Rolling back the years to ATM 1994

Those were the days: Sheikh Zayed Road in 1991; (left) the TTN team at an ATM past

IT is really hard to realize that the first Arab Travel Market was held from May 3 to 6, 1994, in Dubai… and it was a success right from the start with bookings by exhibitors being made for the next show in 1995 in Bahrain, before the event had concluded.

I remember being impressed with the fact that more than half of the 300 companies exhibiting were from countries outside the region with some 4,000 sqm of space occupied by exhibitors in the Dubai World Trade Centre.
Not only did this first Arabian Travel Market signal the impor¬tance of tourism to the region’s economy, it was a catalyst for the boom, which followed, but it also underlined the growing outbound traffic heralding a major step forward for the travel trade, as the shop windows started to be dominated by posters of sea cruises and other luxury vacation packages.
For me, the first ATM was very exciting, for suddenly I was walking through Australia, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka – destinations, which were to become the goal for many Gulf residents a number of years later.
Having toured ITB Berlin only two months previously, I recall being impressed that local companies could present themselves in such a professional manner.
The fact that these countries were exhibiting their wares at this first ATM underlined the faith, which these national tourist boards and offices’ invested in the Middle East.
At the start of the 14th ATM, we have to remember that the brave people, who staged the first Arab Travel Market were in reality pioneers. They had faith, not only in the inter¬national traffic now providing for the outbound customers from the Middle East, but also in the region's own burgeoning tourism industry.
In those days, we had Gulf Air and Emirates and there were tourism bodies in Bahrain and Dubai, but there was no Qatar Airways, no Etihad, no Air Arabia and there were no low-cost airlines on the subcontinent.
In those days, Emirates did not fly to Australia or Japan or the USA. This was a time for sowing seeds and as one admired the kangaroo brochures, one did not dream that only three years later, there would be direct services from Dubai to Melbourne and that this investment would start to show results as quickly as it virtually did.
The ATM reflected Dubai’s dreams, now partially fulfilled of becoming a high-profile vacation centre, but I personally remember the second ATM more vividly.
Bahrain was determined to maintain the impetus of Dubai and they did everyone proud. I recall staying at the new Le Meridien Hotel and Resort and realising that with such an investment, the Bahrainis were serious about the tourism industry. The buffets were fabulous and the staff superb at the hotel.
The 1995 ATM was staged at the Bahrain National Exhibition Centre with exhibitors attracted from Yemen as well as Canada, Mexico and Brazil. The participation by countries from the Americas is at long last paying dividends, as Emirates has announced flights to Sao Paulo from October this year and Etihad is already operating to Toronto.
The Association of British Tour Agents held forums and workshops and there were US companies such as American Airlines, US Air, United Airlines and Continental Airlines taking part as well. And India had a major campaign going during this ATM.
This was the pre-mobile age and I remember queuing by the telephone to ask for a taxi for returning to the hotel. Yes, it really was possible to survive the working day a decade ago without a cell phone!
Today, we take it for granted to see Saudi Arabia and Iran advertising their offerings at ATM and doing good business. Oman, of course, has been gradually building on its scenic attractions to offer twinned vacations with Dubai, while it has tried manfully not to be left behind by its hard spending neighbours to the south.
Qatar formed its own airline in 1994 and since then both the country and the airline have been giving the rest of the Gulf plenty of competition, when it comes to innovations and investments.
So, how are we doing at the beginning of the 14th ATM? Pretty good! No longer are we surprised that a major tourism fair should take place in the Gulf, we actually expect it! And why not? Tourism has become one of the Gulf's biggest industries, major revenue earner and the employer of thousands of people.
Take Dubai: last year oil revenues contributed only three per cent of GDP, while tourism was hovering somewhere in the high 30s. More hotels are being constructed all along the Gulf from, Bahrain to Qatar, the UAE and Oman. And not just any hotels, these are world beating, five-star luxury resorts and the visitors are coming.
From Australia, China, Japan, the USA, the Orient, India and of course from Europe and the GCC states. Today, tourism, like in the rest of the world, is the fastest growing industry in the Middle East.
But, I am still trying to find one answer – was it in Bahrain in 1995 or in Dubai in 1996, that Arabian Adventures cut a four-wheel drive vehicle into two halves to fit on ATM stand? 

Speaking Out by Jonna Simon