Destination Red Sea

Stretching its vast coastline across a selection of very different tourism destinations, collectively the Red Sea region is undergoing a period of investment and development, which is stimulating the growth of its core markets in the process. Emily Millett discovers.

With the sprawling five-star beach resorts of Egypt on one side, the corporate and religious tourism attractions of Saudi Arabia on the other and the large-scale foreign investment projects in Jordan tucked into the middle, the expansive Red Sea coastline boasts a rich and varied diversity.

In Egypt, leisure tourism is the name of the game, with its miles of golden beaches, guaranteed year-round sunshine, accommodation to suit any budget and superb diving and water sports options, as vice president and regional director Africa and Indian Ocean operations, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Hassan Ahdab explained to TTG.

Travel Forward 20

“The Red Sea has always been an attractive tourist destination for Egypt,” Ahdab declared. “A stable trend has been taking shape in the past years which shows that only 15 to 20 per cent of tourists to Egypt still choose Luxor, Aswan or Cairo for cultural and historic sightseeing. The rest opt for leisure; which in Egypt means mostly one thing: the Red Sea.”

Although previously on the receiving end of an onslaught of bad press, the Egyptian Red Sea Riviera and surrounding areas are now seeing a return to popularity.

“Egypt is safe to travel to,” exclaimed sales and e-marketing manager, Premier Le Reve Hotel & Spa, Ahmed Yahia. “Booking conditions for the resort destinations of Sharm el Sheikh, Marsa Alam, Taba and Hurghada remain as normal, with tourists regularly flying into the local airports,” he added.

Red Sea-based travel agents and tour operators such as Nature Travel Egypt are also noticing an encouraging increment in arrivals, as operation manager, Nature Travel, Michael Malak explained to TTG: “We had a good summer season and this is a sign that tourism will continue to grow and gain momentum for the rest of the year.”

Across the water in Saudi Arabia, it is the industrial, corporate and religious tourism niches that are proving the most lucrative amongst both the local domestic travellers and the international and foreign markets.

“The Red Sea area of Saudi remains a highly attractive commercial destination driven by the historical trade role of the Islamic seaport of Jeddah and the newly established projects in Yanbu, the King Abdullah Economic City in Rabigh and the Jazan Refinery in Jizan,” commented district director, The Rezidor Hotel Group – Saudi Arabia, Basel Talal.

While Jordan’s portion of the Red Sea coast may be considerably smaller in size, the port city of Aqaba is working hard to prove its stature as a key player in the destination’s tourism strategy. In a bid to improve the city’s infrastructure, a number of investment projects are currently underway that are set to change the face of tourism in the area.

According to operations manager, Abercrombie & Kent Destination Management Company – Jordan, Salam Shaqdeeh, departure tax has been waived on all charter flights and low cost carriers arriving at King Hussein International Airport in Aqaba in a bid to encourage more airlines to the city.

“Having this implemented, we are now planning to work on new programmes to get into the charter business and attract more markets. We will sell Aqaba as a historic destination with a refreshing waterfront that offers many opportunities for over and underwater activities,” Shaqdeeh explained to TTG.

Noting that Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) is planning to reconstruct and enlarge King Hussein International Airport in Aqaba, product manager, Jordan Experience, Mohammed Omran expressed: “The Jordan Tourism board and ASEZA are planning to [encourage] low cost airlines to fly to Aqaba. This will be a positive development for Jordan Experience tours as we arrange many low cost packages and excursions which could be a good fit with those who travel with low cost airlines.”

INVESTING TO EVOLVE

As infrastructure develops, so the Red Sea grows in popularity as a destination for foreign investment.

“The Red Sea is a target for foreign investors in line with the development of multiple refinery projects on its coast, especially in Rabigh and Jizan in addition to the existing leading commercial role of Jeddah and Yanbu,” said Talal. “As a result of this development, there are many new projects and more hotels in the pipeline in Jeddah and Yanbu, in addition to new emerging cities such as Jizan.

“Many major players from around the globe are competing to sign multibillion contracts on the west coast particularly from the US and the EU. As a result, more international hotels are springing up to cater to increased demand in Jeddah and the key cities on the Red Sea coast,” he added.

Hospitality groups with a presence in the country, and those yet to add the Red Sea to their portfolio, are clamouring to stake their claim over the land as Ahdab explained to TTG: “Starwood already has a strong footprint in the Red Sea and currently operates the Le Méridien Dahab, Sheraton Sharm El Sheikh, the Sheraton Miramar Resort El Gouna and the Sheraton Soma Bay, and La Residence des Cascades at the Red Sea.

“We will open the Westin Soma Bay Golf Resort and Spa later this year. Positioned on the highest point of the Soma Bay peninsula, the resort will be an oasis for rest and relaxation in the picturesque Red Sea area. It will provide access to an 18-hole championship golf course and the largest spa and Thalasso centre in the region,” he added.

Local investments are also prevalent in the region with home-grown companies, such as Saudi Arabia-based Elaf Group of Companies, looking to reinvest money into the development of their native lands.

Speaking to TTG about recent advancements, president, Elaf Group of Companies, Ziyad Bin Mahfouz said: “Several luxury resort projects are coming up along the Red Sea coast and this can be attributed to the infinite opportunities offered by the region because of its natural geography. Gauging the potential of the Red Sea region, Elaf Group has opened its Elaf Jeddah Hotel in the vicinity and will open Elaf Galleria soon. The main attraction in the KSA is religious tourism. However, with the Red Sea gaining prominence due to the development of several hospitality projects, local and foreign tourists will be attracted to the region for its world-class resorts and excellent water sports facilities.”

REGIONAL AND DOMESTIC TOURISM

An influx in foreign tourists would mean a huge shift in the KSA’s tourism industry, which until now has been very much presided over by the local, domestic market.

And while a rise in international arrivals may seem a possible future on the Saudi Red Sea’s horizon, the local market continues to play a vital role in driving the destination’s travel and tourism industry.

“We are seeing a rise in domestic tourism on the Red Sea coast and we have seen an increased local demand for hotels in this area over the weekends and during public holidays,” said Talal. “Saudi families are keener to enjoy local attractions and discover domestic hospitality facilities on the Red Sea.”

According to general manager, Park Hyatt Jeddah, Ashwini Kumar: “The Saudi tourism authorities are determined to [promote] Jeddah as the ‘Bride of the Red Sea’ – a popular regional destination for domestic leisure tourism. The Jeddah summer festivals and ‘Jeddah Ghair’ add additional attractions for visitors and we at Park Hyatt support these initiatives and offer special weekend room rates and tailor made spa packages.”

With regional and international flights set to increase into Aqaba, over the coming years the city is expecting to witness a shift in incoming arrival nationalities. According to general manager, Mövenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay Aqaba, Beat Peter, the main feeder markets for the hotel include the local and the regional markets. “We are looking into alternative businesses from the Gulf, Eastern Europe with the ‘Stan’ countries, Asia and the Maghreb countries including Egypt,” he commented.

Also, seeing the potential of alternative source markets, Ahdab commented: “The Red Sea has long been a favourite destination for British tourists and for many years Germany and the UK were leading source markets. While we believe Germany and the UK will continue to dominate, the potential of the Russian market is yet to be explored to its maximum. Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, Scandinavia, Poland and Ukraine also have immense opportunity, and we see China, Japan and South Korea as emerging source markets.”

As tourism in the Red Sea region evolves across Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the destinations are diversifying their offerings and widening the pool of potential source markets with new attractions, developments and infrastructures.