Spa tourism lifts profile

Learning to relax at the Assawan Spa and Health Club at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai

Spa and fitness tourism is gaining ground in the Middle East as today's sophisticated and demanding travellers seek greater indulgence and luxury.

"As world travel increases and holidaymakers become more sophisticated, it is no longer enough to offer simply a beach or small pool," says veteran Gulf hotelier Johnny Fattaleh, the general manager of Doha InterContinental Hotel in Qatar.

"And despite an economic turndown in the US and threatened recession in Europe, our clients seem to have more disposable income and are willing to spend it on themselves. I believe this is part of the new 'cocooning' trend."

Fattaleh's comments are reflected by the growing trend of establishing luxurious and up-to-date spas and fitness centres in leisure resorts around the region.

The sector is also proving to be a major revenue earner for hotels.

Another sector of leisure tourism gaining ground is sports, especially golf.

Hotels and resorts throughout the region are teaming up with golf clubs to offer attractive packages for both amateur and professional golfers.

Overall, industry sources say leisure tourism in the region is back on the recovery track following the double shocks of last September's events and an economic downturn in the US.

An increasing number of new openings of hotels and resorts in the region are testimony to this, they said.

Several major chains have been on an aggressive expansion trail with openings spread across the region.

These include the Six Continents Hotels, Hilton International, Four Seasons, Mšvenpick, Accor among several others.

Resort properties from Dubai to Egypt have reported a very satisfactory summer as visa restrictions in the US and Europe have turned the focus on regional travel with Arab travellers preferring to holiday closer to home.

Hotels and other industry operators say the surge in Gulf and Arab travellers within the region has helped to significantly offset the absence of the tourists from Europe and the US.

GCC and Arab governments are doing their part in promoting travel in the region by stepping up expenditure on tourist infrastructure while easing entry restrictions.

Industry sources remain optimistic over the future of leisure tourism in the region.

They say the potent mixture of sun, sand and sea combined with local culture, excellent air connections and infrastructure and fantastic hotels at competitive prices are the key to the region's tourism.

In a report last year, the World Tourism Organisation had forecast an average annual growth rate of 7.1 per cent in tourist arrivals in the Middle East to the year 2020.

Although September 11 delivered a big blow to the region's tourism industry, industry operators remain confident of its long-term future.