My passion for wildlife, unspoiled, indigenous cultures, barefoot luxury and a fascination of rapidly developing destinations inspired me to explore the ever-expanding African continent and the Middle East. In the past two years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit 11 African and four Middle Eastern countries, so whether your clients wish to visit iconic historical UNESCO World Heritage sites in spots like Petra, Jordan, or immerse themselves visiting the flooding plains of Botswana’s African bushcamps, here are my personal notes on what your clients shouldn’t miss in the Middle East and Africa.
the middle east
Of the 11 regions of the globe, as defined by the World Travel and Tourism Council, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa came in fourth, fifth, and ninth, respectively, in projected growth for travel and tourism as related to their GDP.
I don’t think anyone in the travel industry would be shocked to learn about all the development taking place that has marked the past decade of travel in the Middle East, especially in the United Arab Emirates, and growth from U.S. east coast travelers continues to increase both in Africa and the Middle East, but according to Michael Holtz, owner & CEO of SmartFlyer (smartflyer.com), “We are seeing a big uptick in west coast business to Africa via Middle Eastern hubs. Airlines like Emirates (emirates.com), Etihad (etihad.com) and Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) have excellent connections to Southern Africa (South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe) through their Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul hubs.”
According to the CEO of Dubai-based Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts (jumeirah.com), Gerald Lawless, “Dubai has demonstrated to the region and, indeed, to the world what can be achieved through enlightened leadership. It is amazing to see that we now welcome up to 11 million visitors a year in a city of approximately two million people. Dubai has never lost sight of its quality image and continues to offer one of the best and safest tourism destinations in the world.”
A newer and slightly less flashy player catching the attention of the travel industry is the oil-rich country of Qatar. According to the Qatari government’s recent in-bound arrival report, U.S. arrivals increased by 4.32 percent in the first half of 2013, versus the same period last year; and luxury is the name of the game in the Arabian Riviera.
St. Regis Doha (starwoodhotels.com) opened its massive, opulent doors in late-2012 and spared no expense—with notable restaurants by celebrity chef Gordan Ramsay, a Remede Spa and evening entertainment with Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha. The rapid growth could also be attributed to Qatar Airways’ (qatarairways.com) aggressive route expansion and promoting Doha as the gateway to the east for North Americans and Europeans. In 2013, the airline announced a new direct route from Chicago and officially joined the Oneworld Alliance as of Oct. 29.
But there are other Middle Eastern gems that are less flashy, have a rich history, and despite geographically challenged individuals’ opinions, are indeed politically stable enough to attract new travelers and a wave of inspiring travel options, including Jordan.
In fact, in Recommend’s May issue in the Touring Israel & Jordan piece, in which we highlighted a bevy of tour packages for first-timers (second-timers, too), adventure seekers and religious and historical travelers, as well as families and those interested in culturally immersive itineraries, Natalie Lee, product manager for Africa and Middle East, SITA World Tours, noted that, “sales remain strong for Jordan,” and Moira Smith, Goway’s general manager for Africa and Middle East, added “we’ve seen double-digit growth year over year for both [Israel and Jordan].” Added Bob Drumm, General Tours World Traveler’s president, that the operator’s business to Israel has “doubled this year over last.”
“Too many people look at the Middle East as a monolithic entity, as if it were one country. So when they hear that there was an issue in the Middle East, they assume that means every country there is having that same issue. But you have places like Jordan that are very secure and unfortunately written off by the average traveler,” says Chris Chesak, executive director of North America & Oceania, Adventure Travel Trade Association.
And according to Jas Asfour, managing director of Detours (detours.jo), new adventures abound in Jordan. “The Shomari Reserve has been closed for six years for renovation,” he says. “These wetlands are a migratory stopover for birds fleeing the winters of Europe and Africa (safaris launch in 2014). Sky diving over the Wadi Rum happened for the first time in 2013, and based on growing interest in the sport of rock climbing, new routes are being set up in the Wadi Rum as well as in the Ajloun Nature Reserve. And the capital of Amman isn’t as sleepy as you think. New experiences like street art graffiti tours, walking tours of downtown and the souks (markets), and local street food tours are gaining popularity. Visitors cannot miss the budding art and jewelry gallery scene in Amman that are definitely off the tourist track. In fact, our first modern National Museum is finally opening later this year.”
But a player with infinite potential is quickly introducing products across the continent—from new routes, hotels, riads and safari lodges to immersive human experiences—and that’s Africa.
As a lover of the entire continent from the north all the way to its southern tip, I was impressed to hear that per the World Travel and Tourism Council, Africa generated $52.4 billion in visitor exports in 2012; by the end of 2013, this number is expected to grow by 3.4 percent. Africa is expected to attract more than 67 million international tourists by the end of the year, and by 2023 it’s forecasted to grow to 96 million visitors with $87.2 billion to Africa.
Let’s start in the north. Morocco is the perfect mix of Africa with a twist of Middle Eastern culture…and Americans are taking note.
“Morocco has done very well in the U.S. market in 2013. For the first eight months, we are up 14 percent and are confident that we will continue double-digit growth for the remainder of the year,” says Chakib Ghadouani, U.S. director for the Moroccan National Tourist Office (visitmorocco.com). “The result will be that for the first time we will exceed 200,000 American visitors to Morocco. This has been the result of an increasing number of new luxury and boutique-style hotels and focusing our marketing efforts more towards the travel trade and starting to educate them on the wide variety of experiences that are available in Morocco,” he adds. According to Ghadouani, the top three cities for visitors, to date, in 2013 are Marrakech, Fes and Casablanca. Essaouira had a 38 percent increase in occupancy over the same period last year and is the fastest growing city in Morocco.
Kristan Schiller put the best of Morocco’s newest properties front-and-center in the October 2013 issue in her Moroccan Splendor piece. From the Palais Faraj (palaisfaraj.com) in Fes to the much-anticipated Selman Marrakech (selman-marrakech.com), a 56-suite hotel set on 15 acres with five private riads, a holistic spa, a French restaurant and 16 Arabian horses, there is an influx of luxury accommodations for your clients to choose from.
But it’s not only the new riad and hotel product opening in Morocco, but an “…interest in the Muslim world that continues to grow, especially for our family travelers. Morocco offers a warm, welcoming and safe introduction to the Muslim world,” says Joel Zack, president of Heritage Tours Private Travel (htprivatetravel.com). “Keep an eye out for the Terres M’Barka, a Grace Hotel set to reopen next year.” And to get a taste of Morocco and see how amazing this part of Africa can be, Lorri Robbins, editorial director and publisher for Recommend, shared her 10-day tour in a feature in the January 2013 issue, Authentic Morocco in An (Argan) Nutshell, with a breakdown of what to see and do minus the history lesson.
In October, I personally had the pleasure to spend three weeks in the arid country of Namibia (for the first time) for the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s annual summit. The tourism board is actively investing in both the marketing of the destination and support of new luxury hotel products like The Olive Exclusive (theolive-namibia.com) in Windhoek or the brand-new Pelican Point Hotel on the coast (officially reopened under new management in October 2013). During my time in Namibia, I visited the luxurious Little Kulala desert retreat (wilderness-safaris.com), located in the private 91,000-acre Kulala Wilderness Reserve and offering 11 climate-controlled, thatched kulalas (which translates “to sleep”). Says Chesak of Adventure Travel Trade Association, “I think most travelers are looking for something new in Africa. Maybe they’ve been to Kenya or South Africa, but want to dig a little deeper, or perhaps they just don’t want to do what they consider a traditional African experience or are looking to add more destinations like Namibia.” This past year, Air Namibia (airnamibia.aero)incorporated two brand-new Airbus A330-200 aircraft into its fleet and with that came major upgrades to the airline’s long-haul inflight product.
As you move south on the continent, new safari lodges and city hotels are opening at a rapid pace—including Sir Richard Branson’s new hotel, Mahali Mzuri (mahalimzuri.virgin.com), in the Maasai Mara in Kenya (opened late-October). However, one can’t miss the iconic opulence offered by luxury players in South Africa like the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel & Spa (fairlawns-hotel.co.za) in Johannesburg and Tswalu (tswalu.com) in the Kalahari Desert. The ever-popular eco-chic trend is evident at properties like Grootbos Private Nature Reserve (grootbos.com/en/home) in the Western Cape of South Africa and the resort property White Pearl (whitepearlresorts.com) set on the sandy beaches of Mozambique—leading the way for other like-minded hotels to open in Africa.
And we can’t ignore the ever-growing multigenerational travel factor—yes, even to Africa. We sure didn’t in the September 2013 issue, in which Kristan Schiller in the Far-Flung, Family-Friendly Destinations piece listed the best in family tours and family-friendly hotels throughout the Middle East and Africa, including South Africa. Families will love South African Airways Vacations’ (flysaavacations.com) popular Sense of Southern Africa package ($4,799 pp), which includes a stay in Cape Town, a safari experience, and a visit to Victoria Falls. And in the November 2013 issue, Carla Hunt provided a list of national wonders your clients should behold when visiting Zimbabwe in the Zimbabwe: Southern Africa’s Comeback Kid piece. It’s a destination, said Rob Veden, Cox & Kings’ (coxandkingsusa.com) director for Africa, in that same story, that “is full of its own unique experiences.”
Southern Africa, in fact, continues to dominate Sub-Saharan international in-bound growth for the continent. According to Keith Vincent, CEO of Wilderness Safaris (wilderness-safaris.com), “During the course of 2013, Wilderness Safaris saw a marked increase in sales and occupancies across all nine countries of operation, notably in Botswana and in the Republic of Congo. There is definitely a growing trend from travelers wanting to both experience authentic and extraordinary wilderness as well as give back.”
Sthu Zungu, president of South African Tourism North America (southafrica.net), concurs on Southern Africa’s growth and highlights the contributing factors of South Africa’s steady year-on-year growth in tourist arrivals. “As the second largest source market for South Africa, North America continues to fuel record-breaking arrivals (up 4.3 percent in arrivals to date) to our destination year after year.
“Most recently, we unveiled a campaign called ‘What’s Your BIG 5?’ to drive awareness of South Africa’s spectrum of authentic experiences in NBC’s hit show, ‘All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.’ High-profile media exposure coupled with aggressive trade marketing efforts is bringing South Africa closer to its goal of becoming a top 20 worldwide destination for 2020.”
Mark Cavaliere, executive v.p., North America & Alliances for South African Airways (flysaa.com) says, “We continue to see growth in the African market. From North America, travel to domestic points such as Cape Town and Johannesburg continues to increase, but we are also seeing a growing interest to destinations such as Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and Botswana. Next year, based on demand, swe will introduce service to Skukuza Airport, adjacent to Kruger National Park.”