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The Middle East: The Next International Sports Destination?

6 Aug, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Thanks to Some Reforms and High-Level Events, Progress is Being Made – But Will it be Enough?

It’s probably not going to be the hot destination for Little League any time soon. On the other hand, it is the hot (so to speak) location of the World Cup just a few years down the road.

The Middle East is emerging as the up-and-coming destination for meetings and tourism. Is it one for sports tourism as well?

It depends upon the industry expert you ask. An article in Successful Meetings recently explored the subject, and discussed the viability of the market for tourism, business travel and more. It took a new study recently published by Development Counsellors International (DCI) entitled Will Demand Meet Supply? Inside the Business Events Dilemma in the Middle East to kick open that particular door.

According to Successful Meetings, the study examines the market for association meetings in the Middle East and finds that more than 70 percent of North American association executives would consider holding a meeting in the Middle East – although it should be noted that only 33 percent have actually done so.

There’s no secret for the hesitancy. Just over a quarter (26.1 percent) of respondents said they would not consider hosting a meeting in the Middle East, citing as their primary reasons safety and security concerns (34.9 percent), lack of regional membership (25 percent), and travel distance (16.3 percent).

That might, for now, outweigh the fact that according to North American execs (particularly male), the Middle East is currently very attractive for continuing education events and seminars, as the region's business community is largely underserved. There are definite hotspots for travel as well. Among those who have held meetings in the Middle East, 50 percent said their meetings had taken place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- either in Dubai (38.2 percent) or Abu Dhabi (16.4 percent).

And when it comes to sports tourism, the country doing the best job in marketing is the UAE. Which, of course, leads us right back to Qatar, the site (for now) of the 2022 World Cup.

In 2013, Qatar was recognized as the World’s Leading Sports Tourism Destination at a grand final ceremony of the World Travel Awards (WTA). Qatar clinched the award, topping other contenders including Abu Dhabi, Auckland, Beijing, Dubai, Durban, London, Melbourne, New Orleans, Rio de Janerio, Seoul, Tokyo and Vancouver. The Qatar Tourism Authority is the driving force behind this marketing.

WTA president and founder Graham E Cooke recognized Qatar as an “undisputed leader and innovator in the global economic landscape,” adding, “Following the announcement that Qatar would become the first in the Middle East to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, a four-decade long process of development was given fresh impetus.”

He said: “Infrastructure is being developed, stadiums planned, hotels designed, airports built and ports created, in what is now one of the most forward-looking communities on earth. Doha combines a rich tapestry of culture and history, with outstanding service and myriad culinary styles, which have contributed to it becoming one of the world’s top destinations in the Middle East.”

But in looking at Qatar as a potential sports destination, it is essential to see the inherent problems as well. According to an article in Business Insider, the FIFA World Cup is a microcosm of those problems, including an inhospitable summer climate, a lack of professional facilities so severe that some host cities have not been built yet, strict rules on purchase and consumption of alcohol and more.

That’s not to say the Middle East isn’t trying. In 2014, the third Middle East Sports Event Summit was presented in the UAE. The event, attended by government authorities, NGBs, sports vendors, media, sponsors, hospitality industry professionals and more, operated as a think tank to create opportunities for bringing in more sports events.

The steady work at chipping away at the fear and hesitation seems to be working; events held in the Middle East have included the WTA Doha Tournament, ATP Qatar Exxonmobil Open, F1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, the final of the Race to Dubai golf championship, and the International Rugby Sevens.

The visitors are increasing as well. According to CNN, between 2000 and 2010, the number of travelers in the Middle East more than doubled, from 24.1 million to 60.3 million, according to the United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO). It's a level of growth unmatched by any region in the world during the same period. And it comes during a period that saw conflict in Iraq and other volatility in the region. (It is interesting to note that overall, global business spending on travel is expected to hit record levels this year, according to the Global Business Travel Association, in an article quoted in Successful Meetings.)

Yet despite the push from local marketing execs, group tourism to the Middle East is still largely made up of those with religious and historic interests.

One of the destinations being marketed as the next big thing for luxury travel is Iran. (Yes, you read that correctly.) According to Travel Weekly, Iran still lacks a suitable number of hotels that cater to leisure travelers, but is expected to build them. In the meantime, at least one company in the U.S. is offering tours, for those who want to get ahead of the curve.

But the Middle East still has a long way to go, even if progress is being made. In April, CNN noted that in Iran, women, who since 1979 have been barred from attending most sports events involving men, may be allowed to attend some, starting in 2016.

A plan to allow "women and families" to enter sports stadiums will come into effect in the next year, Deputy Sports Minister Abdolhamid Ahmadi said, according to state-run media.

But it isn't clear exactly which games women will be able to attend.

According to the state-run Press TV, Ahmadi said the restrictions would be lifted for indoor sports events. The rules won't change for all matches because some sports are mainly related to men and "families are not interested in attending" them, Press TV cited him as saying.

FIFA has called the ban ‘intolerable.’

All things considered, the World Cup in Qatar is sure to be interesting.

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