Natural wonders replace manmade towers as Gulf states target ecotourists

Arabian Oryx are seen at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Umm Al-Zamool, some 290 kilometers south of Abu Dhabi near the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
Updated 22 August 2018
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Natural wonders replace manmade towers as Gulf states target ecotourists

LONDON: Gulf tourism bodies are competing to attract “ecotourists” as they look beyond traditional attractions to generate much-needed revenues.
Dubai-based Meraas last month revealed plans to turn the emirate’s mountainous Hatta region into an ecotourism destination, siting mountain lodges and “boutique” trailers along the banks of the Hatta dam.
In Saudi Arabia, a royal order in June established nine royal reservations, to be looked after by a board of directors to preserve the natural environment and limit overfishing or overgrazing.
These are some of the efforts the region is making to attract more tourists to its “natural wonders,” with the aim of increasing the contribution tourism makes to their economies that have been reliant on oil.
To date, Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector has been dominated by those visiting for religious purposes — such as for the Hajj pilgrimage this month. Tourist visas for international visitors have been hard to obtain, though the Kingdom is looking to make it easier.
In the UAE, the average tourist is unlikely to even be aware of the mountain ranges, wadis, and nature reserves that lie just a relatively short drive from their sun lounger, choosing to spend their time in the country’s malls, hotel pools and beaches.
But this is due to change, said Anthony Hobeika, chief executive officer, Mena Research Partners.
“We expect ecotourism to be a key traction to investors during the next period, as UAE continues on its tourism push with a diversified and wider range of offerings to international as well as domestic tourists.
Meraas’ latest investment in Hatta demonstrates this potential diversification away from high-end glamor to more rustic attractions. The company’s previous developments include Dubai’s luxury Nikki Beach Residences and the Bulgari Residence.
The mock-up pictures provided by Meraas so far suggest the experience will be more “glamping” than roughing it in the wild.
“Hatta is known for its beautiful scenery — mountains, lakes, wadis, farms, dams and fresh air and the development of ecotourism demonstrates our commitment at Meraas to implementing the vision of our wise leadership by creating economic opportunities for young people,
local businesses and entrepreneurs in Hatta,” said Abdulla Al-Habbai, group chairman at Meraas in July.
Globally ecotourism is growing in popularity as a way of minimizing the environmental footprint of travel, and using tourism to benefit locals, preserve culture and look after nature.
It is a trend other areas of the Gulf have capitalized on already, said Benjamin Carey, managing director at the consultancy Carey Tourism. He has previously worked on eco-tourism projects across the Middle East and is currently working on projects in India, Laos and Yemen.
“Emirates like Ras Al-Khaimah are being very clever in terms of creating high-margin and relatively low-impact adventure tourism products in a natural heritage environment,” he said.
“They are investing heavily in marketing because they recognize the importance of destination marketing and management — and also know that the oil-rich Emirati economy needs to diversify.”
“From a demand perspective, it must be remembered that the most important markets for ecotourism are middle-class professionals and urban elites, especially those
attracted by five-star hotels in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Glamping, ecolux, expensive mountain bikes: These are all attractive short-term adventures for (those who) want to experience “ecotourism-lite,” he said.
Last December, Oman made inroads into the eco-tourism sector, with the opening of an Arabian Oryx sanctuary to the public, giving tourists a chance to see the rare desert dweller that had been hunted to extinction in the wild.
In July, the UAE launched its National Ecotourism Project in a bid to improve its marketing of eco-attractions to tourists.
The project will promote UAE’s “natural wonders” across 43 protected areas, including the Wadi Al Wurayah Nature Reserve in Fujairah where you might glimpse a rare Arabian leopard and the Al Wathba Reserve in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in Dubai where flocks of flamingos gather.
A website and app will be launched to raise awareness of these protected areas and encourage travel agencies to include them in travel packages.
“The UAE seeks to leverage the fast-paced development witnessed in all sectors, particularly in the sustainable tourism domain that includes eco-friendly flights, hotels, beaches and campsites,” said Thani bin Ahmed Al-Zeyoudi, minister of climate change and environment.
However, regional developers keen to offer ecotourism breaks will need to work with local communities, Carey warned.
“Ecotourism cannot be imposed on a community. Bedouin, even if increasingly only semi-nomadic, have traditional land rights and must be involved in destination management and development,” he said.
“A green golf course is not eco-tourism. A key dimension of eco-tourism development involves working within the limits of local resources, conserving and safeguarding natural, cultural and social heritage,” he added.
Gulf economies have increasingly benefited from the growing contribution of the tourism sector to their GDP, a welcome development given recent low oil prices.
In Saudi Arabia, the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP grew by 4.6 percent in 2017, according to statistics from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
Last year, the sector contributed SR240.9 billion ($64.2 billion) or 9.4 percent to the Kingdom’s GDP, with the WTTC forecasting this share will reach 10.9 percent by 2028.
In the UAE, total contribution of travel and tourism was 154.1 billion dirhams ($41.95 billion) or 11.3 percent of GDP in 2017, according to WTTC. It is forecast to rise by 4.9 percent this year. By 2028, the sector will represent 10.6 percent of GDP, according to the council’s estimates.


Iran looms large over OPEC summit

Updated 22 September 2018
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Iran looms large over OPEC summit

  • Saudi Arabia only country in Mideast, and perhaps world, with enough capacity to keep market supplied, say experts
  • At Algiers, Opec and leading non-Opec countries are expected to discuss how to allocate supply increases to offset a shortage of Iran supplies

LONDON: The Opec summit in Algiers on Sunday meets amid widespread fears of a supply crunch when a forecast 1.4 million barrels a day of crude is lost from Iran in November when US sanctions kick in.
If, on top of that, more supply shocks hit the market in worse-than-expected disruption from Libya and Iraq, the price of crude could surge, said Andy Critchlow, head of energy news at S&P Global Platts. “At the moment, the market looks finely balanced,” he said.
There isn’t a lot of slack in the system. As Critchlow points out: “Upstream investment in infrastructure and new wells is historically low and it will take a long time to turn that around.”
At Algiers, Opec and leading non-Opec countries are expected to discuss how to allocate supply increases to offset a shortage of Iran supplies. The gathering comes after a tweet by President Trump on Sept. 20 calling on Opec to lower prices. He said on Twitter that “they would not be safe for very long without us, and yet they continue to push for a higher and higher oil price.”
Critchlow reckoned KSA still had spare capacity of about 2 million bpd. And KSA would get oil back as they go into winter as it had needed 800,000m bpd merely to generate electricity for the home market to meet heightened demand for air conditioning in the summer.
But there is uncertainty about what will come out of Algiers. For a start, the Iranians say they will not attend. That could be tricky in terms of an Opec communique at the end of the meeting as statements need unanimous support from member nations. And Iran has indicated it will veto any move that would affect Iran’s position, ie, one where other countries absorb its market share as sanctions bite.
Jason Gammel, energy analyst at London broker Jefferies, said: “The magnitude of the drop in Iranian exports is likely to be higher than any hit in demand as a result of problems linked to emerging market currencies, or trade wars. That’s why we expect oil prices to continue to strengthen. The Saudis and their partners will keep the market well supplied, and I think the issue is that the level of spare capacity in the system will be extremely low. Any threat or interruption will mean price spikes. Possibly by the end of the year demand will exceed supply; for now, the market remains in balance, but threats of supply disruption will bring volatility.”
Under the spotlight in Algiers is a production cuts accord forged by Opec and 11 other countries in 2016 which has been extended to the end of this year. The agreement helped reboot prices and obliterate inventory stockpiles that led to the crash in crude prices nearly three years ago. But how long will the agreement last? Algiers may kick that one into the long grass.
Thomson Reuters analysts Ehsan Ul-Haq and Tom Kenison told Arab News: “OPEC members would like to maintain cohesion within the group around supply ahead of Iran sanctions and declining Venezuela production, However, they are expected be in favor of maintaining stability in prices while doing so. On the other hand, they need to find a consensus around how their market share would be affected by a decision to pump more oil in the market. Any decision around production will likely be offset until the November meeting.”
Critchlow said that it is what KSA and Russia say and do that matters. “They speak for a fifth of the global oil market, producing a combined total of 22m bpd.” Together, they are the swing producers when it comes to crude production and supply.
Another factor about Algiers is that it is a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee, which is not a policy-making forum. Big policy statements may have to wait for the main Opec summit in Vienna at the end of year. That said, there will be some very high-level delegations in Algiers, including the Saudi oil minister and his Russian counterpart.
A statement about the demand picture could emerge, especially as there are fears about the impact on the global economy from the US-China tariff war.
Looking to the future, Critchlow thought the Opec production cuts accord would carry on into 2019. “Oil priced between $70/bbl and $80/bbl is a sweet spot for Middle East producers. Its’s good for Saudi as it helps stop further drainage of their foreign reserves and moves the budget back toward balance. Do they want (the price) to go higher? I think that would cause a lot of political problems for them.”