When Dubai was confirmed, in 2015, as the host destination for Expo 2020 it was largely met with delight at securing the biggest event in the Middle East to date. However, there were one or two dissenting voices who questioned if this would burst the bubble for the emirate when some commentators expressing concern that it would halt growth in the real estate market.
That couldn’t be further from the case though according to the chief of Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), Issam Kazim, as well as a number of senior figures within the Middle Eastern hospitality sector.
“We set out a strategy for ourselves, which was about focusing on doubling the 2012 numbers for international visitors and creating a sustainable tourism model for achieving 20 million visitors by 2020 and building on that going forward,” says Kazim, CEO of DTCM.
“People were very familiar with the beaches of Dubai and the retail outlets and the hotels and quality of service of Dubai but there is still a lot of Dubai that we believed was missing. We did a lot of surveys to make sure the figures we were working with were as accurate as possible.”
People being proved wrong by Dubai is nothing new according to Marriott International Middle East and Africa president, Alex Kyriakidis.
“I am old enough to remember people saying the market was going to crash 12 years ago,” he says.
“The Dubai market was barely 35- 40,000 rooms. At that time it had a pipeline of 20,000 rooms and everyone was worried. People said the same thing five years ago when we were at 75,000 rooms and Dubai defied gravity again.
“Today we have 100,000 operating rooms and to give you context it is almost the size of London. We have 25,000 rooms under construction and you could be cynical again and say Dubai is going to crash and burn in 2020, but we don’t think so.”
Cynicism around the expo is not something that cluster manager Radisson Blu Hotels, Dubai Waterfront and Dubai Canal Views David Allan has much time for.
“How could it be anything but positive? Expo 2020 is expected to attract 25 million visitors, 17 million of whom will be international guests and all of this during its six-month run, providing a huge boost to the hospitality industry,” he says.
“Besides the expectation to further strengthen the worldwide standing of the United Arab Emirates, it is clear that the Expo2020 is also expected to add a significant amount to the economy of Dubai and the UAE.”
It seems as if you can’t talk about tourism today without experiential travel being top of the agenda but there’s a very good reason for that according to Kazim.
“When you look at the outdoor side of it, arts and culture, it is perhaps something that people in Dubai might take for granted but they are things that not everyone who travels to Dubai knows about,” says Kazim.
“We looked at how Dubai has been quite successful at attracting people from a certain luxury segment and that has built a perception that Dubai only caters to them. That is not really the case as there is a wide range of three and four star hotels for people to enjoy and we created a wide range of incentives.”
The goal, Kazim says, is to use Expo 2020 as a catalyst to drive tourism in Dubai to the next level.
“We are building a sustainable model to make sure that Expo 2020 – the biggest event on Dubai’s calendar – becomes something that we have been able to leverage these events on,” he says.
“Once you get people to Dubai they start to realise that Dubai has the infrastructure, whether it’s the roads, the transport, the airlines or the connectivity.”
He says the expo is the perfect opportunity for Dubai to enhance its reputation as a hub for the entire region.
“The network of free zones that have been created in Dubai makes it easier to create regional or global headquarters here,” he says.
“Dubai is acting as a hub and 200 nationalities who have chosen Dubai as a home. You have so many different nationalities from so many different backgrounds with so many different skills and expertise, which attract people to set up shop here and bring their families.”
The key to successfully capitalising on Expo 2020 is diversification according to Kryiakidis.
“The average rate is $200 and occupancy rate is 80%. Any market that is operating at 80% and $200 believe me is a great market, an amazing market in fact,” he says.
“Of course we all want more and want to drive it north. It means with a diversified market we can attract people who previously wouldn’t have come to Dubai. Here we are next to the Indian subcontinent and amazing markets in the Middle East and European markets, which have been hit hard against the dollar.”
The fact that the strength of the dollar has essentially made it 25% more expensive for a family of four to visit Dubai, creates a need for the market to diversify, says Kyriakidis.
“For some families that is a huge consideration and they could switch to somewhere else in Europe or Asia and get value for money,” he says.
“If the rate can diversify here we can offer rates that are lower and we need them for the theme parks and other offerings like the museums and galleries.”
It is important, Kazim stresses, to make sure the message is not lost: that the expo is for the entire Middle Eastern region, not just Dubai.
“When the expo was announced, a statement was made that it’s not just for Dubai, it’s an expo for the entire region,” he says.
“It’s about getting the right creative people to Dubai and using the city as a platform to launch careers and products and announce their work. We see the expo creating and continuing to push that same message.”
Allan agrees with Kazim’s view that the expo can act as a catalyst for the region.
“Since confirming the Expo 2020, the UAE has seen a massive boom in its hospitality sector and recently just reached the 100,000 rooms milestone within Dubai,” he says.
As a result, Allan posits, Dubai is being developed to become a world-class venue, which then has the capability to hold massive conferences for the MICE sector.
“Combining the new facilities, parks, green spaces, record-breaking architecture, developing public services and transport, it has become an international hub with a significant variety of hotels. I prefer to view Expo 2020 as a catalyst for this exceptional growth in Dubai and the UAE,” he says.
Kazim is candid about his firm belief that the expo will be a roaring success.
“I think that any event that Dubai has hosted in the past helped us achieve the next big thing,” he says.
“Dubai has never been one to rest on its laurels and it’s fair to say that the expo will act as a catalyst for things to come. If you look at when we hosted the IMF in 2003, people were wondering about how Dubai would be able to host an event like that given the security intricacies. Not only did we host it successfully, but it enabled Dubai to attract a lot more events and I am confident that Expo 2020 will be able to help us move to the next level.
“Our aim is to get that 20 million number by 2020 and make sure we grow from that.”