This is the high season for Saudi Arabia and airlines are booked solid as Saudis prepare to either spend Ramadan at home or abroad.
GCC tourists have been flocking to favorite spots like Geneva and London, but some European tourism experts are beginning to worry that Gulf tourists may take their spending cash elsewhere.
An incident occurred last month in Geneva that has Swiss tourism officials concerned over the country’s image among Gulf tourists.
A 48-year-old Saudi man was severely beaten outside a Geneva nightclub that left him in a coma for 10 days. Apparently local police did not take the incident seriously until the Saudi Consulate and the victim’s family provided evidence that the victim’s credit card was used by his attackers.
The story got plenty of air time on Al Arabiya. Now Swiss authorities are wondering whether the lax response from police and subsequent media coverage have harmed their image.
“This incident could have a very negative impact on Geneva’s image in the Gulf States,” François Bryand, director of Geneva Tourism, told swissinfo.ch. “It’s clear that it’s one attack on one tourist, but it’s one too many.”
According to Swiss media reports, the Saudi consulate expressed concern that Swiss authorities are failing to deal with the rising number of attacks and harassment of Saudi tourists. There have been numerous incidents of petty thieves preying on tourists in the Lake Geneva area, according to swissinfo.ch.
The Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève, Moutinot, had sought to arrange a meeting with the Saudi Consulate to discuss how to increase security for tourists.
I don’t see Saudis abandoning Geneva, Paris or London anytime soon because of these reports. These European cities have been favorite tourist spots for Saudis for decades.
In fact, Switzerland’s tourism officials recently reported that the Arab tourists in their country rose by 62 percent between 2003 and 2008. But the first half of 2008 only saw a 0.2 percent rise.
Gulf tourists spend an estimated 164 million euros, or $233 million, annually in Geneva. That accounts for about 10 percent of all tourism euros spent in the city.
Certainly the global economy, rising prices in Saudi Arabia and fears of swine flu factor in the number of Arab tourists leveling off. But there also is an undercurrent of hostility in some Europeans cities. Arabs are sensitive to this and not inclined to spend their money where they are not wanted.
Geneva’s police, according to some media reports, seem to be at a loss on how to detail with the increased crime. But in London the attitude is a bit different. The city has a sizable Arab population and its own restaurants and Arab centric shops in Edgewater.
London’s hotels in particular make it their business to attract and keep Arab tourists in the city. Through November, The New West End Company, which represents 600 London hotels and retailers, expect about 140,000 Arab visitors. And estimated $410 million is expected to be spent by Arabs in London over the summer.
Restaurant open times have been extended. More Arabic speakers have been hired and more Arab chefs have been hired to service food that reminds Gulf tourists of home.
“The Middle East represents the third most important market to us and still the largest percentage of this business comes during the summer months,” one tourism official told the Arabian Business magazine recently.
Perhaps more important, Paula McColgan, director of sales and marketing at The Lanesborough in Hyde Park, told the magazine that, “(We also) have a very advanced security system, which is greatly valued by high profile guests from the Middle East.”
Swiss tourism officials have a long history of catering to Arab clientele, but the country’s law enforcement officials have less experience in dealing with increasing safety concerns for Gulf tourists. They never had to worry about it. Now they do.
London tourism officials don’t have all the answers, but they appear to recognize that in order to keep tourist spending money in their city they first must ensure their safety. Perhaps some lessons can be learned.