Gearing up for tourist rush

Mega projects and special events are turning Dubai into a major destination on the world tourism map. And the emirate is forecast to host more than 15 million visitors by 2010. TTN'S JONNA SMITH talks to Ali Z A Abu Monassar, deputy chairman of Net Group of Companies, one of the oldest and largest tour operators in UAE to find out how travel firms are gearing up to cope with this expected influx and what role they can play in promoting tourism.

Q: Shaikh Mohammed has said he would like to see 15 million visitors annually to Dubai by 2010. How will this affect the tour operator market? Will more companies be needed or can the existing tour operators expand to meet these new enormous numbers of tourists?

A: Seeing what has been achieved in just a few years in Dubai, we are not surprised, although sometimes the large numbers could seem unrealistic, because this region is new to the tourism industry.

Nevertheless we say yes, the numbers are feasible, and we will enjoy participating in this scheduled expansion.

Five years ago, Shaikh Mohammed said he wanted Dubai to be the centrepoint of the tourism industry in the region and his vision was backed up with deeds ... it was not just talk. Shaikh Mohammed supported many unique projects in the emirates, which has made Dubai a special destination on the map of the tourism industry.

Today, there are 10 mega projects in Dubai, which will come to fruition in the next 10 years.

Our role in the private sector is to continue our work and to grow with this expansion for quality tourists. The emirate is not at all interested in mass tourism. We have to carry on doing what we have been doing for the last 5-6 years, which is to promote Dubai as a quality destination, for the most important aspect for visitors to Dubai is quality service.

When Shaikh Mohammed said 15 million tourists by 2010, he began by saying more aircraft and airlines would be coming to Dubai by 2010.

Then he mentioned the other phase of the expansion of Dubai International Airport, which is essential to handle such numbers, as we have to have the infrastructure in place to receive the tourists.

The Dubai Municipality is going to spend more than half a billion dirhams in the next 3-4 years on roads and bridges to cope with the projected expansion.

Then there are the hotels. The properties in the city are mushrooming, but visitors also need beach hotels and because the beach areas of Jumeirah are becoming limited, the two new projects of the Palm Islands, phase one and two, will create more beach hotels for Dubai. There is already strong competition from international chains for hotels on the islands.

Shaikh Mohammed did not just say 15 million visitors to Dubai. He also empasised that 55,000 new hotel rooms would be needed to cope with the influx.

The new project of the convention centre is important, because Dubai is not only a beach destination.

With regard to tour operators being able to cope, I think we have to reduce the numbers, because at present there are over 900 licensed tour operators and travel agents in Dubai.

The Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing has been working hard the last 3-4 years on making certain specifications and classifications essential for tour operators and travel agents.

The role of the tour operator is really quite small, the main thing is to have the airlines, airport, infrastructure and hotels to cope with the influx of visitors envisioned.

I think that 15-20 larger tour companies will be enough to handle the coming visitors. These companies are preparing for greater numbers of tourists with more cars, buses and staff.

Net Tours is investing Dh4.5 million ($1.22 million) this year in regenerating vehicles and cars as well as increasing staff by 15 per cent which is really according to our normal development plans.

Q: Which part of the inbound destination management company activities do you see expanding fastest? Desert safaris? City Tours? Inter-Gulf travel? Cruise passenger trips?

A: Dubai is destined to become a destination for meetings, conferences and conventions rather than just a leisure destination for holiday makers or small groups of visitors.

For this kind of clientele, you need good hotels, top class conference facilities and excellent infrastructure.

These visitors will stay between 5-7 nights, so outside the convention and travelling times, they will have limited opportunities for tours and exploration.

I believe, city tours will be wanted and the desert safaris will remain popular offering a unique chance to experience the desert, Arabian heritage and culture. Dhow cruises will also remain popular with people, who want to see Dubai at night and have dinner on a boat and trips to the other emirates will still be needed.

Q: Net Tours is one of the top operators in Dubai and I understand your Abu Dhabi market is rapidly increasing. Do you see Abu Dhabi becoming an important tourist destination?

A: We are the oldest and largest tour operator in Dubai from an infrastructure and staff point of view, not only in the UAE, but in the whole region.

We were established in 1988 with four people and today we are 165. We handle not only Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman, but during this coming year, we are going to open a network in all the GCC states.

We firmly believe we have to offer visitors the whole of the GCC as a destination, because there are many good things in each country.

Abu Dhabi offers lovely beaches, the desert and beautiful hotels in the city and on the beach. We established offices in Abu Dhabi in 1990. We started more as an outbound tour operator, but in the last few years, we have seen increased interest in inbound traffic, so we have increased and introduced the incentives and conference segments. I believe this segment will see excellent growth in the next three years.

However, Abu Dhabi does not have a tourism body to promote the destination, it is mainly individual companies doing the promotions. Whatever the private sector can do as promoters will be limited compared to what a government body could achieve.

At international trade fairs we participate on the stand of The National Hotels Company of Abu Dhabi, which although representing the government is still a private company.

Abu Dhabi needs a promotion board and it needs to define which tourism sector it prefers and then plan its strategy for tourism. I'm sure that will make a huge difference.

Q: The beach hotels in Dubai are fully booked for the summer, I am told. Is the UAE becoming an all-year round destination? Or is it because of the low summer discounts?

A: Both. We have seen in the last three years a tremendous presence in the summer in Dubai, which is not the case in the other emirates or the rest of the GCC states.

I think, there are two reasons for this. First, Dubai Summer Surprises and all the activities associated with this festival draw 85 per cent of visitors from other GCC countries while the rest are from Europe.

Secondly, the increase of tourists from Europe. They are not the same visitors as the ones arriving in the winter due to high prices and availability. In the summer, you have availability, you have good prices on every thing in the hotels, shopping malls and from tour operators.

It can also be hot in Europe, where many places do not offer air conditioning and the prices are high in the peak summer season.

Q: Net Tours is one of the top tour operators offering combined trips to the UAE and Oman. With the new visa rules, this traffic will surely receive a boost. Do you plan to increase the number of tours to Oman?

A: We have been promoting Oman and the GCC countries for the last five years. We were the first company to start promoting the GCC as one destination at our own risk. Since then, we have seen governments, hotels and tour operators take the same road.

We have been operating in Oman for five years and we are generating more than $2.5 million of traffic to Oman every year. That kind of increase and the difference between the quality of service in Dubai and Oman, forced us to open our branch office of Net Tours Oman.

The new visa rules now enable us to send individuals to Oman rather than groups.

We have started a new programme, in which we treat Oman as another excursion.

From September, we will have three fixed departures based on four categories of hotels to Muscat for two or three nights' stay. This means that weekly, anybody staying in any hotel in Dubai or locals or expatriates can decide at the last moment to take a 2-day trip to Oman. Since we began promoting this new service, 10 other tour operators have been offering our services in their brochures.

According to WTO, 2.5 billion tourists will be moving from country to country by 2020, when tourism will become the number one industry in the world - we have to be ready for the influx and the revenue.

Q: How is your new company Net Cruises doing?

A: The Net Group of companies consists of Net Tours, the mother company, in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman. Net Cruises is another part of our group. We also have Incentive Productions, which we have been operating for six years. NCC is Net Conferences and Conventions and finally there is Net Holidays, which mostly handles outbound traffic.

We can send people to 42 destinations in 22 countries and also tailor-make tours to every destination for each individual traveller.

NCC specialises in big conferences, whether nationally or internationally and this part of the company will have branches in all GCC states very soon.

Net Cruises is aiming not only to serve the cruises docking in Dubai, but also in the future, we are planning to have partnerships with small and medium-sized ships.

During the winter, we will try to make different programmes and attract ships to Dubai - programmes such as three nights in Dubai and then take the ship to other destinations in the region.

Incentive Productions has become a trademark in Europe and we represent the largest incentive houses in Europe in this region.

Q: If you were going to make a guess about 2010, how many vehicles and staff do you think Net Tours would haven then?

A: We started a 6-year plan in 1998, up to 2005. We know exactly how many staff, what income and how many vehicles we will have in 2005.

During the last three years, we were exceeding our forecast by 5-10 per cent. This tells us that by 2005 we will very easily reach our forecast.

In 1998, we were 117 people in the company, today we are 165. In 10 years, we will have doubled in size, which means between 300 and 350 people.

In 1998, our income was Dh27 million and it is expected to be almost Dh60 million this year.

We have projected an increase of 10-12 per cent for next five years and we expect that to grow, as seats on more aircraft increase and new hotels rooms become available.

Many travel agents and tour operators in Dubai do not invest in infrastructure, but concentrate on packages and some of them will perish due to lack of vehicles in the future.

We are investing in new vehicles either to be used by us or to be leased to other operators. Even today, we are suppliers to several inland UAE operators with the same quality and efficiency that we offer to our own clients.

Q: Do you have any new products in the pipeline, any new segment of the tourism market you are currently investigating?

A: As I mentioned, we have this new product for Oman, which is a very encouraging programme. We are also focusing on other parts of Oman, in the coastal region, past Ras Al Khaimah. We started with discounted summer packages and we have great response from Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

We are trying to offer our overseas clients more than one destination without adding expenses to their travelling.