The Middle East has the potential to be one of the fastest growing areas for festivals and events, and the Red Sea region and Arabian Gulf, in particular, are very attractive destinations.
There are untapped business opportunities awaiting those cities and those companies that recognise the value of festival tourism.
Festivals, events, and civic celebrations throughout the world have traditionally played an important role in promoting national values, civic pride, cross-cultural understanding, heritage, and a sense of community or belonging. As our world becomes increasingly more global and its people more mobile, these celebrations become the crossroads where people meet and expand their cultural horizons.
With the Middle East’s shift towards tourism as a major socio-economic factor in its long-term planning, festivals and events can also provide the magnet to increase both domestic and international tourism to the region through destination marketing linked with such new trends as experiential tourism, eco-tourism, and what is called edutainment.
Tourism goals in the Middle East are impressive, if not daunting, and underscore the fact that the competition amongst the contenders is stiff.
Dubai aims for 15 million tourists annually by 2010. Qatar wants 1.4 by 2008, while Oman’s annual goal is two million. Saudi Arabia hopes to raise domestic numbers to 36 million and international numbers in the Red Sea area to six million by 2025, according to the Red Sea Tourism Strategy and Action Plan.
During a meeting with businessmen and investors Organised by Al-Eqtisadiya newspaper last year, Saudi Arabia’s secretary general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT), Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud clarified the future of tourism in the Kingdom: "To us tourism is a social matter rather than an economical activity. The Kingdom is aiming to offer value tourism that is derived from our unique religion, national traditions and values. Saudi tourism focuses on family tourism, on its exceptional culture and heritage, on unique and unparalleled experiences." “
Traditional vs. Intentional
Traditional festivals highlighting authentic cultural products of the Middle East, whether handcrafts or the performing arts, are certainly valid parts of the tourism marketing mix.
But increasingly, the desire for additional tourism products has given rise to what is called the intentional festival, one designed specifically to attract a certain market segment through its theme and activities.
For example, the legendary Dubai Shopping Festival recorded 3.3 million visitors in 2005, who together spent Dh6.67 billion during the 32-day festivities, an amount that surpassed the revenues of Dubai's tourism sector for all of 2004.
Dubai Summer Surprises, its sister festival, grew from 600,000 visitors spending Dh850 million over a two-week period in 1998, to 1.51 million visitors spending Dh1.72 billion over an expanded format/ 10-week festival in 2005.
The Kuala Lumpur International Buskers’ Festival and Grand Parade, Malaysia, combines a successful street arts festival with that city’s shopping festival, affectionately called “YES,” or Year End Sale. The goal: to attract visitors to the capital city, while retaining local residents through the lure of the festival. Nearly 500 performances are offered during the nine-day December event, which kicks off with a colourful parade featuring world-famous ensembles.
In the realm of lifestyle marketing and eco-tourism, one concept popular elsewhere, but slow to arrive in the Middle East, is the waterfront festival. Blessed with vast and dramatic coastlines along both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Arabia, the Middle East has a unique opportunity to develop its tourism through the creation of festivals and events along its waterfront areas.
The Stockholm Water Festival crafted a purpose-driven event to draw people to Stockholm and to draw attention to world water quality via its Nobel-style Stockholm Water Prize awarded by the King of Sweden. By its fourth year, four million people attended the 10-day festival, a huge summertime party that featured some 1500 events in, on, and around water. Festival visitors spent some SEK1.6 billion ($200 million), and 98 per cent of all Swedes knew of the festival (Source: KPMG Bohlins). Hotels registered a 100 per cent occupancy rate during the festival dates.
There is also a strong relationship between festivals and events and business tourism.
In this instance, meeting planners and congress organisers are the beneficiaries of the festival-driven destination marketing campaign, since the more familiar people are with the cultural profile of a city, as showcased by its festivals and events, the easier a meeting planner’s job will be to sell the host city– and accompanying client services – to the meeting industry. The festival becomes the cultural icon of the host city.
Festivals generate both jobs and economic impact through increased visitor spending and travel-related expenditures relating to transportation, hotel room occupancy, leisure time activities, and restaurant and hospitality expenditures. With foresight, well-planned festivals become annual events with annual economic benefits.
According to Oliver Cheong, director of Cluster Development, events and entertainment, Singapore Tourism Board, “Increasingly tourist boards and government bodies around the world are recognising the value of events to increase visibility and branding for a country, to help prolong the length of stay as well as general purpose of visit.” Among the events that the STB supports is Singapore’s annual Chinese New Year’s celebration called Chingay, whose dates vary according to the lunar new year calendar, but generally are in early February according to the Gregorian calendar.
To put the Middle East in context with other parts of the world, consider these examples:
Nice Carnival, France: The city of Nice is world-famous for its Mardi-Gras-style carnival with parades of flowers as well as giant floats or sculptural elements some three stories high fixed on rolling stages. The city funds 67 per cent of the cost of the three-week, $7.4 million celebration, or just over $5 million. The carnival’s economic impact is measured at $54.4 million, with some one million attending the event over its three weeks in 2006, when 1500 jobs were generated. The return on investment ratio was 10:1.
In Scotland, in the United Kingdom, Edinburgh’s ten summer festivals are collectively referred to as the Edinburgh Festivals, the two most famous of them being the Edinburgh International Festival, a top-end arts festival, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, said to be the largest performing arts festival in the world. Founded in 1947, today, the International Festival receives 45 per cent of its nearly £8 million ($16.09 million) budget from public funding. The return on investment to the City for its investment in the ten festivals is 10:1. Collectively, the festivals’ economic impact is measured to be $271 million, some $255 being spent in Edinburgh alone. Nearly 2900 full-time jobs have been created, while 2.6 million attended in 2004 (the last available study), 15 per cent of whom were from overseas. Hotel occupancy during this period was 88 per cent, 70 per cent of which was attributable to the festivals.
Both cities and corporations can leverage events for travel and tourism. The single most important concept is that of partnership.
Festivals and events offer numerous opportunities for brand exposure, on-site signage and displays, product sampling, couponing, cross-promotions, contests, naming rights, and destination marketing activities associated with tour packaging – plus official status with promotional opportunities in print, web, and broadcast media, and high visibility to large, targeted audiences at the lifestyle level.
The easiest path to a successful partnership is for all parties to work together as a team, trying to do the best to win the tourism marketing game. It takes leadership, imagination, knowledge, and ethics. All investors must benefit proportionately to their contribution, or it is not a partnership. It is as simple as treating your partner as you would wish to be treated yourself.
(Charlotte J DeWitt is president, International Events, Boston, USA. She has worked in some 27 countries around the world since 1979, pioneering the use of festivals and events for destination marketing and tourism development and is past-chairman of the International Festivals and Events Association)
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