Kuwait is not a name usually associated with tourism.
However, by emphasising its advantages as a family destination, particularly to Muslim travellers, it could find its place on the tourism map. Additionally, Kuwait should again become a base for business travellers heading for Iraq as that country stabilises.
The government has a target of attracting one million tourists by 2010, up from 750,000 in 2006. This is fairly ambitious, as other countries and emirates in the Gulf have stolen a march on Kuwait in the field of tourism. Dubai is well known for its shopping, sports and entertainment, and Oman is becoming a heritage and cultural tourism centre while Sharjah is making a name for itself as an affordable sun and sand destination, luring Arabs and Russians in particular. Bahrain remains the place where many Gulf residents – expatriates and nationals – go to let their hair down.
Kuwait, however, has not yet found its niche. It has strong advantages of excellent hotels, sea, beaches, safety and year round sunshine, as well as an increasing number of places to shop and eat out. Given the fact that most Gulf countries have these advantages, Kuwait will have to shout louder in order to be heard.
Some in the tourism industry point out that Kuwait should not overlook a key market of keen tourists with plenty of financial resources – Kuwaitis themselves. There has been much discussion over whether the Failaka Island resort under development will be a “free zone” with alcohol and dancing permitted, which would attract foreign tourists. Given the current composition of the Kuwaiti parliament, that seems unlikely for the time being, so attention is turning to making the resort appealing to Kuwaitis, to encourage them to stay in the country for their holidays.
The resort is likely to offer word-class facilities expected by Kuwaitis, and a lack of alcohol would indeed be an advantage for nationals – as well as other Muslim tourists. Sharjah has turned its alcohol ban to its advantage, and there is no reason why Kuwait – with significantly more resources – should not as well. With growing numbers of people in the Muslim world travelling, perhaps Kuwait can find its market at last.
Nonetheless, most of the hotel market will be oriented toward business travellers. And proximity to Iraq, with better infrastructure and security is another plus. Kuwait’s hotel sector was stretched at the beginning of the US led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, when conference rooms and other spaces were converted into bedrooms and even tents had to be used to extend capacity.
While the initial spike in demand dropped off from 2004, Kuwait still has quite a high throughput of expatriates heading to and from Iraq.
If and when Iraq stabilises and the economy returns to normal, there will be an inevitable increase in the number of visitors to Kuwait’s northern neighbour. Many visitors may use Kuwait as a base.
By Andrew MacDowell