India’s source market strength, proximity will drive tourism in Gulf for years to come
India has emerged as an evolved source market for Gulf countries. Tourism between India and Gulf region has been flourishing steadily over the years. A report from Colliers International, before pandemic, had rightly stated that the number of Indian tourists travelling to the GCC was expected to reach 9.8 million in 2024. There was a lull due to the pandemic, but the emerging scenario validates the forecast.
Post pandemic, Gulf countries like UAE and its Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman have relaunched their strategic tourism promotion and marketing in India by organizing roadshows, agents training program, participation in travel exhibitions etc. And, these activities are translating into desired result as well which is evident from the growing Indian arrivals to these destinations.
Gulf’s focus on India is for multiple reasons such as proximity, India’s demography, burgeoning economy and bilateral trade, and familiarity. Gulf is a short-haul destination for India, and this makes it an affordable and attractive for both leisure and tourism. Moreover, over half of India’s population (700 million) is under 25 making it a huge source market.
Importantly, the Gulf region is home to about 8.5 million Indians, of whom 2.5 million live in Saudi Arabia and almost 3.5 million have made UAE their home. Kuwait hosts 1.02 million Indians, Oman 0.77 million and Qatar 0.75 million. Indians comprise the largest expatriate community in these countries. Also, the rising spending power of India’s growing middle class, coupled with opportunities to stay with family and friends already living in the GCC, make trips even more affordable.
The number of direct flights between India and GCC countries is considerable. Emirates alone operates over 170 weekly flights to 9 Indian cities, Etihad 118 weekly flights from April 24, and Gulf Air, Qatar Airways, Oman Air, flydubai and Air Arabia all run regular flights too. Cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha etc. also benefit from stopovers from passengers en route to other destinations. India is such a market that carriers like Emirates, Qatar Airways, Jazeera Airways have called for an increase in air traffic rights to and from India to meet growing demand.
Bilateral Trade between India and the Gulf Cooperation Council grew from US$ 87.35 billion in FY 2020-21 to US$ 154.66 billion in FY 2021-22, registering a whopping increase of 77.06% on a year-on-year basis.
With easier travel restrictions, affordable accommodation options, and shorter travel times between the India and UAE, the UAE is a popular destination for Indian travelers. This is evident from the number as Dubai welcomed 1.24 million Indian tourists in the first nine months of 2022, the highest among all foreign nationalities visiting Dubai. Saudi Arabia welcomed 1 million Indians in 2022. For Qatar, India emerged as 2nd market with 60,000 visitors for FIFA World Cup 2022. Oman received 355,460 Indians in 2022. Among Emirates, Ras Al Khaimah welcomed 140,000 Indian visitors and Ajman 62,000.
Bullish over the response from India, Dubai has developed a multi-pronged strategy to further boost the arrivals from India. “We know that the potential is much bigger in India. We want to keep the numbers growing as Dubai has been continuously adding more and more to its landscapes and attractions. It’s a family-oriented destination. Dubai is a very safe destination. English and Hindi are widely spoken in Dubai. I feel whoever comes to Dubai feel at home and those who still considers Europe as their primary destination, we want to change that mindset and perception,” told an official from Dubai Tourism to T3 earlier.
India is a strategic market for Saudi Arabia too. In 2022, Saudi welcomed 1 million visitors from India. Indians were also the highest spenders in Saudi Arabia of all the source markets globally due to their longer length-of-stay in the kingdom. We have drawn up an ambitious plan for the Indian market, said Alhasan Ali Aldabbagh, President, APAC at the Saudi Tourism Authority at SATTE 2023.
Qatar, during the FIFA World Cup in 2022, received around 60,000 Indians. “India was the second highest to Saudi Arabia in terms of arrival numbers. India is a key market for Qatar. The destination has an array of offerings right from leisure to celebrations, and MICE,” says a representative of Qatar Tourism in India.
For Sharjah, India continues to be an invaluable source market. “We are thrilled to share that India was the largest source market for Sharjah in Q4 of 2022. A total of 41,932 Indian tourists travelled to the Emirate during that period, representing 10 percent market share, as compared to 41,334 visitors from the UAE. Our target for 2023 is to increase this percentage from 10 percent to 15 percent,” Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), reveals.
The Indian market is equally important and primary market for Ajman. “We have recorded a noteworthy 15 per cent growth in the number of Indian visitors in 2022, the 2nd largest among international feeder markets for Ajman. A total of 62,000 Indians visited Ajman in 2022 and we are certain about increase in growth,” said Khadija Turki, Director, Tourism Development and Marketing at Ajman Department of Tourism Development.
India also featured amongst the top 5 source markets for Ras Al Khaimah. “In 2022, we welcomed over 140,000 Indian visitors to the Emirate, and we are optimistic about the potential growth in arrivals to our destination this year. As the Indian market becomes more familiar with the destination, and with direct connectivity from Mumbai via Indigo airlines and our constant efforts to strengthen our ties with this market, we believe that Ras Al Khaimah will remain a popular choice for Indian travelers seeking an unforgettable vacation experience,” Iyad Rasbey, Executive Director, Destination Tourism Development, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, informs.
Buoyed by the revived traffic from India, all these destinations have relaunched their tweaked and directed marketing and promotional strategy in India to cater to the changing demands of the India market.
For Dubai, the strong performance in 2022 features some noteworthy spikes in its traditional key markets and strong growth across emerging markets. “The effectiveness of our strategies and initiatives gives us the confidence to tap new growth opportunities in the global travel and business sectors over the next few decades. As the fastest growing city in the Middle East, Dubai’s continuous growth has been made possible by the unwavering support of our stakeholders and partners and a raft of strategic investments and federal policy reforms that have led to a steady flow of global entrepreneurs, talent, investors, and business and leisure travellers,” said Helal Saeed Almarri, Director General of Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism, in a media release recently.
Qatar had earlier stated that an extensive tourism development strategy is underway. “The work does not stop after the World Cup as the country has an ambitious strategy to boost the number of inbound visitors to Qatar to more than six million a year by 2030,” Qatar Tourism says in an earlier statement. Moreover, Qatar Tourism has strategically identified demand spaces and aims to deliver customized packages with the help of on-ground partners. “With carefully curated travel itineraries and several activities and excursions, the destination is a good fit for every travel interest. To highlight this, Qatar Tourism launched the ‘Feel More’ campaign with the idea to allow potential travellers to experience the feeling of more love, thrill, wonder, and indulgence,” the India spokesperson adds.
Bahrain feels that the new-age Indian travelers are looking for unique and authentic experiences. “Keeping this in mind, we intend to promote the destination through various online and offline activities. From a B2B perspective, we have webinars, destination workshops, a multi-city roadshow, joint co-op campaigns with agents pan India, trade familiarization trips, etc. To tap into the B2C segment, we have planned influencer campaigns, social media campaigns and contests, media familiarization trips, press releases, etc.,” says a spokesperson of Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BETA).
Ajman Tourism started the year with organizing a networking event for travel trade in Delhi to promote the tourism and entertainment capacities, new projects, and potential investment opportunities in the emirate, as well as enhancing the position of the Indian market among the main feeder markets. “That was followed by attending SATTE, one of the important tourism fairs around the globe. We are planning other marketing activities in order to enhance the Indian market, out of which could be Fam trips, Media trips, trade workshops to name a few,” Turki adds.
Sharjah’s promotional and marketing activities – be it trade engagements, participation in prominent trade fairs, familiarisation trips, roadshows among others – are targeted at ensuring that potential visitors are fully informed of the options available to them and are able to easily curate their visit to our emirate.
Ras Al Khaimah has planned several promotional and marketing activities targeting 28 cities to reach out to a receptive travel audience and engaged trade partners to showcase the unique experiences that Ras Al Khaimah has to offer. “One of our key strategies is to focus on digital marketing, which has become increasingly important in today’s world. We have made sure that our website, social media channels, and marketing collaterals are all digital-first, making it easier for the new age travellers to discover Ras Al Khaimah’s offerings. We also plan to launch a dedicated page catering to the Indian market on social media, which will allow us to engage with Indian travellers directly and share information about the destination’s attractions, experiences, and events. In addition, we are also engaging in co-marketing agreements with travel agents and tour operators targeting secondary cities in India. We believe that these partnerships will enable us to reach out to a wider audience and showcase our destination’s unique selling points,” Rasbey adds.
Saudi recently launched stop-over programme. “Any Indian traveller who comes to Saudi Arabia will get free 96 hours Saudi Visa. This includes all travel purposes: leisure, Umrah, business, even visiting friends and families if they book through Saudi Airlines or flynas airline,” Aldabbagh says adding that Saudi has opened six offices for visa in India through SBTS and VFS Global. By the end of February (2023), Aldabbagh informed Saudi will open nine additional dedicated visa offices in India.
Expanding Product Basket
Catering to the need of the new-age Indian travelllers, the countries and destinations from the Gulf region is expanding their product portfolio as well as to offer a better experience. As part of its Saudi Vision 2030, the country is constantly investing in new infrastructure and tourism development projects in Saudi Arabia.
“Last December, Saudi opened Bujairi district in Diriyah. It is very vibrant place that overlooks The At-Turaif, the birthplace of Saudi Arabia, and also one of the UNESCO world heritage sites. It has over 20 brands, retails and restaurants including four Michelin-star restaurants. This year we are also opening 16 Signature hotels in Saudi Arabia including Fairmont, St. Regis, Six Senses, Ritz Carlton and many other brands. Also, a lot of development is happening to make us more ready for India,” Aldabbagh says adding that Saudi is constantly creating new packages and experiences for Indian travellers. “We are hosting marquee events like Formula 1, Formula E, fairs and festivals and also the largest tech concert in the world,” adds Aldabbagh.
Rasbey informs that an important step in driving Ras Al Khaimah’s continued growth as a destination of the future is remaining laser-focused on responsible, purpose-driven and focused developments. “As part of our considered development planning, we will be working with sustainably minded hotel brands, such as Nobu, Marriott, Sofitel, Anantara and the eagerly awaited Wynn resort. We have also received additional investment interest – including acquisitions from Aldar Properties of the Doubletree by Hilton Resort & Spa and an adjoining beachfront plot, following its acquisitions of Al Hamra Mall and Rixos Bab Al Bahr earlier this year. This is in addition to recent acquisitions from Marjan Hospitality of two large beachfront plots on Marjan Island. Finally, we are investing in the Cultural Conservation of our four UNESCO heritage sites – Julphar, Shimal, Dhayah Fort and Al Jazeerah Al Hamra,” Rasbey adds.
Bahrain has been making significant investments in the tourism sector over the past few years. “The government of Bahrain identifies tourism as a key driver of economic growth and has taken several steps to develop the necessary infrastructure to support the industry. The recent and most significant development is the Exhibition World Bahrain which is one of a kind and the largest in the region. The destination has made significant investments in infrastructure development, including the expansion of Bahrain International Airport and the construction of new hotels. There is also a major focus on sustainable development and the promotion of the country’s cultural heritage and natural attractions,” the Spokesperson adds.
For the past couple of years, the emirate of Ajman has been heavily investing in reinforcing its infrastructure and developing its vital regions. “New projects Ajman Municipality department is conducting and executing currently which will add to the tourism offerings in Ajman. The project “The Heritage Route” is located in Ajman, city center sector, Al Nakheel District. Through the project, a heritage Route will be established that links all heritage buildings starting from Ajman Museum to Old Market (Souq Saleh),” Turki adds.
Sharjah also has some bespoke new projects in the pipeline that will have something new and unique to offer. “There are many projects that are under development in the emirate, including the two hotels: the Al Bridi Resort and Al Jabal Resort, both operated by LUX*,” Midfa informs.
Qatar too underwent significant tourism and infrastructure redevelopment in 2022. Apart from the 150+ new hotels, new additions were made across cultural expeditions, architectural marvels, and excursions. Some of the recently opened projects include Al Maha Island, Corinthia Yacht Club, Parisian departmental store – Le Printemps and Lusail Winter Wonderland, Qetaifan Island Water Parks, Fuwairit Kite Beach Resort and West Bay North Beach, the spokesperson adds.
Dubai launched a number of new attractions and initiatives in 2022 as part of the ever-evolving destination proposition. These include the unveiling of the Museum of the Future, Dubai’s new iconic landmark that offers a gateway to a future world. Dubai also unveiled Expo City, the dynamic legacy of Expo 2020, an innovation-driven, human centric vision of the future, and Atlantis The Royal, a mega resort located on Palm Jumeirah.
With all these developments and Gulf’s focus on India, there is a no doubt that India is set to change the tourism landscape of the Gulf.
While Sharjah targets 10-15 per cent increase in Indian arrivals in 2023, Bahrain expects good number of visitors from India in Bahrain in 2023. Ras Al Khaimah and Ajman working towards accelerating the momentum of the Indian arrivals to their respective destinations.
Saudi is nurturing a big ambition out of the India market. “Going forward we are very ambitious about India. We are doubling our visitor number from India to 2 million in 2023. By 2030, our aim is to get over 12 million visitors from India. This will make India the number one source market for Saudi Arabia. We are India ready and are continuously investing in projects,” Aldabbagh said while highlighting India’s strategic importance as a tourism source market for Saudi Arabia.
In 2023, Qatar hosted some large-scale Indian weddings, several corporate groups, and other grand events from India. “The destination has an exciting line-up in place for the rest of 2023 and 2024. To name a few, the Grand Prix 2023 Formula One and 2023 Moto GP Grand Prix are lined up in October and November, respectively,” the Spokesperson says adding that these events will further drive Indian arrivals to Qatar.
Dubai’s 2040 Urban Master Plan aims to expand the emirate’s tourism offering by over 100 per cent. Dubai is on track to achieve its vision of becoming the city of the future. Moreover, Dubai will launch new initiatives aligned with the UAE 2031 Tourism Strategy, which seeks to attract 40 million guests by 2031 and increase the tourism sector’s contribution to the emirate’s GDP to AED 450 billion. India’s contribution to this target is expected to be significant.