For tourism industry, Saudis are appealing guests

The number of departures in Saudi Arabia spiked from 2 million in 2006 to nearly 15.3 million in 2011, an increase of no less than 765 percent

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Saudis – and Gulf citizens in general – have become avid travelers. According to data from the World Tourism Organization, a U.N.-affiliated association that aims to promote responsible, sustainable, and universally accessible tourism, the number of departures in Saudi Arabia spiked from 2 million in 2006 to nearly 15.3 million in 2011, an increase of no less than 765 percent! (Note: The data refers to the number of departures, not to the number of people traveling and for the departures that people make from their country of usual residence to any other country for any purpose other than a remunerated activity in the country visited.)

Not surprisingly, travelers from the Gulf region are among the most valuable clients for companies in the tourism sector and countries all over the world. Take Switzerland, which has been organizing “Switzerland Tourism Roadshows” throughout the Gulf for a decade. And with success: last year, the country witnessed a growth of nearly 23 percent of tourists coming from the Gulf, the director of Switzerland Tourism for the GCC, Matthias Albrecht, revealed here recently.

Hotels and other tourist lodgings also try to accommodate tourists from this part of the world by, among other things, providing halal food, prayer rugs, and copies of the Qur’an at their premises. An increasing number of tourist facilities make sure to hire Arabic speaking staff and provide brochures and websites in that language. Switzerland Tourism, for instance, recently launched the Arabic version of its website myswitzerland.com.

Large average spending

What makes tourists from the Gulf even more desired is the amount of money they spend abroad. During the same roadshow, Albrecht revealed that in Switzerland, GCC tourists spent CHF 500 ($550) per day on average, ranking them first in terms of daily tourist expenditure worldwide. Meanwhile, Saudi tourists were estimated to spend a whopping SR40 billion abroad during summer 2013, a local daily reported last year, with Dubai remaining the favorite tourist destination.

Hotels in that Emirate are eying tourists from neighboring countries in general and the Kingdom in particular. “As a business we’re very focused [on tourists from the Gulf] from a sales and marketing point of view, so we always have large marketing budgets focused on the GCC, as well as [on] developing programs and services inside the hotel to look after GCC guests,” remarked Brett Armitage, senior vice president global sales at Atlantis, Dubai, during an interview with Saudi Gazette earlier this year.

Armitage, who said Saudi tourists were the fourth largest segment of guests at his five-star hotel and resort, was on a visit to Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam with his sales team to explore opportunities in the Kingdom’s tourism sector.

Family time abroad

Allright, so tourists from the Gulf dig deep in their pockets — or have big pockets for that matter — for their annual holidays, but how do they plan and spend their time abroad? What are the latest travel trends?

According to Armitage, tourism from the Kingdom is (still) very much focused on family time, “Culturally, in Saudi Arabia, the family unit is very important.” And these families are not made up of the standard Western “two parents and two kids” nuclei. Most have at least three or four children and travel with nannies, making suites and bigger rooms a popular choice.

Alexandra Turcan, director of business development and e-commerce at Lausanne Palace & Spa in Lausanne, Switzerland, observes the same: “Based on my experience, our guests from the Middle East travel in medium-size groups, booking three to four rooms per stay per family,” she wrote in an email to this paper.

Meanwhile, Mark Jacob, managing director of the Dolder Resort in Zurich, Switzerland, remarked: “The business from the Middle East is quite solid. Guests have a strong spending power and they are willing to spend their money in luxury hotels. Many Saudis come with their families and book several rooms and suites or connecting rooms.”

Traveling in style

Luxury traveling is indeed still a much-appreciated trend in the region. And not only businessmen like to travel in style. Hence, budget airlines in the Gulf came up with something new: luxury services aboard low-cost carriers. Jazeera Airways was the first to introduce a business class on their planes in 2009, followed suit by flydubai.

And under the slogan “We changed everything except our low prices,” re-launched and renamed Fly Nas – formerly Nas Air – its brand in November last year, while also introducing business class as key part of the process.

Booking habits

Compared to European travelers, Saudis book very late, says Armitage: “Typically, Europeans planning their holidays would be booking six months in advance — the Saudi market inside three weeks.”

The Lausanne Hotel & Spa staff do not have this experience. According to Turcan, they “rarely get last-minute bookings from Saudis.”

There is, however, another big, global trend that is very pronounced in the Kingdom: online booking as opposed to having travel agencies arranging the reservations.

“While the travel agent is still very important, particularly in Saudi Arabia we’re starting to see in the last couple of years an increasing number [of] bookings through booking.com and the other online distribution partners,” Armitage says, adding: “However, the Kingdom is still very traditional in terms of their booking patterns and booking habits and also in wanting to have that relation with their travel agent. The travel agent in Saudi Arabia is still really critical to our business.”

The business development and e-commerce director at Lausanne Palace & Spa agrees, saying that Saudis are now booking via the Internet and less through agencies. They “pay upon checkout whereas before they would pre-pay their trip or pay through the agencies directly.” Data on the use of Twitter, YouTube and other social media already showed how tech savvy the Saudi population is, and the online booking trend appears to reaffirm this.

Shopping or cosmetic surgery?

Saudi tourists are uncultured, right? Or so is their reputation. They do not care about history or culture but rather get out their credit cards at mega shopping malls. However, according to Turcan, this has been evolving over the years. “The differences we see from a few years ago is that they are more and more interested in cultural aspects,” she says about Saudi visitors to her hotel. And Jacob, while saying that Saudis like shopping, adds they are interested in sightseeing as well.

Armitage, on the other hand, still sees a difference in this aspect when comparing Saudi with expatriate tourists from the Kingdom. “When it is winter season, Saudis prefer the hotels downtown connected to malls, but the expats really appreciate the weather in Dubai and they need more outdoor activities,” he says.

Another new trend is health tourism and (cosmetic) surgery when traveling abroad. Switzerland has been promoting itself as a prominent tourist destination for medical treatment and wellbeing. Two years ago, it developed a new marketing cooperative, Swiss Health, which promotes university hospitals and private clinics. Turcan has noticed this trend, and says most Saudis that come for medical reasons require specific treatments they cannot get in the Kingdom. She did not see many tourists coming for cosmetic surgery.

Apparently, Saudis traveling to Dubai – or at least to Atlantis Hotel – do often opt for cosmetic surgery procedures during their holidays. “Since two years, we actually have a plastic surgeon on staff,” Armitage says, adding that Saudi tourists are among the markets that most use this service, ranging from basic, non-invasive staff to radical procedures.

Keeping Saudis satisfied

While hotels and restaurants increasingly offer halal food choices, Turcan says her hotel does not get a lot of requests for special meals. That is not to say that Saudis radically change their eating habits when traveling outside the Middle East. According to the managing director at the Dolder Resort, most Gulf travelers preferably order through room service rather than eating at one of the hotel restaurants. “Obviously, they eat at different times compared to travellers from Europe and other countries,” he explains.

Providing physical nourishment is one thing; a whole different challenge is keeping Saudis mentally satisfied. According to Armitage, Saudis and expatriates living in the Kingdom are “very hungry” for new things: “We have to continually work harder to keep our guests coming back. With new hotels coming all the while, we’ve got to keep ahead at the game,” he admits.

Jacob does not directly have this same experience, as the number of visitors from Saudi Arabia to Zurich keeps increasing. Nevertheless, he does have the impression that the average length of stay per destination is becoming shorter, probably “because they combine several destinations on their trip through Europe.” This suggests Saudis are indeed looking for new adventures and places to visit all the time.

On the other hand, Saudi travelers are very loyal guests. Turcan calls them “demanding, but at the same time appreciative of the efforts, which are made to make their stay even more enjoyable,” adding they are very often repeat guests. This in addition to a powerful word-of-mouth campaign in the Kingdom makes for a triumphant strategy to win a Saudi’s travel heart.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on March 14, 2014.