Tourism Promotion Agencies in Middle East Tap MICE Potential

Manik Mehta writes for several lnternational magazines which now includes Mice in Asia. Manik is based in New York.

The oil-addicted economies of a number of Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Council, are passing through dramatic changes that suggest a strong “awayfrom-oil” shift: indeed, an increasing number of countries in the region, having recognised the business potential inherent in the tourism sector, are building up venues to attract participants for the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) business segment.

Many are also looking at other venues to learn a thing or two from their success stories. The most shining example for them is that of the United States which has firmly asserted itself as a destination for conferences and incentive travel. A record 376 high-profiled conferences were held in the United States last year, going by the statistics issued by the International Congress & Convention Association (ICCA). Indeed, the conference and incentive business in the United States generated business exceeding some $ 120 billion, underlining the industry’s significance for the overall national economy.

Arab tourism planners are impressed not only by this huge business volume but also by the fact that some 1.7 million jobs in the United States are directly or indirectly sustained by the MICE segment of the tourism industry. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is busy building all kinds of facilities, sometimes outdoing each other, to attract MICE traffic to their respective destination.

“Yes, of course, we are equally interested in developing Sharjah as a popular MICE venue. We have a state of-the-art Expo centre that caters to every business. We have first-class hotels which offer excellent facilities for conventions and the like. Our Expo centre is one of the finest venues of the region and stages the book fair,” says Sultan bin Ahmed Al-Qassim, chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, the agency that promotes tourism, including MICE traffic, to Sharjah.

Another potentially strong but less known MICE destination in the Gulf is Qatar which has an ambitious tourism development plan until 2010 with an outlay of $ 15 billion, part of which will also be used to develop MICE facilities. Qatar has set its gaze on developing specialized tourism segments and not just promoting mass tourism.

Daniela Grendene, the marketing and communications director of Qatar Tourism Authority, outlined in an interview at the International Tourism Bourse 2007 in Berlin that Qatar will concentrate on building up MICE infrastructure. “More than 40 hotels are being constructed in Qatar, a supply which should satisfy demand when MICE traffic increases in the future,” she said. Currently, Qatar has about 2,800 hotel rooms, a figure which will increase to 10,000 in another three to four years.

There are two major projects which will give Qatar a strong facelift as far as the MICE business is concerned: an existing venue called the Qatar National Exhibition Centre is being extended while a brand new convention centre will be set up within close proximity of the city. Qatar’s strength lies in the conference, meeting and exhibition segment, though not so much in the incentive segment, according to Grendene.

Qatar’s tourism experts believe that the latest direct air service established by Qatar Airways with the United States will provide a strong impetus to MICE traffic to Qatar. Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, who announced the establishment of this service at the ITB show in Berlin, stated that Qatar Airways will have a service to Newark (New Jersey) from Doha via Geneva and a non-stop service to Washington DC

The Berlin based German-Arab Business Association, popularly known by the acronym Ghorfa, has been predicting a steady rise in MICE events and traffic to a number of Middle Eastern venues. “It will play an important role in the Middle East’s tourism industry,” a Ghorfa spokesman said.

“This catapulted Bahrain on the international scene. Prior to the Formula-1, Bahrain was not so well known,” admits Isa Jassim Al Obaidy, acting director (marketing and tourism promotion) in the Bahrain Tourism Ministry, in an interview at Berlin’s ITB show. Bahrain’s Convention and Exhibition Centre is gradually making itself known not only in the Gulf’s exhibition landscape but also in Asia. “MICE tourism will be aggressively courted with the establishment of a dedicated Tourism Development Board,” said Al

Bahrain’s tourism promoters at the ITB were also playing up the construction of new hotels such as the Banyan Tree Desert Spa and Resort. The Gulf Hotel Bahrain, with a dedicated Gulf International Convention Centre, physically located on its premises, has played a dominant role in Bahrain’s MICE business. It has been the venue for GCC summit in 2004, the Islamic Bank Conference and for major international corporate events.

Bahrain is also busy building up an infrastructure which will increase business tourism, including visits for MICE events. In an effort to boost tourism, the island has earmarked huge investments for building high-profiled projects such as Durrat Al Bahrain, the Amwaj Islands, Al Areen, etc. Al Obaidly said that the Bahrain Government wanted to increase tourism’s contribution to Bahrain’s GDP, currently around 10 percent, to 30 percent in the coming decade.

Oman, not to be outdone by the other GCC states, is also building up a massive infrastructure for holding MICE events. The state is building up new projects such as ‘The Wave’, ‘The Blue City’, ‘Assalam’, etc. “With its natural and cultural attractions that include old castles, forts, desert, flora and fauna, Oman provides a good setting for MICE events,” says a spokesman of Oman’s tourism ministry.

The Association of French Tour Operators held its annual general meeting in Muscat, Oman’s capital, which attracted more than 200 participants representing France’s tourism and travel industry. Omani tourism planners gladly refer to the event to underscore Oman’s “excellent credentials” as a venue for international MICE events.

But Dubai followed by Abu Dhabi are emerging as the top MICE destinations of the Middle East. Indeed, the general verdict at the Gulf Incentives, Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition (GIBTM), held in March at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, was that the top five destinations for the multi-billion dollar MICE business in the coming years will be Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Morocco and Oman.

The conclusion drawn from a study released at the GIBTM was that 74 percent of buyers at the GIBTM would be holding events in the Gulf and the Middle East North African region in the coming 12 months; furthermore, another 25 percent would hold more events in the same regions in the coming 12 months. According to the study, the most important factor in the choice of the venue is location, while weather figured as the least important factor for buyers, although suppliers listed this as the fifth in their list of important factors.

Dubai stands out as what many MICE experts on the Gulf region describe as the “focal point of MICE events”. The Dubai Convention Bureau at the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) has been intensifying its campaign to attract a larger number of professional and trade visitors from around the world. It has been aggressively distributing its Definitive Meeting and Event Planners’ Guide, listing the different MICE facilities in Dubai, in the world’s major MICE markets to highlight the facilities offered by Dubai for such events.

Some of the big MICE events organized in Dubai include conferences of the International Road Transport Union, the ESNEP-Site European Meeting, Physio Dubai, Thomas Cook World Tour, FIATA World Congress, Annual World Dental Congress, etc.

Qatar Airways Flies to Bali

With the new service from Qatar’s capital city of Doha with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Qatar Airways is the first Middle Eastern carrier to serve the tropical island of Bali. Qatar Airways operates four flights a week between Doha to Denpasar, transiting at Kuala Lumpur using an Airbus A300 aircraft, in a two-class configuration of up to 30 seats in Business Class and 186 seats in Economy.

In 2001, Qatar Airways introduced Indonesia’s capital Jakarta to its growing list of global destinations. Following this successful launch, the airline plans to meet growing passenger demand from Europe and the Middle Eastern countries with the addition of Bali to its global network.

Qatar Airways’ Chief Executive Officer, Akbar Al Baker said, “Indonesia is one of our best-selling markets in South East Asia and we are proud to be able to widen our service in the region, providing greater access to this magnificent part of the world.

The addition of Bali reinforced the airline’s strategy to serve key business and leisure cities around the world. Bali is an increasingly important city for Indonesia and the world, both as Indonesia’s tourism hub and the second business meeting point after Jakarta.”

“With stronger economic ties between Indonesia and many other countries, we can expect a surge of visitors both to and from Bali,” Al Baker added.

Qatar Airways sees Bali as an important part of its wider expansion strategy across the Asian continent. Scheduled flights from Doha to Vietnam’s commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City were launched on March 25 with a frequency of four times a week, while daily services to Chennai started on March 24.

With the addition of Bali and Ho Chi Minh City, Qatar Airways increased its Far East network from 12 to 14 destinations. The airline serves Hong Kong, Osaka, Beijing, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Yangon, Manila and Cebu.

Bali to Host ACSIC Conference

About 100 delegates from 10 countries are expected to gather in Bali from 5-8 November for the 20th Asian Credit Supplementation Institution Confederation Conference (ACSIC) on extending financial credits to small and medium sized businesses.

The event will be co-hosted by three Indonesian companies, Perusahaan Umum Sarana Pengembangan Usaha, PT Asuransi Kredit Pengusaha Indonesia and PT Penjaminan Kredit Pengusaha Indonesia.

The decision to hold the 20th ACSIC in Bali was made at the 19th ACSIC in Kuala Lumpur last November.