Gulf Cooperation Council Looks to China for Future Tourism Growth

A recent report launched at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai identifies the Chinese and Indian outbound tourism markets as future “mega source markets” that will boost Gulf countries’ tourism industries for years to come. According to the report, the number Chinese travelers visiting Gulf countries is expected to reach 900,000 in 2020, more than double the 400,000 Chinese travelers received in 2014. To boost Chinese arrivals further, the report suggests implementing a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) equivalent of the European Union’s Schengen unified visa to simplify travel in the region.

The report delves into details on areas where GCC governments and policymakers should improve to tap into the vast potential that lies in the Chinese and Indian outbound tourism markets, with visa facilitation emphasized as the most important government initiative to further growth. In addition to a unified visa across GCC countries, the report encourages implementation of visa-on-arrival schemes in all GCC countries, as well as establishing a larger number of visa facilitation centers in China to boost the popularity of “spontaneous travel.”

The idea of implementing a unified visa system similar to Schengen is a particularly interesting suggestion for boosting Chinese tourism. While likely difficult to implement as it requires harmonized visa procedures and rules across a large number of countries, it could potentially increase the attractiveness of travel for Chinese tourists in general, and Chinese tour groups in particular. The Schengen visa, which is granted to Chinese tourists visiting European countries part of the Schengen Agreement allows Chinese tourists to freely cross Schengen-country borders without any need for additional visas or other documentation—an important factor behind the popularity of Chinese tours in Europe that include a large number of countries. Non-Schengen countries in the European Union, such as the United Kingdom, still remain far behind Schengen countries in terms of Chinese tourist arrivals and are often excluded from tours that include many European countries. In Southeast Asia, tourism stakeholders have also encouraged local governments to look into implementing a Schengen-like agreement for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to facilitate tourism growth.

Acknowledging Chinese tourists’ high interest in shopping, the report also suggests promoting GCC countries as shopping destinations—and proposes to implement “special discounts” available to Chinese and Indian visitors to make shopping even more attractive to these groups of tourists.

Destinations in the United Arab Emirates are identified as most compatible with the Chinese tourism market. (Colliers International)

In evaluating different tourism cities across the region, the report identifies the United Arab Emirates’ cities the most compatible with preferences and needs among Chinese visitors, followed by Qatar’s Doha—an important airline hub in the region. Cities in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, score the lowest “compatibility score” on account of leisure tourism being relatively undeveloped for non-GCC markets—with religious and corporate tourism from China being the only areas where these cities are compatible with the Chinese tourism market.

The report emphasizes the importance of hotels adapting to Chinese tourists’ needs and wants. (Colliers International)

For hotels in the region, the report argues that embracing Chinese social media platforms is key to marketing efforts in China. Adaptation to meet needs and to avoid cultural sensitivities are also encouraged, for example having electric kettles in all rooms and avoiding putting Chinese tourists in rooms on the fourth floor.

“Should GCC cities focus their efforts on attracting Chinese tourists, this would ensure a perennial stream of hotel bed nights, even during economic downturns,” the report concludes.

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