Industry Update
Opinion Article14 September 2021

Making up for lost time: How luxury travel in the Middle East is changing post COVID-19

Mr. Mattar will be speaking at the 17th edition of the Arabian & African Hospitality Investment Conference (AHIC) taking place live in person at Madinat Jumeirah from 20-22 September.

By Haitham Mattar, Managing Director, India, Middle East & Africa

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For the first time, AHIC will house the four close-knit investment communities of the Arabian Hospitality Investment Conference (AHIC), Saudi Arabia Hospitality Investment Conference (SHIC), Africa Hotel Investment Forum (AHIF) and the Global Restaurant Investment Forum (GRIF) under one roof.

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Under the theme ‘RISE TOGETHER’, event organisers Bench and MEED have designed the three-day programme around the key themes of ‘innovation, sustainability and the future ’. The highly-anticipated event will feature 100+ speakers with on-stage one-to-one interviews, roundtables, discussions and workshops as well as off-stage individual meetings, innovation pitches, networking experiences, and culinary tours.

Ahead of speaking at his year's event, Mr. Haitham Mattar reflects on how luxury travel in the Middle East is changing post Covid-19.

A year and a half of sensory deprivation and social isolation have primed people the world over to escape the COVID-19 inflicted restrictions of their homes and embrace the escapism of luxury travel.

The luxury travel industry anticipates a worldwide recovery, owing to many factors including the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on travel, vaccination program rollouts, and the excess of household savings. People previously categorized as budget travelers are now willing to splurge on the trip of a lifetime after a hard year and they have the savings to pay for it.

Moody’s estimated as of the first quarter of 2021 that excess savings across the globe equaled more than six percent of the global gross domestic product. And many people are starting to choose to spend more on luxury travel, both to break away from the restrictions of COVID-19 and to guarantee the highest safety standards.

MENA, the luxury destination of choice

The Middle East, long viewed as a travel destination synonymous with luxury, is specifically positioned to ride a rising tide of recovery in the luxury travel and tourism sector, owing to the rebound in air passenger traffic in 2021 and the strength of the existing demand for domestic style ‘staycations.’

At IHG Hotels and Resorts, one of the world’s largest hotel chains, we are already seeing an improvement in occupancy and consumer sentiment across strategic markets in the MENA region. Markets such as the UAE, Qatar and Egypt have seen significant improvement with occupancy rates over 50 percent in 2021.

The new standards

The pandemic put health and safety at the forefront of priorities in the tourism sector, making it a necessity most tourists have become unwilling to compromise on. Many travelers have turned to luxury travel to ensure their safety. Rather than the unseen operation in the background that it once was, hygiene measures and housekeeping services have come under the spotlight, touted and clearly outlined by hotels for their guests.

QR-code menus have become the standard in all food and beverage outlets of a hotel, with socially distanced tables a necessity, not just to comply with health and safety standards but to put the customer’s mind at ease.

Hotels adopted integrated digital services to change the hotel experience to the new norm. People no longer have to wait in queues to check-in at reception desks - many hotels have adopted mobile check-in services.

At IHG, we are investing in the technology, tools and solutions that make the biggest difference to our guests, owners and teams. Our intuitive, cloud-based solution, IHG Concerto, is critical to the work we are doing in this space.

The digital platform reduces in-person interaction, giving guests a greater sense of autonomy and privacy, while keeping up with the shift to mobile and digital reliance dictated by the pandemic’s realities.

Another changing aspect of hotel bookings amid the pandemic is the ever-rising demand for flexible cancellation policies. Governments continue to update travel restrictions and people’s work commitments are precarious, changing their plans for a ‘workcation’ – working while on vacation abroad.

Travelers now demand flexible cancellation policies from hotels and if refunds are not offered, hotels at least need to offer the option to re-book in the future.

Privacy and wellness

There’s a rising demand for ‘slow travel’, where people choose to visit one location and stay there longer. This creates the need for more leisure activities offered by the hotel and a solid network of transportation services including to and from airports and to tourist attractions. Travelers now look for hotels to offer more than just a comfortable stay, they are now the main point of contact for tour operators in the destination and must step up to offer clients privacy, exclusivity, and a wide range of experiences.

Wellness is also at the forefront of travelers’ priorities. This not only translates to relaxation of the body but mental health as well, including sunset yoga on the beach, meditation, or full-blown spiritual retreat programs.

Eyes on luxury travel

The pandemic may have hurt the travel and tourism industry worldwide, but the sector is also one of the few that has the potential to recover quickly. Millions of people around the globe have set luxury travel as a near-term goal and with many Middle Eastern countries opening up to tourists, it’s fast becoming one of the few safe luxury travel destinations around the world.

Hotels in the region can capitalize on their location if they can manage to adapt to the new norms and think creatively to offer new experiences to travelers looking to escape the hardships of life in COVID-19 times.

Related Event

Arabian & African Hospitality Investment Conference (AHIC)

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Madinat Jumeirah — Dubai, United Arab Emirates
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