Why Middle East travel is growing faster ‘than any other region’

Editor’s Note: This CNN series is, or was, sponsored by the country it highlights. CNN retains full editorial control over subject matter, reporting and frequency of the articles and videos within the sponsorship, in compliance with our policy.

Last week, travel and tourism industry representatives from more than 150 countries gathered at the annual Arabian Travel Market trade show, held this year in Dubai.

There, CNN’s Eleni Giokos spoke with Julia Simpson, president of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), about trends in tourism in the Middle East, and the challenge of making travel more sustainable.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

CNN: The tourism sector is flourishing in many parts of this region and also coming under pressure in others. Tell me about the macro trends that you’re seeing right now.

Julia Simpson: Well, it’s really interesting because travel isn’t just back, it’s absolutely booming. We are here in the Middle East — this is the first time I’ve been to the Arabian Travel Market — but what’s interesting is everyone’s telling me they have never, ever seen it this busy. So I think that is actually very, very descriptive of what we are seeing globally: a very strong market everywhere for travel and tourism.

CNN: But in terms of the interest and demand for the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council nations) and for the Middle East as a whole, have you ever seen this kind of demand before?

Simpson: Well, the GCC and Middle East is growing faster than any other region. The Saudis just celebrated their 100 millionth visitor, Dubai is just announcing a brand-new airport, which is stunning, and visitors are flocking to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al-Khaimah here in the (United Arab Emirates). We are seeing revenue numbers have gone up by 50% and the contribution to GDP — in terms of the amount of money that travel and tourism is making and contributing to the economy — has gone up by 25%. It’s very, very strong. So the whole of the region is doing very well.

CNN: Why do you think that is? Is it the product offering? Is it because it basically is still a frontier market in many places, where other destinations have been so popular for such a long time?

Simpson: I think there are two things playing here. First of all, Dubai is now very well established globally. People come here, they know it’s safe, they know they can have a great time, very high-quality, good cuisine, good art, interesting culture. And then the rest of the GCC is really developing. So in Saudi (Arabia), the project in Diriyah is incredible. They have taken an old Saud family castle and rebuilt it and it now has literally hundreds of thousands of visitors. So it’s happening everywhere.

I think the other trend is people are looking for authenticity. People are really interested to visit the area, find out what’s going on — in Saudi Arabia, you’ve got rewilding of a million trees, you’ve got green mountains, and I think one of my favorites is Oman, I’ve got to say. It’s just such a wonderful country and Oman goes quite far south, so that when it gets very, very hot in the Middle East, people go to the south of Oman to have the green hills. It is an amazing, very rich area.

Visitors and delegates at the Arabian Travel Market. - CNN
Visitors and delegates at the Arabian Travel Market. - CNN

Climate impact

CNN: We’ve had unprecedented flooding in the region — we saw that happening in the UAE, specifically Dubai was hard hit, so sustainability is top of mind now. Is it more so than ever before for this region?

Simpson: It is true, we are seeing more big climate events globally — everywhere. So I think it’s really important that when we look at travel and tourism, we understand what our impact is on the climate. No one knew what (the travel sector’s) impact was before, but we’ve (the World Travel and Tourism Council) worked with the Saudis and Oxford Economics and now we know exactly that we contribute, in our sector, 8% to global greenhouse gas emissions. But the interesting thing, now we’ve got the data, is that we know where that’s coming from.

For example, the vast majority of our impact actually comes from ground vehicles. So that’s all our ground vehicles, whether it’s a little van that delivers raspberries to the hotel or the bus that gets you from the airport. So getting electrification globally is really important.

Then, obviously, air travel. And air travel, you’re going to get next-generation planes with much more efficient engines and also the production of sustainable aviation fuel. We are not producing enough of it globally now, but there are now targets to meet. The issue is, airlines aren’t in charge of the fuel they use. They have to buy their fuel. So it’s really important talking to countries to get them to invest in sustainable aviation fuel.

CNN: I want to talk about the impact of conflict in the region and the war in Gaza. What can you tell us about the perceptions of risk?

Simpson: First and foremost, when I talk about something like this, you have to remember it is a real human tragedy, and all our hearts go out to everybody involved in this horrific conflict. In terms of its impact on travel and tourism, the people who are right in the middle are obviously suffering a lot in terms of terms of tourists not wanting to go there. But slightly outside the area, areas are doing very well.

Egypt has some very strong travel and tourism numbers because it’s a big country. It depends where it is geographically. The Gulf has not been affected, as we can see by the numbers, but I think you’re right, there is a general feeling and that can translate into numbers of visitors. But at the moment, outside the area that is directly affected, we are not seeing a big impact on travel and tourism.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com