Gulf countries can attract tourists avoiding hot European summers

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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It is becoming harder for tourists heading to Europe to experience comfortable temperatures. This opens the door for the Gulf countries to attract global travelers who traditionally head to the likes of Paris or Rome. Taking full advantage requires a far-sighted tourism strategy that is based on a scientific understanding of the tourists they wish to woo.

Of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of international tourist arrivals, five countries lie in Europe: France (1), Spain (2), Italy (5), Germany (9), and the UK (10), making it the leading continent by far. Tourism makes an important contribution to the European economy, allowing it to fund critical imports from Asia and other global markets, as well as creating jobs for millions of its citizens.

Being a tourism juggernaut also generates geopolitical returns: any tourist fortunate enough to see the rich cultural heritage of cities such as Florence, Lisbon, or Vienna leaves with a greater affinity for their people, which contributes to more favorable international relations.

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However, the emerging chink in the armor of the European tourism sector is their ill-preparedness for high temperatures. Summer 2022 has thus far seen some sweltering conditions in Europe, with above average temperatures and extended heat waves purportedly caused by climate change.

The discomfort experienced by residents and tourists alike has been exacerbated by an energy crisis that has seen authorities limit the use of air conditioners in countries such as Spain. Both causes of rising temperatures seem set to persist for some time.

These developments present the Gulf countries with an opportunity to attract some of the millions of tourists who traditionally head to Europe during their summers. The economic and geopolitical returns are potentially high, and countries such as Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE have traditionally placed tourism at the core of their economic strategies. Saudi Arabia has also made aggressive investments and reforms in the tourism sector as it eyes an additional source of non-oil income.

Among the advantages that the Gulf countries can look to exploit is their historic adaptation to life in an arid climate. Most notably, high quality air conditioning is abundant, and unlike Europe, the low fuel prices mean that you won’t find yourself begging a thrifty taxi driver to increase the power of the air conditioner. It would be a great irony if a country as hot as Bahrain or Oman climbs the tourism rankings on account of its ability to keep visitors cool during August, but that is the reality of the upside-down world we currently live in.

Taking advantage of the opportunity requires an effective strategy, with an emphasis on two elements. The first is gaining a scientific understanding of their commercial target: the global tourists looking for somewhere to spend a week or two during the summer.

The mistake that many tourist authorities in the Gulf make consistently is assuming that potential inbound tourists have the same wish list as their own outbound tourists. As I remarked a few weeks ago, Gulf nationals tend to have rudimentary tastes when seeking a holiday abroad, with an unusual fixation on shopping and greenery.

In contrast, those going to countries like Greece want much more than sandy beaches: they want to immerse themselves in the deep cultural heritage of Greek civilization. That means that if you want to catch those tourists’ eyes, you need to offer them much more than an air-conditioned shopping mall.

The first step toward understanding these differences and being able to exploit them is studying them in a professional manner. Unfortunately, tourist authorities in the Gulf countries rarely have research arms. At best, they make do with market intelligence departments, which make an important contribution to operations, but do not constitute a satisfactory substitute to expert scholars studying tourism and advising policymakers.

Once this deficiency is addressed, the Gulf countries can then move on to the second critical element of a strategy aiming to gain tourism market share at Europe’s expense: effective marketing.

The UAE has been doing this very effectively for years, but the remaining Gulf countries have much to learn in this regard, and even Dubai has room for improvement. After all, what tourists seek – and what worries them – in 2022 is very different to what we witnessed in 2019. Nobody knows what the optimal marketing strategy will be for 2023, and again, scientific discourse is central to gaining the requisite knowledge.

The American actor Milton Berle once remarked that “If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door”. Climate change and an energy shortage have built 95 percent of a tourism-shaped door for the Gulf countries. An astute tourism strategy is all that is required for the remaining five percent.

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