New survey reveals travel intentions of GCC residents as world opens up after pandemic

DUBAI: As Joni Mitchell observed: “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. This has certainly held true for travel since the onset of the COVID pandemic, which saw global restrictions on movement bring the industry to a halt in early 2020.

Many feared airlines and hotels would be struggling for years to come, but at this month’s Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, experts were optimistic about the near future with the recovery looking extremely healthy. The possibility of crossing borders for a long weekend or a summer vacation, or even a work trip – has now become something precious; the chance to escape the daily grind has become more alluring than ever.

“Travel has gone from something we took for granted to something we really need now,” Paul Kelly, managing partner of Dubai-based firm D/A, told Arab News. “That’s something that came out of this analysis: this huge pent-up demand – the emotional side of the trip has changed a lot.”

GCC residents are eager to start traveling again, as evidenced by research presented by D/A on the travel market. The company assessed millions of social media and online posts with its AI-powered “Sila” tool to uncover the travel intentions and desires of more than 2.2 million Arabic speakers across the GCC. What D/A discovered is that while many of the favorite destinations remain the same (with one major exception, more on that later), the reasons for visiting them have changed significantly. It seems that people crave relaxation in natural surroundings, as well as cultural experiences, more than they crave shopping and gear acquisition destinations.

“Visiting cities for shopping was much (more popular). It’s never been as big as the ‘Beach Vacation’ category, but ‘Shopping’ has always been number two,” Kelly said. “It’s now the lowest. Beach destinations are still number one – for example, since the pandemic, the number of visitors to the Maldives from the GCC is higher than ever. has become much more popular, and cultural tourism – say, music festivals, arts events and general cultural experiences – has also become much more important, especially among young people.

Here are some of the key findings from D/A’s research.

SAUDI RISE

One country has seen a surge in interest over the past three years: Saudi Arabia. While the glitz of the UAE – and especially Dubai – remains in high demand, the Kingdom is now the second most popular destination for GCC travelers, according to D/A research. “Saudi Arabia has become a very big destination. This was never the case before except for pilgrims, but this research does not take religious travel into account,” Kelly explained. companies over the past few years to position the country as an attractive tourist destination have been a huge success.More and more Saudis are looking to take short breaks in their own country, and travelers from the Emirates, Oman and other GCC countries are taking the opportunity to explore the rich culture and stunning landscapes that were previously impossible to access.

“All of this was driven by what’s currently open – festivals like MDLBEAST, Riyadh and Jeddah seasons, AlUla, sporting events,” Kelly said. “This stuff works.”

THINK LOCAL

The top three destinations for GCC travelers were all in the Gulf: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is a recent development, according to Kelly. “Gulf countries have never really been factors before – apart from the obvious, Dubai, which has always been a beacon for the Middle East. But what has been interesting is the rise of Qatar, because of the World Cup and then Saudi Arabia as well,” he said.

“Khaleejis like to take short breaks – five days or something like that. And a lot of people, for those breaks, are now staying within the GCC. Saudi Arabia has not yet overtaken the United Arab Emirates, but it has really become a tourist destination,” he continued. “The whole concept of staycation in the area has really come through – people are also staying longer. Shorter stays are much more popular now.

TURKISH DELIGHT

Turkey is one of the most sought-after international destinations by GCC travelers, according to D/A research. It’s always been popular, but what the social media chatter suggests is that people aren’t just heading to the big cities anymore – rather it’s the country’s mix of ‘beach and mountains’ that draws people in. attention, with its Mediterranean regions which are particularly in demand.

FAMILIARITY BREED CONTENT

While GCC travelers crave new experiences, they also crave the reassurance of the familiar. So destinations like the UK, US and Thailand remain extremely desirable, but, Kelly said, they are now looking for new experiences in places they may have been many times before.

“What we’ve seen in most countries is that there’s a great movement toward new experiences, even in really familiar settings,” Kelly said. “So they like to go to the same places – London, for example, is a great destination. But while they’re in London they want to do something different, maybe stay a bit longer and go out to the There is also a desire to fill the routes a little more, to do more things.

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

“People really wanted to go to countries that closed their borders early because of COVID,” Kelly said. “You want to do what you can’t do, I guess.” China and Japan have been the main beneficiaries of this particular quirk of our brains, both high on the wish list of Far East destinations for GCC travelers. China, in particular, is a desirable place to study for GCC residents, D/A found.