Great potential, more work in store for the MENA’s travel tech sector

The fusion between tech and tourism will boost the travellers' experience (Image via Pexels).

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At GITEX 2017, Dubai Airport Authority revealed a virtual aquarium tunnel. As you walked through the tunnel, consumed by glimpses of natural wonders and wildlife playing on the internal screens, covert cameras scanned your face to match registered information. Instead of fumbling over passports and visa documents, visitors to Dubai can expect to stroll through what one reporter called ‘the immigration tunnel’ in the future.

When fused with technology, the travel sector offers insane possibility. With tourism, hospitality and transportation forming its core, the travel tech industry in the UAE is in an interesting position for growth, especially that the country welcomed 10.4 million visitors in 2017 until August, an eight percent increase over the same period last year.

Economically, Mohammed Khamis Al Muhairi, Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Economy, UAE, said tourism contributes 12 percent to the national GDP with visitors to the UAE spending AED 110 billion (US$ 30 billion) in 2016. The industry also accounts for nearly 10.4 percent of the domestic labour market.

Sandra Schulze-Potgieter (Image via Sandra Schulze-Potgieter).

Multiple opportunities

“There is a lot of opportunity in the GCC when it comes to travel and technology,” Sandra Schulze-Potgieter, Marriott International’s vice president of premium and select brands, Middle East and Africa told Wamda. “MENA has different nationalities, [which] is a great opportunity to utilise that melting pot for tools to enhance the guest experience in regards to translation and communications in the region,” she added.

The GCC has amongst the highest global smartphone penetration rates, 78 percent of which come from the UAE. In 2016, 64 percent of travel queries in the region were sourced back to mobile according to a Sojern and Think with Google report. The report also found that over 80 percent of both business and leisure travellers bring their smartphones when they travel to the region.

The government is involved

In a briefing email sent to Wamda, Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing stressed the role of technology in creating experiential, seamless travelling experiences for visitors. They listed the Dubai Calendar app and the new Dubai Expert training programme as a proof.

On downloading the Dubai Calendar app, visitors can browse events happening around the Emirate, purchase tickets, and also claim full refunds if the event is cancelled. Dubai Expert, managed by the Dubai College of Tourism, was built to help the essential enablers of the travel industry - travel agents.

Region's travellers preferences (Image via Think with Google).

“We wanted to create a training tool that would result in more learning retention while being fun, interactive, and engaging. And, at the same time, raise awareness of the diversity of Dubai’s offerings,” said Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DCTCM), in a press release. “We believe that agents should not only sell Dubai to their customers but also have the capability to create customised itineraries for visitors...”

Enhancing customers’ experience

With the launch of Travel Brilliantly in 2013, Marriott International kicked off a campaign powered by technology and invited guests to their commitment to innovation in travel. Sharing a related example of the Starbucks Rewards prepaid card where regular customers used a prepaid debit card to pay for orders, Schulze-Potgieter said tech was “not just a fancy thing to do [for Starbucks]. They wanted to solve a challenge they had from an operational point of view.”

The chain also introduced TestBED MENA, a 10-week accelerator programme which was first launched in Europe, for startups transforming the travel and hospitality industry earlier this year. Selected candidates can test their solutions at any of the Marriott Hotels.

“With TestBED, we hope we can make certain processes easier for customers or enhance the experience,” Schulze-Potgieter told Wamda. “If you look at ordering meals in a room, how can you make that easier for a customer?,” she asked.

“Language challenges are quite common in the region... Having associates from around the world definitely supports the global traveller, but we really hope that we will have one of the Marriott Hotels TestBED applicants come up with a language support technology to crack the challenge,” she added while noting mobile and translation services as top priority for this accelerator programme.

Tech and Expo 2020

Advanced mobile technology is also a key initiative for Dubai’s Expo 2020 team. According to Sulaiman Al Maazmi, the Expo’s ‎vice president of information, communication and technology, telecom company Etisalat is building two permanent points of presence (POPs) including an internet services gateway on site. The Expo 2020 team is exploring a centrally managed WiFi router network while providing mobile coverage on site, on transport routes, and in neighbouring areas.

Expo 2020 Dubai’s theme is ‘Connecting minds, Creating the future' (Image via Pixabay).

“Expo 2020 Dubai’s theme is ‘Connecting minds, Creating the future’, which is very closely related to the way we use and interact with technology,” Al Maazmi told Wamda in an email interview. Referring to the last Expo, he added “in 1997, the cloud did not exist, the smartphone, as we know it today, did not exist, and constant connectivity to internet connection was an exception, not the norm.“Twenty years from now, we may be looking at a completely different world of super high speed mobile networks that were first revealed at Expo 2020 Dubai,” he said.

Growing entrepreneurial ecosystem

In addition to the TestBED and Expo2020, the region is witnessing a rise in companies and accelerators focused on travel and technology and new sense of encouragement in the industry. Intelak, an aviation and travel incubator launched last year, introduced its first startup cohort this summer. DTCM picked the winners of the first Futurism startup competition. Regional travel marketplace WEGO announced investment from Middle East Venture Partners while companies like Tajawal, Pomalo, TinkLabs and Sojern continue to expand their regional reach.

Upcoming travel entrepreneurs in the region should think like customers not like hoteliers, Schulze-Potgieter said.

“Look outside of the industry,” she stressed. “In the past, we [hoteliers] have always benchmarked ourselves within the industry, against our competitors. Nowadays, if you really want to make difference, you have to look outside…[look at] who are the best in providing guest experiences, in keeping customers up to date,” she said.

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