Characterful British Isles pomp and tradition, combined with a contemporary, cutting-edge outlook, are making the UK and Ireland exciting destinations for MENA visitors. Lucie Robson writes.
In 2016, the UK experienced one of the most momentous events in its recent history. In an EU referendum, the country voted to leave the European Union in what has become known as Brexit.
The decision has led to uncertainty in some sectors but the Visit Britain team see nothing but favourable times ahead for tourism, describing the industry as ‘a shining star in an uncertain world’.
When it comes to visitor numbers from the MENA region, this stance certainly materialises. Recent Visit Britain figures show a record number of tourists from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the number is rising along with spending. In 2015, Saudi Arabia moved into the UK’s top 10 most valuable markets for the first time.
“We anticipate a strong start to 2017 with Britain’s attractions, hotels, shops and luxury goods all offering great value right now, making it an attractive choice for visitors from the Gulf countries who already rate the UK as a top destination,” director – Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, Visit Britain, Sumathi Ramanathan told TTG. “At the end of November the UK was 18 per cent more affordable for visitors from Saudi Arabia and the UAE year-on-year. Flight booking data from Forward Keys shows that bookings from the Middle East to the UK are also up.”
OH MY GREAT BRITAIN
With those from the GCC visiting the UK for its parks, gardens, museums and galleries, how does the country see its latest campaign #OMGB (Oh My GREAT Britain) ‘Home of Amazing Moments’ appealing to MENA visitors?
“In October, the #OMGB campaign was rolled out in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to inspire more visitors from the Gulf to visit the UK,” Ramanathan explained. “Britain has so much to offer visitors from the Gulf, from shopping in our world-class boutiques and department stores, to touring the countryside and soaking up the culture and heritage of our cities and towns.”
This year, #OMGB features England’s ‘Year of Literary Heroes’, a celebration of literary milestones including the 20th anniversary of the Harry Potter series, the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and the 125th anniversary of the first Sherlock Holmes publication. Wales will pay tribute to epic myths and legends of yore, with the ‘Year of Legends’, and Scotland is set to celebrate its rich past during the ‘Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology’. Also taking place in Scotland is the celebration of 70 years of the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, with the city being transformed with music, science, film, art, theatre, dance, literature and storytelling. Northern Ireland features atmospheric castles, a striking coastline and can also boast of being the site for much of the backdrop for the world-renowned TV series, Game of Thrones. Visitors can enjoy a special tour that highlights memorable location shoots for the show.
The Emerald Isle is also enjoying a robust growth in visitor numbers, attraction visits and capacity levels in all types of accommodation. Tourism body, Fáilte Ireland told TTG that this year it will be building the new ‘Dublin – A Breath of Fresh Air’ brand and improving seasonality and regionality of the rugged Wild Atlantic Way route. As well as investing in the holiday experience, developing business travel options is top of the agenda in 2017.
“We’re focusing on maximising lead generation opportunities to win $165 million worth of international business tourism and events for future years and growing the regional spread of activity beyond Dublin,” corporate communications, Fáilte Ireland, Louise Tolerton said.
A SPOT OF SHOPPING
While the UK offers diverse cultural attractions to MENA visitors, let’s not forget one of the chief draws of Blighty: shopping.
Independent travel body, GTA said that while London continues to be a coveted destination for MENA travellers, regional shopping experiences have also been catching on as shopaholics venture out into new retail pastures. “Visitors from the Middle East enjoy high-end shopping experiences – not just in London but also in places like the Bull Ring in Birmingham and luxury outlets such as Bicester Village, only 45 minutes out of London,” vice president sales and marketing – Middle East, Africa, Turkey and India, GTA Travel, Rami Mashini told TTG.
While owing to its incomparable range of shops and brands, London is always in demand, according to Mashini. UK media reports have said that regional cities like Manchester have shown growth in shoppers from the Middle East and North Africa, who are seeking a retail experience in smaller locations making logistics more manageable. Also reflecting the fact that MENA visitors are top shoppers in the UK is the current trend of retail staff etiquette seminars, such as the Middle Eastern Cultural Sales Training offered by tax free shopping specialist, Global Blue.
The shopping experience extends to F&B consumption and, according to Visit Britain, hospitality is a sector where MENA visitors are high spenders. This in part accounts for a growth in halal-friendly food sites such as halalgems.com, which lists and reviews a huge range of eateries in the UK that comply with the dietary requirements of MENA visitors.
Specialist halal holiday company, HalalBooking.com, told TTG that the trend towards halal holidays is not confined solely to dining but to all aspects of travel in the UK. “We have noticed more interest from UK-based hotels that would like to tap into the growing halal-friendly tourism market – one which is estimated to reach $248 billion (approximately) by 2020,” said chief marketing officer, HalalBooking.com, Ufuk Seçgin. “There are already a lot of halal-conscious travellers who visit London and other cities across the UK who appreciate any additional services, such as removal of alcohol from minibars in guest rooms, provision of prayer mats in guest rooms and provision of halal menu options in hotel restaurants. Having mentioned this, these trends are still very London-centric at this stage.”
The all-round identification of MENA visitor activity preferences and sensitivities within the tourism sector are upholding the desirable status of the British Isles. “It is a great time to come to Britain,” Ramanathan of Visit Britain said.