A recent working visit to Dubai has got me thinking about what outbound tourism from the UK and other parts of Europe will look like in the future, and where we will choose to take out holidays.
For many years, I have believed that the decline in the availability of oil would ultimately see long haul tourism become an occasional luxury item. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, my world view has been confounded by the continuing low price of oil, and the massive increase in availability created by fracking. I still anticipate that in the longer term, the oil price will start creeping up, and the aviation industry is going either to need to develop alternative means of powering aircraft, or we will have to accept that tourism will become more localised.
It is however interesting to look back at the Tourism 2023 project undertaken in 2008/9, and led by Forum for the Future, involving ABTA and many of the larger travel businesses – I was actually one of the signatories to the final report. That project put forward 4 potential scenarios for tourism, all of which, with hindsight, seem a little doomsday in their outcomes. The first of these, called “Boom and Burst”, seems the most likely. The opening paragraph, describing this scenario, says: A booming UK economy and high disposable incomes have fuelled a growth in travel worldwide. People travel further, more frequently, and at faster speeds than ever before. There are many new reasons to go abroad as global political stability and prospering economies have opened up the world to more commerce and visitors.
That scenario goes on to suggest that there will be massive overcrowding at tourism venues, and the suggestion of global political stability now seems remarkably optimistic. However, less than 10 years ago, the industry really didn’t see the scale of changes which were just around the corner.
All of the scenarios suggested different destinations as the most likely to be the fastest growing – and those put forward for this scenario were: the Democratic Republic of Burma, Yemen, Beyond Botswana Plc (Privatised Special Economic Zone), Somalia, Argentina, Brazil, Antarctica, Near space voyages, Papua New Guinea, Kazakhstan.
Whilst I can’t see many, if any of those being the big destinations of the now short term future in 2023, and it is easy to look back at work undertaken 10 years ago with a degree of cynicism, it is clear that the outbound tourism market is currently undergoing one of its seismic shifts. Tunisia and Egypt are currently off the tourism map, and despite the best efforts of the new Egyptian tourism minister, I can’t see many tourists from any European market wanting to visit those countries in any great volume this year at least – I hope I am wrong, but I am not holding my breath. Likewise, Turkey is suffering challenges, and is unlikely to sustain its position near the top of the tourism market, at least in 2016. Conversely, Spain and its islands are massive beneficiaries of troubles elsewhere at present, as are, to a lesser extent, destinations like Malta and Croatia. However, these destinations are getting filled for this Summer, and I suspect that some customers are looking for alternative experiences.
All of this brings me back to my opening line. I suspect that Dubai and other parts of the Middle East may be beneficiaries of that desire for alternative destinations, and there is no doubt that the authorities in Dubai in particular are positioning themselves to capture that demand. The country has a tourism strategy and plan to capture 20 million tourist arrivals by 2020. Considering that as recently as 2010, there were only 8.41 million arrivals, although that had grown to more than 14 million by 2015, this is no mean feat. Massive hotel and resort developments are being undertaken, and unlike some tourism destinations, there seems to be equal focus on the complementary offer – facilities, excursion products etc. A massive theme park development, called Dubailand, which is allegedly twice the size of Walt Disney World Resort, is currently under construction, and is likely to be a major tourism magnet in the future.
All of this brings some risks from a customer perspective. I have long believed that when overseas mass market tourism from the UK initially developed, holidaymakers were looking for “Blackpool with sun”. Once those travellers had got used to the Costa Brava, Benidorm and Mallorca, they were offered Tunisia and Turkey – and expected those destinations to be simply an exotic version of Spain. Whilst it doesn’t take that long for tourists to get to understand newer destinations, those same holidaymakers are going to be in for quite a shock if they are expecting a quasi-American experience when they visit Dubai.
Whilst the accommodation is exceptional, and the service outstanding, food and drink is by no means cheap, and culturally, typical British holidaymaker 10 pint a night behaviour would not go down well in the destination – and there have already been examples of holidaymakers deported or imprisoned for breaching the fairly draconian local legal regime.
It will be interesting to see what compromises, if any, are made by the authorities in pursuit of the 20 million tourist target. In practice, I would be quite surprised to see many changes. Dubai has grown rapidly without its leaders having to change their ways of thinking, and there are enough tourists wanting new destinations and new experiences to allow for substantial further growth.
One of the features of attempting to predict the future is that more “visionaries” get it wrong than get it right, and half the time, the correct predictions may simply be lucky guesses or interpretation. As a result, I am reluctant to say this with any great certainty, but it certainly looks to me that Dubai is likely to be one of the tourism success stories of the early twenty first century.