There were multiple markers of success at the 30th edition of the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) which was held from May 1-4, 2023, at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Take, for example, the 40,000 attendees, including 30,000 visitors that showed up at the exhibition. That represents a 29 per cent increase in the number of attendees compared to 2022, but more importantly, it was a 5 per cent climb over the pre-pandemic year’s attendance figures in 2019.

The show’s ‘Working Towards Net Zero’ theme saw more than 2,100 exhibitors and trade representatives converge from over 150 countries at this mega exhibition. “The fact that we witnessed record attendance at ATM 2023 is extremely encouraging and a strong indication that the Middle East’s travel industry is once again in excellent shape,” said Danielle Curtis, exhibition director for the Middle East at Arabian Travel Market.

Reinforcing Curtis’ assessment are figures of Saudi Arabia clocking 93.5 million visits to the kingdom in 2022 and emerging as one of the world’s biggest investors in tourism by committing a staggering US$550 billion to new destinations by 2030. Bahrain beat its own forecast of the number of visitors by 20 per cent after finishing 2022 with 9.9 million visitors (read our exclusive interview with Bahrain’s Minister of Tourism on pg20), and Oman has already revealed plans of creating 500,000 jobs in its tourism sector by 2040.

There were several big announcements made at the event. On the aviation front, one of the biggest surprises was that of an expanded interline agreement between two major UAE airlines – Etihad Airways and Emirates. Customers of each airline can now purchase a single ticket to fly into either Dubai or Abu Dhabi and return via the other airport. The ‘open jaw’ arrangement is expected to give visitors to the UAE the ability to explore both the emirates without having to spend time travelling to the other just to catch their flight out.

Another UAE carrier, flydubai, meanwhile used the ATM platform to unveil the design of its new ‘The Business Suite’ product which has been designed exclusively for single-aisle aircraft and will offer a lie-flat bed along with direct aisle access for all passengers. The new product is expected to be rolled out onto its first aircraft by November, and will then be available on up to six aircraft by the first quarter of next year.

Saudi Arabian Airlines (SAUDIA) also unveiled its business class suites at the ATM. The carrier is fitting Thompson Aero’s VantageSOLO product onto its forthcoming fleet of Airbus A321 XLR aircraft which it will press into service on routes including Milan, Barcelona, Rome, Brussels, Dakar and the Maldives.

The Qatar Airways pavilion at the ATM meanwhile featured an F1 simulator that visitors could drive (in a nod to the fact that the airline signed a five-year deal as the Global Partner and Official Airline of Formula 1 earlier this year). At the ATM, Qatar’s national airline announced the addition of a new route to Tabouk in Saudi Arabia, as well as the resumption of its flights to Yanbu in Saudi.

There were a number of major updates from the hospitality sector too. Abu Dhabi-based Rotana said that it intends to reach 120 operating hotels spanning 28,000 keys by 2030. It added that Saudi and Egypt would be its biggest focus market regionally. Hour after the ATM began though on day one, Rotana revealed its plans to open its first two UK properties. It includes a 70-apartment Centro New Malden scheduled to open this year, followed by the 31-apartment new-build Centro Kingston on Coombe Road by 2024. It said that it plans to develop up to 1,500 keys under its Centro brand in the greater London area.

Another UAE brand, the Dubai-based Rove Hotels, said at the ATM that it was venturing into the branded residences and serviced apartment sector with the launch of Rove Home. Rove Home Aljada, a residential development in Sharjah, will be its first project. Ranging from one- to three-bedroom apartments, residents will have the option to avail of add-on services including housekeeping, laundry, and in-room dining, among others, when buying their apartment.

Apart from companies showcasing their latest products and services, and revealing their growth plans, the ATM also served as a thought leadership space with several panel discussions held along the sidelines of the event. These included sessions such as ‘Hospitality debate: What more can big data unlock?’ with panel participants including the likes of Sandeep Walia, COO of the Middle East at Marriott and Chris Hartley, CEO of Global Hotel Alliance, among others. While the panel mostly agreed on the power of big data in hospitality, Walia also sounded the cautionary tales of the technology when saying that big data, combined with AI can help to identify options best suited for a customer. “But ultimately, guests have to connect with us to make the booking, so the balance between AI and the human touch is equally important and can’t be forgotten,” noted Walia.

At a separate panel discussion, ‘Sustainable luxury: At what cost?’, the panel members discussed ways that luxury travel needn’t be mutually exclusive from the goals of sustainability. “Luxury and sustainability have not always gone hand in hand, but this is changing. We are encountering a new generation of travellers who want high-end experiences that do not compromise sustainability. This is why airlines, hotels, travel agencies and tourist destinations are thinking about how sustainability can be integrated into their existing services, and how it can be used to attract more customers,” said Nadia Ibrahim, member of the Board of Directors of the UN Global Compact.

In line with the ATM’s ‘Working Towards Net Zero’ theme, another panel discussion gathered aviation experts to discuss ways that the sector could orient itself towards a net zero future. “There are approximately 24,000 planes in the air today and that number is going to double in the next 20 years. These will be conventional aeroplanes, and to decarbonise and get on the trajectory to net zero by 2050, airlines will have to fly on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), so our priority is to make sure that our planes are 100 per cent SAF capable. It is vital that we invest in the here and now,” observed Brian Moran, vice president of Global Sustainability Policy and Partnerships at Boeing.

Another major participant at the ATM apart from airlines and hotels, were tourism boards and they seized the opportunity to announce collaborations with each other. Emirates, for example, struck agreements with eight tourism boards from countries including Indonesia, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Bahrain and Zambia to help promote their destinations. IHG Hotels and Resorts signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Tourism Authority to more fully integrate the hospitality giant’s operations with the vision of the kingdom’s tourism goals. IHG indicated that it is not only looking at hiring 6,000 Saudi nationals across its portfolio in the kingdom by 2030, but also plans to add more than 10,000 additional rooms in the kingdom over the next two-three years. Many of the tourism boards were long-time participants of the exhibition including Tourism Malaysia who returned to the ATM for the 29th time and Munich Tourism which did so for the 25th year.

As the ATM wound down, the exhibition’s independent panel of judges decided to deliver the inaugural Sustainable Stand Award to Hilton which committed to repurposing as many materials as possible from its stand over the coming three years, and also used a carbon calculator to calculate the environmental footprint of its presence at the show. Hilton’s overall activities at the ATM were however muted following the passing away of Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, Hilton’s former president for the Middle East, Africa and Türkiye region, a few days before the start of the ATM.

Among the other awards, SAUDIA bagged the Best Stand Design Award (over 150 sqm) for the second consecutive year with the judges noting the impactful combination of its digital screens and reflective flooring, while Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism (DET) with its three-storey exhibition space received the Best Stand for Doing Business Award.

Overall, the attendee numbers at the 30th edition of the ATM surpassed the 2019 event – and some may rightfully make a case that so did the calibre of the participants and the sheer significance of the key announcements that came out from the floor of this year’s show.

(Image: Sourced from Arabian Travel Market Media Centre)