A musical performance, joking with James Corden, and ‘banging the drum for London’ were all on the itinerary for London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s five-day trip to the United States earlier this month. His trip was designed to promote London tourism, an important aim that will hopefully lead to rising tourist numbers, with many Americans interviewed saying they would like to go to London now. Great, but this brings the question, is London missing out by not making similar efforts in the Arab world? Will the Mayor plan a visit to any of the Arab countries to advertise his city to the valuable tourists there?
Mayor Khan is overlooking and failing to appeal to the largest source of tourist income for the city: the Arabs. In New York City he launched the first international branch of his Let’s Do London campaign, investing £10m in promoting tourism in the United States, Germany, and France. In his two terms in office, he has made many international trips to promote the city but has never been to the Arab world. While his recognition in the importance of bringing international tourism back to London is commendable, he is not recognising the needs of luxury tourism and retail in his city.
Changing look of tourism
Tourism today is unrecognisable from the industry prior to the pandemic, making targeted marketing in light of these changes more important than ever. Motivations for travelling, popular destinations, and tourists’ desires have all changed since international travel reopened, presenting an opportunity for destinations if marketed correctly. At the ATM in Dubai, surveys found Arab travellers were more likely to be looking for experiences and attractions that may be new to them than they were previously. Many cited London as a desirable destination, despite having been before, but did mention they would be interested in seeing new sites. Experts have stressed the importance of marketing the diverse and unique experiences London has to offer in order to cater to the needs of this evolving Arab consumer base to maximise the recovery rate of London’s tourist industry.
"Prior to the pandemic, only 4% of travellers to the UK came from the GCC or China, but these visitors were responsible for 60% of international purchases."
Arab visitors come as families to London, and they are also staying for longer. This presents a huge economic opportunity for London, a city that is very dependent on money from tourism; nearly 1 in 7 jobs are in the tourism industry and it accounts for over 10% of the city’s GDP. Prior to the pandemic, only 4% of travellers to the UK came from the GCC or China, but these visitors were responsible for 60% of international purchases. GCC travellers spend an average of 6.5 times as much as European tourists, with people from Saudi Arabia spending the most.
West End shopping
Even despite the preference for new experiences and attractions rising, shopping still remains very high on Arab tourists’ priority list and there is nowhere better for shopping than London’s West End.
London’s West End is known worldwide for its unparalleled luxury shopping and has now established itself as the most popular tourist destination in the city. People travel from around the world to take advantage of the streets packed with their favourite designer brands, and when they arrive, they are willing to spend big. Although international visitors only accounted for 25% of the visits to West End in 2019, they were responsible for 50% of the spending and those from the Arab world and China spent three times more than European tourists. However, the Mayor of London is still not seeing the value of marketing to them. With continued Covid restrictions keeping Chinese tourists from being able to resume their international travel plans, the Arab tourists are even more important. They are now the single highest international spenders, and investors, in London.
"Arab tourism is key to London’s economy and the survival of many brands that choose to base themselves there."
Luxury travel is recovering more quickly than any other section, and in reaction, many new luxury hotels have been opened in the city and even more are undergoing extreme renovation in order to meet the ever-increasing standards of luxury customers. Retail in London is also investing more in a luxury experience, and more specifically becoming increasingly mindful of Arab culture, preferences, and styles. These efforts come at a time when tourists are spending more while abroad, on average, due to being unable to travel and spend during the pandemic, meaning they could see massive returns from Arab travellers who are willing to spend big for these accommodations.
Due to the newfound preference for new experiences, Arab travellers are looking to alternative destinations such as Turkey and Greece, where they can explore a variety of experiences, landscapes, and authentic cultures within a single destination.
Convenience was also listed as important to Arab travellers in 2022, making it unsurprising many are opting for ‘staycations’ in their own countries or neighbouring destinations. Saudi Arabia for example has seen a huge rise in tourism from fellow Arab countries, looking to explore their authentic heritage and culture, even aside from the country’s religious significance.
Even when shopping is one of the main purposes of travel, tourists are turning their attention to Paris and Dubai, rather than going directly to London.
London is failing to market to Arab audiences to compete with these emerging options. The city is home to a culture of its own and incredible experiences that cannot be found anywhere else, but these are only being promoted across the ocean in the United States. American and European tourists are valuable, but alone are not enough to help the London tourist industry thrive.
Nationally the UK has recognised this and made significant progress in appealing to Arab tourists. The government recently expanded the e-visa waiver programme to cover all GCC countries. This is especially important post-pandemic, as many Arab travellers are preferring to book holidays at the last minute, so must choose destinations where visas are not required or easy to obtain. However, in the aftermath of Brexit, tax-free shopping is no longer available, putting the London shopping scene at further risk.
We believe Sadiq Khan’s efforts to increase tourism are admirable but, they would be far more beneficial if he would put equal effort into welcoming Arabs into the city. He should take full advantage of the relaxing of visa requirements and the changing tourist preferences to market London to the Arab world in a new light. By not doing so, he risks the livelihood of West End, luxury tourism, and all that depend on it in London. Currently the city is missing out on the high-spending Arab tourists in favour of other destinations, even when the purpose of their trip is shopping.
Changing travel preferences, increased ease of travel from the GCC, and a continued willingness to spend big present a wonderful opportunity to revive the tourism industry; but London risks missing out if the mayor and his marketing campaigns do not give the Arab world the attention it deserves.
When looking to increase London tourism and help the industry and retail recover from the economic turmoil of the pandemic, it would be good to see Mayor Sadiq Khan travelling to the Arab world, to present London as a place where they can travel with ease, where new experiences and attractions are always possible, and that the West End is the first choice for all luxury shopping and hospitality. A more diverse and inclusive approach to marketing is needed to ensure London gains the greatest benefits from tourists from all around the world and does not miss out on the incredibly valuable Arab tourists.