Research undertaken by ForwardKeys, which analyses over 17 million flight booking transactions a day, reveals anaemic travel growth in the Middle East during the first ten months of the year. International arrivals grew just 1% in the period January 18th – October 18th, compared with the equivalent period last year. The news emerged from the annual Middle East & Africa Duty Free Association (MEADFA) conference taking place in Beirut.
The decidedly uninspiring growth was caused mostly by a slowdown in travel to Saudi Arabia and the ongoing blockade of Qatari airspace by its neighbours. Arrivals from the Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe grew by 5.6%, 3.0% and 2.6% respectively but they fell 2.5% from Africa and the Middle East.
Within the Middle East, the UAE is the most important destination by far, attracting nearly half of all air traffic. It was up 2% but the next two most important destinations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were down 2% and 7% respectively.
Looking at the blockade of Qatar in more detail reveals that the country has suffered particularly badly from a 34.8% drop in arrivals from other Middle Eastern countries, but it has made up for this to some extent with an 8% growth in arrivals from the rest of the world.
Dubai, one of the world’s busiest airport has continued to grow its share of the ‘transfer’ market, to the detriment of Abu Dhabi as well as Qatar, and it has been successful in continuing to attract visitors who stay overnight in the destination too. The airport which competes with Dubai most successfully is Istanbul. By visitor arrivals, it is around two thirds the size of Dubai but it has seen a 31% surge in visitors staying overnight, as concerns about security, dating back to an attack on the airport in 2016, have receded.
Looking in to the future, bookings for the Middle East in the next two months (18th Nov – 10th Jan) are 2.4% behind where they were at the same point last year. The cause of this slowdown is bookings from Asia Pacific, which are 11.1% behind where they were at the equivalent point last year. By contrast, forward bookings from the Americas, Europe and Africa & the Middle East are all ahead, by 3.1%, 1.0% and 4.3% respectively.
The Asia Pacific setback is due particularly to Pakistan, from where bookings are 35.4% behind. Bookings from Australia are 19.1% behind and from Indonesia, 11.8% behind.
From mid-April to the end of May next year, Dubai will close one of its runways for upgrade work. This has prompted airlines to cut their seat capacity by 22% during the period. By contrast airlines are planning to increase capacity to Doha and Istanbul but decrease it to Abu Dhabi.
Olivier Jager, CEO, ForwardKeys, concluded: “The most striking feature of travel to the Middle East is the blue-chip nature of Dubai as a hub airport. It is the largest airport in the region by a long way and, despite the slowdown, it just keeps on growing.”