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‘Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Bahrain have reinforced position as top GCC tourist spots’

Fahim Jalalli, CEO of Kanoo Travel,
  • What began with Emirates and Dubai has expanded to include Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, says Fahim Jalalli, CEO of Kanoo Travel
  • The region hosts numerous trade shows, conferences, and exhibitions, and have so many hotels that are capable of accommodating tens of thousands of attendees, he adds

Dubai – The travel industry in the GCC region has undergone significant transformations in recent years, fueled by leadership, strategic investments, and a pursuit of excellence. 

In this exclusive interview with TRENDS, Fahim Jalalli, CEO of Kanoo Travel, provides insights into the current state and prospects of the travel sector in the Gulf.

Kanoo Travel, seen as the pioneering travel agency in the Middle East with a distinguished legacy spanning 18 years, stands as a testament to the region’s commitment to innovation and service excellence. 

Operating across five countries, the agency boasts a comprehensive range of services catering to diverse needs, from corporate travel and leisure experiences to private aviation and pilgrimage journeys.

Could you tell us more about Kanoo Travel and where you operate?

Kanoo Travel holds the distinction of being the first travel agency in the Middle East, boasting a rich legacy spanning 18 years in the industry. With a presence across five countries, we have regional offices throughout Saudi Arabia, including all of the provinces, Bahrain, which is our group’s head office, and in the UAE, where we are based in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. Additionally, we have strong operations in Egypt and Oman.

In terms of our operations, a comprehensive travel management company, our commitment to excellence places us consistently among the top performers in all markets we serve. Our extensive range of services caters to diverse needs, encompassing corporate travel, MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions), leisure travel, private aviation, pilgrimage journeys, and B2B consolidation tools tailored for the industry. We provide a wide range of products and services to consumers in retail and corporate.

Where does the tourism market of the GCC stand right now?

I believe we’re positioned exceptionally well in the GCC region. The tourism authorities in each of the Gulf countries, along with the support of carriers, have shown remarkable activity over the years. What began with Emirates and Dubai has expanded to include Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. It’s a vibrant landscape, brimming with opportunities for travel enthusiasts.

The travel industry in the GCC region has undergone significant transformations in recent years.

We have both commercial activities, which are beneficial if you work in the business travel industry, and leisure activities. And when you combine the two, you get this pleasure activity in which people who are visiting Dubai or Riyadh say, “I’d like to take a day or two off from my business trip to do some of these activities”. This dual appeal adds a dynamic dimension to our industry, and I believe the growth trajectory seems promising, with increasing numbers of visitors and investments. 

The region has successfully pioneered a model where carriers serve as pivotal hubs, facilitating connectivity and convenience. Moreover, the emphasis on providing attractions and commercial incentives ensures a steady influx of visitors.

Moreover, it’s truly an outstanding achievement for the region, leveraging the success of carriers to drive commercial prosperity and tourism. This convergence of factors makes it an exciting time to be part of the travel industry in this region.

Could you provide an overview of the current dynamics of business tourism and travel within the GCC region?

This region hosts numerous trade shows, conferences, and exhibitions. Fortunately, we’re have so many hotels that are capable of accommodating tens of thousands of attendees, if not more – a feat not every city can achieve. This draws significant numbers of visitors to our region.

While the primary focus may be business-related, we offer much more beyond that. Our free zones attract those interested in establishing businesses, while our endless array of tourist attractions appeal to families seeking leisure opportunities. It’s common for business travelers to extend their stay or invite their families to join them once their work commitments are fulfilled.

Destinations like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Bahrain have reinforced their positions as prominent tourist hubs, with iconic landmarks and cultural experiences. This region has long been considered a hidden gem, offering a distinct blend of Arabic culture and history. It’s a refreshing change from the norm, capturing the interest of visitors from North America and Europe looking for new experiences.

How do GCC countries differentiate themselves in terms of attracting and accommodating travelers compared to other global destinations?

The region’s success story began with Emirates and Dubai’s visionary approach. Their strategy has always been based on a commitment to excellence: never sacrificing quality, consistently exceeding expectations, and setting new industry standards. The mindset has spread beyond Dubai, influencing other regions and countries in the Gulf. 

While financial resources are undoubtedly essential, it is the belief in their strategies that truly distinguishes them. Their courage and conviction in the face of uncertainty are impressive. They’ve done everything to make sure that whatever is offered here is of the highest quality. For example, when you compare a business trip to the Middle East and a stay in a 5-stars or 4-stars hotel, sometimes you will actually be shocked to see that the 4-stars hotel in Dubai or Riyadh might be the equivalent of 5-stars hotel quality might get in Europe and North America.

I believe we are spoiled here, and within a few years, you will be comparing hotel rooms, valet service, or the man carrying your luggage upstairs, as well as the customer service that you receive, whether it is personal or over the phone, the cars, the carriers, infrastructure development, cleanliness, safety, etc…

Furthermore, there is something for everyone. Recognizing the diverse needs of SMEs and budget-conscious travelers, the market provides a variety of accommodations to ensure inclusivity and competition. This comprehensive approach has strengthened the region’s appeal, attracting both tourists and business travelers. 

How do you anticipate the future of business travel in the GCC evolving? Are there any emerging trends or strategies being considered to adapt to changing dynamics?

We in the travel industry understand how difficult it is to strike the right balance. Whether it’s a global health crisis like swine flu or bird flu, natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, or the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19, we’ve seen it all. The margins in our industry, whether for airlines or travel agencies, are tight. Even a minor disruption in operations can have serious consequences, making resilience and adaptability essential.

Looking ahead, the substantial investments underway in the Middle East – evident in the developments unfolding in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain benefits well both the leisure and business travel sectors. This ongoing progress not only enhances tourism offerings but also creates new opportunities for commercial and corporate travel agencies.

Currently, we’re experiencing a positive trajectory, with robust activity observed in both leisure and business travel markets. This affirms that stakeholders are in a favorable position. As we move forward, we anticipate further growth in travelers’ numbers, flight frequencies, and connectivity options. Additionally, the expansion of tourist destinations and the increase in hotel capacities will enrich travelers’ experiences. So, I think this is a good time and we’re going to see promising trends ahead.

How have marketing plans evolved with the industry? How has your tourism marketing strategy evolved over the last few years?

In the past, the marketing strategies used to revolve around conventional methods such as flyers, press releases, and newspaper ads. However, the landscape has evolved significantly since then, with digital platforms becoming paramount. 

Today, marketers have a wealth of tools, including predictive analytics, data analysis, and artificial intelligence. This transformative shift has revolutionized how we approach marketing, and I collaborate closely with my marketing team to apply these technologies effectively. We’ve adapted ourselves and we’re looking to leverage as much as we can.

Rather than relying on guesswork, modern marketing is highly targeted, thanks to the wealth of data available. This allows us to focus on crafting relevant content tailored to specific audiences. 

So, technology plays a pivotal role in this shift, enabling us to precisely target our desired audience with the right product, at the right time, and at the right price. This level of precision enhances the customer experience and ensures that our offerings resonate with their needs and preferences.

Moreover, the accessibility of information in today’s digital age has empowered consumers to make more informed decisions. With a few clicks, they can compare our offerings with competitors’, challenging us to constantly refine and optimize our products and services.

Ultimately, this shift towards data-driven, targeted marketing benefits both customers and businesses. Customers gain transparency and confidence in their decisions, while businesses are incentivized to deliver exceptional value and relevance in their offerings.

How has the rise of online booking platforms and mobile apps impacted how travelers plan and book their trips?

Having been in the industry for quite some time, I’ve witnessed a significant transformation over the past two decades. In the early days, travelers relied heavily on agents for their bookings and reservations, accepting the information provided without much scrutiny. However, with the advent of the internet, there’s been an explosion of information available to both travelers and providers.

Today, the digital landscape is dominated by global websites offering enormous options not only for leisure bookings but also in the realm of business travel. Online booking tools have become commonplace, catering to the increasingly tech-savvy preferences of travelers. While there’s still a market for personalized, high-touch services, and phone availability particularly among high-net-worth individuals and certain corporate clients, the majority now prefer the convenience and efficiency offered by technology.

For airlines, hotels, and travel agencies alike, embracing technology has become imperative. If you can’t beat the technology, you must join it. From robust websites and mobile applications to streamlined booking processes and responsive customer service, staying ahead of the curve is essential. The shift towards online bookings has prompted organizations to invest in partnerships, technology infrastructure, and rate contracts worldwide.

Today’s travelers, especially the new generation, demand transparency, simplicity, and accessibility. They expect advanced technology, detailed pricing information, and seamless experiences. As a result, service providers must adapt and evolve to meet these evolving expectations, leveraging the latest technological advancements to remain competitive in the market.

How do you maintain your position at the top of the regional travel competition?

Maintaining our position at the forefront of the travel industry in the region is a priority for us, and technology plays a pivotal role in achieving this goal. In today’s rapidly evolving landscape, falling behind is not an option. That’s why we place a strong emphasis on staying ahead of the curve, constantly investing in cutting-edge technology.

At Kanoo, we make substantial investments in both technology and our people to ensure we remain ahead of the latest trends and innovations. This proactive approach allows us to anticipate changes in the market and adapt accordingly. Whether it’s AI, predictive analytics, or emerging tech solutions, we’re committed to staying ahead of the game.

Our focus on technology extends beyond just enhancing the customer experience. We also prioritize streamlining internal processes, ensuring they are user-friendly for our staff while ultimately benefiting our customers. This investment in technology is not just a luxury but a necessity in today’s competitive landscape.

By continuously advancing and improving our platforms, we aim to provide our customers with the most efficient and innovative solutions available. Our dedication to technological advancement underscores our commitment to delivering exceptional service and remaining a leader in the industry.

What new initiatives is your company currently pursuing to improve the GCC tourism market?

As I mentioned earlier, we pride ourselves on being a comprehensive travel management company, offering a wide range of services from business travel to leisure, MICE, and beyond. In line with our commitment to providing exceptional experiences, we are making significant investments to establish a network of Destination Management Companies (DMCs).

These DMCs will cater to the growing demand for inbound leisure travel. By leveraging this aspect of our business, we aim to enhance our offerings further. Our focus extends beyond just business travel; we strive to stay at the forefront of industry trends by continuously evolving our products and services.

Last year alone, we completed numerous signings and forged partnerships and joint ventures, with more announcements planned for this year’s ATM. Whether it’s developing B2B tools for the trade, expanding our DMC network across the Middle East, launching large MICE operations, or venturing into new areas like private aviation and VAT reclaims for corporates, we’re constantly pushing boundaries.

In addition to recent ventures, such as Umrah packages and visa services, we are continuously exploring new opportunities. Our goal is to create a holistic travel management experience, where clients have access to everything, they need under one umbrella. With our rapid expansion and commitment to innovation, we’re moving forward swiftly towards realizing this vision.