Riding on aspirations

With Eid and the school holidays coinciding this year, travel companies are gearing up to make the best of the opportunity

Eid is round the corner and people have started making plans to mark the occasion. Apart from feasts and festivities, travel has become an important part of Eid celebration in Oman as well as in other parts of the GCC. As the religious holiday also coincides with the summer break in schools, travel companies are expecting that people will plan for longer holidays this year. The recovery in oil prices in the first half of this year has also boosted sentiments and most are hoping for a brisk business in coming months.

“This year Eid al Fitr is expected to be around June 27, which happens to coincide with the school holidays. So travel for Eid and summer holidays will mostly be combined this year as it is likely that many families will plan longer annual vacations to take advantage of this opportunity,” says Sunil Prabhakar, CEO-Travel Consortium, Travel Point.

According to him, sentiments were low same time last year because of economic worries due to rock bottom oil prices and a bout of terrorist attacks around the world, especially in Europe. So majority of travel happened within the region in 2016. “However, with oil prices limping upwards slowly but steadily, we are likely to have more outbound travel with the working youth,” he adds.

Most tour operators are confident about improvement in outbound travel. “As things seems to be settling down, we are expecting an increase in outbound travel, especially in the leisure segment, in 2017 compared to last year,” says a senior official from one of the largest travel companies based in Muscat.

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Riyaz Kuttery, chief operating officer at Mezoon International Travel & Tours, says that generally there is a surge in travel activities during summer season as many expatriate families visit their own countries. “Some of the expats would prefer travelling to the Far East and other destinations in the region which are closer to their home country. As almost all schools in the sultanate will be closed for summer vacation during the same period, it will give families an extra reason to go for holidays.”

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Changing choices

For decades, countries such as Switzerland, France, Germany and England used to comprise the lion’s share of outbound travel (other than Umrah) volumes as people prefer to escape the scorching summer heat in the Middle East. But in the last few years, travellers, especially Omanis, are exploring new destinations.

An official from Khimji's House of Travel (KHOT) says, “Switzerland and France are undoubtedly the favourite destinations for outbound travellers in Oman. In June and July outbound travellers are looking forward to destinations that have pleasant weather, are scenic in nature and offer various activities for children. France with Disneyland Paris and Switzerland with its breathtaking scenic beauty and mountain excursions offer a host of options for families from Oman.”

In the past few years, things have started to change due to number of reasons. Western Europe is still counted as favourite destination but now, Eastern European countries and some Asian destinations are gaining prominence.

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Prabhakar says, “Europe was once regarded as the top holiday destination for many years and to some extent it continues to be the favourite especially with families as travellers look for cooler places to get away from the desert heat during summer. However, we have witnessed stricter visa procedures since last year and the trend is slowly moving more towards the Far East and other destinations.

“With few Eastern Europe countries offering visa on arrival, we’ve also noticed a growing trend in demand for such destinations. We have launched group departures to make these destinations affordable and will also be launching packages to Thailand with prices that have never been offered before.”

He added that for travellers with low budget, the UAE continues to be one of the top destinations as always.

According to Kuttery, there has certainly been a shift in customers preferences. “Old favourites like Switzerland, Paris, London and Malaysia still remain attractive. However, alongside these, bookings for Central and East European countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Romania have seen tremendous growth,” he says.

“It was not too long ago that Georgia or Azerbaijan were pretty much unknown holiday destinations. These have now become some of the most preferred destinations offering excellent value for money. Thanks to low cost carriers that offers more connectivity, one can almost say that Baku and Yerevan are the flavours of the season,” according to the KHOT official.

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Niche attractions

Industry insiders say that over the past few years they have seen an increase in travel spending as people are enthusiastic about experiencing new destinations and cultures. Travel has now expanded to niche segments as well. Companies are now arranging exclusive itineraries aimed only at wellness or solo women, student groups etc.

The attractive discounts offered by airlines has resulted in a substantial increase in demand for short break holidays. Many travellers are taking two short break holidays as opposed to one long holiday. Travel options with low cost carriers have also increased, contributing to an increase in short break holidays.

Apart from these,  travel companies claim that they are seeing a growing fascination for cruises particularly European ones. Many families are also opting for cruise trips. The most popular cruise among Omanis are to the Baltic region, which originates from Copenhagen and visits many places in Russia, though visa procedures in Russia are difficult.

Prabhakar, “We receive a large number of inquiries for cruise holidays. Cruises offer a variety of activities for travellers and it allows them to explore far-flung destinations without having to pack and unpack several times. It enables travellers to visit several countries without having to hop on and off multiple flights.”

Another niche segment being tapped by travel companies is the youth segment, mainly targeting the 18-30 year age bracket. “Youth travel has become one of the fastest growing segments of international tourism. We believe that the segment offers several opportunities and we intend to explore it. Our youth packages include Bali, Bangkok, Greece, Turkey and Europe to name a few,” says Prabhakar.

Offers galore

As the number of travellers is rising every year, the competition to attract clients is forcing companies related to the tourism business to float discounts and various offers.

Airlines have introduced traditional as well as innovative ways to attract travellers. There are some that offer 'companion deals' while others offer direct discounts in either business  or economy class seats. Travel agents back up these deals by offering free travel insurance, free night offers and other such innovative schemes.

“Travel companies and airlines do offer discounts and add-ons for clients who book well in advance. It is always recommended to avail these offers well in time to avoid the disappointment of them not being available closer to the date of travel,” KHOT official says.

The company says, this year it has seen an increase in cruise queries and they are offering five per cent discount on all cruise bookings made before June 30, 2017. In addition they are also offering one free city tour for all bookings to Europe.

According to experts, travel companies look to take advantage of the holiday season as it gives them an opportunity to attract loyal customers in the long run. Since the volumes are considerably higher during such seasons, companies are able to give good discounts, special packages to suit the various segments in the market.

Prabhakar says, “When we arrange group travel, we ensure that we send along one of our staff so that all arrangements are taken care of and the travellers don’t have to worry about anything at all, whether it is at the airport, hotel or during site trips.”

Business insiders says that recent economic issues have come as a blessing in disguise for customers. Kuttery says, “As business is down due to low oil prices, hotels are offering attractive rates. Similarly airlines are also offering better prices to attract more travellers. As facilitators, we combine all these discounts in to one package with a guarantee of quality services to our consumers.”

Despite worries about the economy and general trend of austerity among the government and the public, travel companies are hopeful that business will pick up in the coming months. Kuttery says, “The best aspect of the industry is that despite hiccups people still have to travel and they are travelling. They are not sacrificing their travel needs and that is good for us.”

Riding on aspirations
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