After a tumultuous year, hoteliers and government officials are working together in the Middle East/Africa to rebrand the region as an attractive tourism destination for domestic and inbound guests.
REPORT FROM THE MIDDLE EAST/AFRICA—Hoteliers in the Middle East/Africa region are embarking on targeted public-relations sprees to clean up the region’s image after the tumultuous Arab Spring uprisings.
Through November 2011, occupancy in the Middle East/Africa hotel industry declined 7.1% to 57.2% and revenue per available room declined by 2.1% in U.S. dollars. Average daily rate was up 5.4%, according to STR Global, sister company of HotelNewsNow.com.
“Many of the affected destinations have been investing heavily in online presence, social media, launching new slogans and re-branding. For example, Egypt is emerging as more and more of a health and wellness destination, primarily for spa goers, but also for medical tourists,” said Nadejda Popova, travel and tourism analyst at research company Euromonitor International.
Others regions impacted by the revolutionary wave of demonstrations that began more than a year ago include Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen; there were also major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman.
In countries such as Egypt where governments are taking a proactive step toward rebranding, hoteliers have continued to market to inbound European tourists.
Rotana Hotel Management Corporation, for example, demonstrated its alliance with Egypt at this year’s World Travel Market. Company officials are confident joint marketing activities with travel agents and online booking sites coupled with value packages will bring Europeans back to Egypt this winter, according to said Omer Kaddouri, the company’s executive VP and COO.
Rotana has 43 hotels and resorts primarily focused in Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Dubai and Sharm El Sheikh.
Kempinski Hotels also has partnered with Egypt.
“The Egyptian tourism authority has sponsored dozens of press visits from different parts of the world in collaboration with Egypt Air and hotels,” said Lashley Pulsipher, regional public relations director for the company’s Middle East and Africa region.
“The Egyptian government is taking action to stimulate tourism in the country. For example, they are considering relaxing the visa rules for Arab tourists in order to encourage more visitors from the region to Egypt, a move which could provide a much-needed injection of foreign currency.”
Jordan has taken a proactive approach as well.
“The Ministry of Tourism was immediately talking to the media before last summer to ensure travelers understood that the unrest was very slight and it was business as usual,” said Christophe Landais, managing director for the Middle East for Paris-based Accor, which has 147 hotels comprising 24,637 rooms in the Middle East and Africa.
Targeting the regional traveler
Whilst Euromonitor predicts a slight increase in tourist arrivals to the Middle East of 1.3% during 2012, many hotel operators are focusing on the regional traveler.
Accor is promoting its hotels to regional travelers via its website; IP addresses establish from which region customers are originating and guides them immediately to a dedicated Middle East site focusing on Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The site was launched in June and is expected to go live in Arabic next year. “Instead of Europeans, we’re focusing on our GCC clients,” he said. “It has worked very well already with our Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti clientele.”
Landais said Accor’s operations were most affected in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain.
The main reason was the repeated cancellation of the Grand Prix, he said.
“The racing team simply didn’t want to be associated with the events in the country. However, the race seems to be now confirmed for April 2012 so the situation there should improve for hotels as well. Saudi Arabian visitors are already back,” he added.
“Jordan, meanwhile, experienced a ripple effect due to inbound tourism being driven by tour packages including multiple destinations (such as) Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan,” Landais said.
McClean, Virginia-based Hilton Worldwide, meantime, implemented early bird reservations to entice bookings via local tour operators, said Christian Grage, the group’s VP of operations for Egypt and Levant.
While some operators were forced to cut rates in certain instances, many of the major brands stressed the importance of finding alternative means to attract business.
“We don’t believe in dropping rates in destinations like Egypt to create volume. Instead we have created added value packages to entice travelers back. This works especially well when it comes to resorts, which have been negatively impacted,” said Marko Hytonen area VP, Middle East of Brussels-based Rezidor Hotel Group, which has 29 hotels in operation and an additional 13 in the pipeline in the Middle East.
Managers at Kempinski refrained from dropping rates in Cairo, which is mainly frequented by business travelers, Pulsipher said. The group instead focused on keeping its high standard in service quality.
The tumult might not be over yet, financially and politically, warned Jalil Mekouar, managing director, Middle East and Africa, for Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels.
Egypt’s various Muslim parties have come out publicly supporting tourism, thus allaying fears of stricter rules for tourists. However, more than 60% of the population is still pushing for socio-economic changes.
“Salaries are too low,” Jalil said. “A tourist spends in a day what a hotel worker would earn in a month. Were the new government to address the unfair distribution of wealth, Egypt could become too much of an expensive destination.”
For now, hotel owners are assisting operators and their staff. At Rezidor, for example, throughout the challenging period a constant dialogue persisted between both parties to improve business, Hytonen said.
At the Kempinski Nile in Cairo, the local owners even agreed to support the payroll for the first three months following the revolution. “They ensured staff were getting paid, so that we could maintain our high service standards and be prepared for increases in the demand,” Pulsipher said.