in the first two months of this year. Our partnerships with tourism boards such as Visit Britain and Switzerland were very fruitful. We were continuing our omni-channel journey rolling out our outlets, opening them in airports and across KSA, and then Covid happened. Since then, things have basically come to a standstill.
"It’s a double whammy – destinations are going to cost higher than normal, so are airlines if the middle seats need to be left empty. It will be a major challenge to keep package prices economical"
– Ramsumesh Menon
“We have looked inwards and have identified where we need to invest into digital and technology, which will help define our roadmap on the new normal and how things will go when travel does happen. We have dedicated teams who are currently serving our customers, those who are stranded, and those whose bookings require amendments.”
In the island of Bahrain, Gosaibi Travel has evolved as a full-fledged travel service organisation since its launch in 1954. The company now specialises in corporate travel, leisure, online travel, and destination management services offering holistic travel related services in the region. It is a partner with ITP – International Travel Partnership and is the first and only travel management company in Bahrain accredited as per ISO 9001:2008 standards.
Ramsumesh R Menon, CEO, Gosaibi Travel, said: “Predominantly, our three verticals - corporate travel, outbound leisure travel as well as inbound travel - got a lot of traction last year and the beginning of this year. We saw a lot of outbound traffic during this period and we also had a lot of forward bookings over this summer, which we have had to, unfortunately, cancel. For us, the key outbound destination is Dubai. When looking at Europe, UK is our number one destination, while central European destinations such as Switzerland remain important for us. Speaking of inbound travel, it was also a good year. We manage shore excursions for cruises in Bahrain and there was a steady increase in footfall there but towards the end of March, all that changed.
“Since then we have re-evaluated our business and have had a lot of opportunity to think and reflect. Benjamin Franklin (one of the founding fathers of the US) said 'Out of adversity comes opportunity.' This is a great time to revaluate opportunities. This is the perfect time to get cracking on our product portfolio. Last year, we embarked upon the digital transformation of our business, we are using this time to put our newly acquired technologies to the test.”
"We have been a profit-making business for the last 60 years, and this is not the time to make profits, this is the time to give back to society. We are helping the needy as best we can"
– Nasir Jamal Khan
The biggest struggle we are facing in the industry right now is trying to figure out which stage of recovery we are going to be in and when, which market to put our focus on and how much and, that’s a bit like trying to read a crystal ball, said Warwick of Visit Britain. “Destinations are starting to talk as one, tourism boards of different countries are coming together and sharing ideas on how to collaborate and come out of this through joint sales missions, the solidarity that’s coming out of this is quite heart-warming.”
“What is the new normal going to look like? I think that there’s going to be a significant, permanent change to the way we do things going forward,” said Warwick and this sentiment rang true with all of our panellists.
All six experts agreed that social distancing will play a big part - whether in attractions or restaurants and even airlines - and personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, sanitisation and hygiene – will be on the top of the agenda when travel begins.
Warwick said: “Customers are looking to minimise human contact, to avoid the infection. Luxury hotels and big chains will start looking at everything that can be contactless, be it check-in or payments. Cleanliness and hygiene will be at the forefront and will also be essential in instilling confidence in people, whether you are in Madame Tussauds or going up the London Eye, or checking into a hotel. Private dining will be more popular than ever and room service menus will need to be expanded as more people will be interested in dining in their rooms.
“In the UK, the focus will be on social distancing, and how we are going to ensure we don’t overcrowd places.”
"People will not travel unless there is some security about when they can come back home. No one wants to be quarantined in their home country for two weeks after returning from a holiday or vice versa"
– Muzzammil AHussain
Social distancing, though necessary in the short term, will hopefully not be a way of life in the long term. Albrecht of Switzerland Tourism said: “Let’s be clear, nobody likes social distancing, especially in the tourism industry – we are a people business. This applies to travellers as well. When we travel, we want to meet other people and not distance ourselves from them. Social distancing will be necessary in the short term, but hopefully it will not last forever.
“I think initially people will avoid the more crowded places, the monuments that everyone visits, and look for destinations that are not overcrowded. The ‘hidden gems’ will be more in demand than before.
“Sure, some things will change post-Covid-19 but the number one motivation for people to travel to Switzerland is nature and this fact is not going to change. We will always have travellers for our fresh air, redolent landscapes, lush greenery, crystal clear lakes and our sugar-coated mountains. We will see more products that will focus on nature, sustainability and caring about travellers.
“Also, we will also see a renaissance of people travelling by car. Travelling in your own car is safer than flying on an aeroplane and in this sense, it is not really a renaissance for the Arab market because they have been doing this in Switzerland for years, enjoying what we call the Grand Tour of Switzerland where you can use your own car and see Switzerland in one route.”
Meanwhile in Southeast Asia, Taiwan’s government has decided to extend the suspension of international inbound and outbound tour group travel through June 30 as a precautionary measure. Dr Lin said: “Right now, we are focusing on training and subsiding to help travel agents and tour guides to survive the pandemic; we are focusing on how to increase domestic travel and international tourism. The first step is training and the second step is to invite 300,000 members of the travel trade to fam trips within Taiwan to experience new products, after which we expect domestic travel to resume.
"Travelling in your own car is safer than flying in an aeroplane. We foresee an increase in self-driven cars, but this is not a renaissance for the Arab market because they love the Grand Tour of Switzerland as it is"
– Matthias Albrecht
“For international travel, we are no longer promoting our gourmet food but have shifted the focus to ‘healing holidays’. For instance, 2020 has been the year for mountains and 2021 we will focus on bicycle tours, encouraging people to go out and nature in the open, without wearing protective masks,” said Dr Lin.
Social distancing is a necessary measure to contain the spread of Covid-19 as well as the fear of the disease, at least in the short term, but it is not in human nature to stay apart. “I am a certified Scuba diver and my instructor informed me that his bookings have increased 15 per cent. The reason being that there is currently no social distancing underwater. This is a great time for surfing, scuba diving, this is the kind of activity we should focus on and promote.”
“People have less spending power right now, business travel will be down, and conferences will move to the digital format. People will prefer short-haul destinations till they develop their confidence,” said Khan, Al Naboodah’s Chief Executive Officer. “Destination wise, the UK and Switzerland will be ever popular outbound choices, while Taiwan has picked up quite a bit from the medical and health travel perspective. A lot of people are looking to go to Ireland in the coming year. The Philippines seen a rise of interest with its beach holidays.
Khan said: “Ultimately, people will go to places where they feel secure, that are less crowded, where the infrastructure is good, where there were fewer cases of Covid-19 or where the cases were managed in a good way or even to countries that come up with the vaccine.
“Another major movement, specially from the Gulf markets into Saudi Arabia is of religious travel - Umrah and Haj, which is on hold at the moment. When this starts again and it surely will at some point, there will be a lot of challenges there. There may even be a slight decrease in volumes due to lesser pilgrims being allowed within the at the same time, owing to social distancing protocols. Economical and attractively priced packages are a must to revive this,” said Khan.
AHussain of Seera said: “Domestic will, of course, kickstart travel but after that, short-haul destinations such as easy-to-reach islands will be preferred as will non-stop flights. People used to do a lot of layovers; they would stop in Dubai for a few nights, in Abu Dhabi or in Istanbul and then go their holiday destination. Now the thinking will be - why take so many stops, take increased risks, suffer more health checks, queue up for longer? Bilateral agreements between countries will work wonders.
“Also, while safety and security of destinations and airlines are of utmost importance, people will not travel unless there is some security about when they can come back home after their travels. For instance, you may be quarantined in your home country for two weeks after returning from your holiday or even be quarantined in your host country for two weeks before being let out. It’s unlikely people will willingly travel in this scenario unless it’s for an emergency.
“We have already started working with some tourism boards to be fully updated about their new rules and regulations that we are in turn using to educate our advisors and our travellers. For instance, if certain theme parks are closed or if kids are not allowed in malls or restaurants – we have to be up to date so we can keep our customers informed,” said Seera’s head of consumer travel.
For the 765.3 sq km island of Bahrain, the challenge is different. “People have to travel out of the island to get a sense of holidaying. We do believe that people will want to fly direct and our flag carrier Gulf Air was planning to launch a few direct destinations this July – boutique leisure destinations in Europe and Asia. Greece, Italy and Malaysia are on that list of the new destinations but the problem is we don’t know how confident people will be to go to these.
“The question of intelligent costing will be a tough one to answer. It’s a double whammy really – destinations are going to cost higher than normal and so are airlines, especially if the middle seats need to be left empty to practice social distancing. It will be a major challenge to keep packages economical.
“It is very important that everyone works together to keep cost low, it is very difficult to do so.
“From a holiday seller point of view, even when people are ready to travel, will they be able to afford it?” asked Menon of Gosaibi Travel.
TTN is the most established trade publication in the Middle East distributed on a controlled circulation basis to members of the travel and tourism industry.
Published monthly by Al Hilal Publishing and Marketing Group, the region’s foremost trade publisher, TTN is aimed at professionals in the industry, from travel agents to airline and hotel personnel.
TTN provides in-depth and extensive coverage of relevant issues in the Middle East and North Africa as well as in other parts of the world. Travel related news, analysis, and new appointments together with information on up-coming exhibitions, marketing and promotional campaigns are presented in an innovative and striking colour tabloid.
Every issue also contains a collation of international and regional news and topical features of interest to readers.