Dubai attracted over 14.2 million overnight visitors in 2015, recording a strong 7.5% increase over 2014 - double the United Nations World Travel Organisation's (UNWTO) projected 3-4% global travel growth for the same period, annual figures released by Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (Dubai Tourism) showed.
The emirate's tourism sector once again proved the tenacity and strength of its economic contribution, as it made steady progress towards the target of 20 million visitors per year by 2020, despite a year afflicted by macro-economic uncertainties, and amidst a particularly turbulent geo-political climate during the second half of 2015 internationally.
Helal Saeed Almarri, Director General, Dubai Tourism, said: "Under the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, last year was a very strong year for Dubai's travel sector, achieving double the global industry growth levels and our international visitation hitting 14.2 million, which firmly positions us as the fourth most visited city in the world. 2015 was volatile for travel globally, as we have all witnessed a range of disruptive factors, ranging from slackening economic growth in Asian and European markets to currency fluctuations across the world.
''Yet if Dubai is to hit its 20 million visitors per year target in the next five years, we must deliver a threshold 7-8% annual growth consistently, which has put even greater emphasis on strong sector-wide collaboration. Our performance over the past 12 months is undeniably reflective of the resilience of our diversified market strategy, our unified industry-level responsiveness, and ultimately the sustained strength of Dubai's proposition."
Through the pursuit of a multi-geography visitation mix strategy, Dubai furthered the performance achieved in the first half of the year to deliver strong growth across key feeder regions, mitigating the downward trends in specific countries.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) remained the regional foothold, supporting continued demand from near-markets to Dubai, consequently delivering the highest share of visitor volumes for 2015, with a total of 3.3 million, up 12.8% over 2014.
In terms of country-specific volumes from the GCC, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remained the lead market, contributing 1.54 million visitors, followed by Oman accounting for over 1 million travellers. Kuwait and Qatar were also among the top 20 markets, with the former the only one to register a decline in growth versus 2014 yet retaining its top 10 position, and the latter recovering strongly from mid-year with a high 32% year-on-year increase for the full year of 2015.
Despite a sluggish economy and a strong US dollar constraining Dubai's competitiveness, Western Europe remained the second highest regional contributor to visitor volumes, bringing in nearly 3 million tourists, reflecting a solid 6.1% growth in numbers.
The UK remained within Dubai's top 3 source countries with 11% growth, accounting for nearly 1.2 million visitors. Germany also stayed in the top 10 list with 7% growth generating over 460,000 visitors, followed by two others in the top 20 traffic generators - France showing a slight decline primarily in the last quarter of 2015, and Italy remaining flat versus 2014.
Northern European markets across the Nordics and the Benelux, while independently small in volume, have been frontier growth generators for tourism traffic in 2015, on the back of growing direct flight capacity from the region.
South Asia was the next largest region by volume, bringing in 2.3 million visitors, reflecting a 21.7% increase versus 2014. India dominated the region, becoming Dubai's number one source market for the first time by bringing in over 1.6 million tourists, and the country was the second fastest growing market with a 26% year-on-year growth, followed by Pakistan that ranked just outside the top five, ending 2015 at 11% growth and 513,000 visitors. Efforts to serve highly segment-specific messaging in cities with the highest connectivity and latent capacity, as well as building stronger trade ties in market with digital travel intermediaries, have yielded results and will continue to enable Dubai to capture a share of the growing Indian upper middle-class family and business segments.
Over 1.6 million visitors came from the wider Middle East and North Africa region, representing a 1.3% growth - a strong outcome in the face of heightened regional disturbances. Iran delivered a reliable 6% increase to enter the top 10 rankings as a key source market, with much of the remaining volumes attributable to Egypt and Jordan, each independently registering robust 15% growth versus 2014 for the full year.
Asian markets (excluding the Indian sub-continent) were the next largest regional contributors with a total of 1.2 million travellers to Dubai - a 17.9% increase for 2015 compared to the previous year. With 450,000 Chinese tourists to Dubai last year, inbound traffic from China dominated the uptake from this region, topping the leader board of year-on-year growth trends with a 29% increase in numbers. The Philippines delivered 325,000 tourists, with a particularly strong third quarter performance raising it to number 11 in the source market rankings.
The Americas brought in just short of 1 million travellers, growing at a healthy 8.2% thanks to the strong airlift and increase in point-to-point routes from both east and west coasts, with the United States growing at 3% to retain its position within the top five source markets for Dubai, and Canada also staying within the top 20 with a 13% growth in volumes.
Positive growth across stalwart markets and emerging countries helped offset negative trends in the consolidated Russia, CIS and Eastern European region, which saw a 22.5% decline in travellers, as well as the Australasia region, which dropped 6.3% year on year. Africa remained flat compared to last year, offsetting a weak Nigerian market due to commodity declines and currency restrictions, with growth in Sub-Saharan markets following successful road shows and trade network development in developing markets such as Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Almarri explained: "Building on our core multi-source visitation strategy, we have been able to prudently balance our risk exposure to specific geographies, shift our investment to frontier growth markets for Dubai, and be much more targeted on penetrating niche segments within our stronghold markets. Additionally, we have been very focused on ensuring a committed presence in markets with high levels of disposable income, such as China, and those with future potential like Nigeria or Indonesia that have a growing tourism base to tap into.
"Through 2016 we will continue to leverage increasing airlift, open and streamlined visa policies, and a broad destination appeal that offers something for all travel segments. Further afield, in markets across Australasia and the Americas where we offer convenient direct flight access, we have been working very closely with airline partners, the travel trade, and the hotel sector to create compelling transit programmes.
"Of course, markets such as the GCC, India, UK and Germany, which are our traditional strongholds and continue to deliver over a third of our tourism traffic, will always be a critical priority as there is already a proven credibility of the Dubai destination offering. Our aim here is to build advocacy, create more reasons to revisit, and deliver even greater value for repeat travellers. Hence our investments are based on better analytics to understand our core segments from these countries, becoming very customised in communicating propositions that are relevant for them, encouraging longer stays and ultimately generating greater economic value per tourist through 2016 and beyond."
Having rolled out its global brand campaign in the last quarter of 2015, Dubai continues to work on building brand awareness in new markets and addressing perception gaps in existing markets where there is limited market share capture, to better penetrate and attract the fast growing, mass affluent segments as future leisure and business visitors.
Dubai's tourism performance in 2015 is also reflective of its ability to respond swiftly to changing market dynamics, leveraging the strength of its unified public-private sector partnership-led approach. 2015 saw significant investment in sustaining the competitiveness of the emirate's supply-side proposition, with increasing airlift across key feeder markets, a more balanced growth in hotel inventory, and improvements in retail competitiveness, in addition to enhancements across the core destination product offerings.
Additionally, the emirate's mature business and consumer events industry continues to be a key economic contributor, with the delivery of a strong and regularly renewed annual calendar of global pillar events, core to the value-creation agenda for tourism. As a testament to the competitiveness of the city's ever-evolving calendar, Dubai has earned the recognition of 'World Festival and Event City' for three consecutive years since 2012 by the International Festivals and Events Association. This will only be further accentuated by the growing Dubai Food Festival, the launch of Dubai Comedy Festival in 2015, a renewed Dubai Shopping Festival in its 21st edition in 2016, and the upcoming inaugural XYoga Dubai Festival this February.
Tourism-related infrastructure and capacity enhancement investment is expected to gain momentum in 2016 through more segment-specific offerings such as culture and heritage attractions and family-oriented theme parks, in addition to continued focus on enhancing the business environment that underscores Dubai's pursuit of becoming the number one destination for travel, business and events. Dubai will be steadily implementing projects to develop, enhance and promote the core pillars of Dubai's destination offering that in turn feed into the agenda to not just attract more volumes but to further the sector's growing contribution to the emirate's GDP, and be a source of sustainable competitiveness for future growth.
Almarri concluded: "Infrastructure, accommodation, air connectivity, access and policy enablers continue to be the facilitating levers that ensure Dubai remains price competitive, can deliver exceptional service quality that will not only attract first-time visitors, but ensure that they become Dubai loyalists and advocates longer-term. Today, the evolution of our product offering is a result of ensuring extremely tight collaboration with the hotel sector and the retail community, as well as the collective contribution of government and public and private enterprises, aimed at going beyond attracting tourists, to capturing the highest value we can from every visitor to Dubai, ensuring that tourism contribution to the economy is further amplified. These partnerships are crucial for us to build on the foundations we have laid, and accelerate the pace of growth in 2016, to ensure that the 2020 Vision is brought to life for Dubai."