Marketing: Definitely Not In A Bikini

A thousand years ago, boatloads of Middle Easterners regularly headed to the islands around the South China Sea. They sought rare spices, established settlements and eventually dominated several of the region's trade routes. Today, for more 21st-century reasons, Asia-Pacific countries are keen once again to establish themselves as a favorite destination for travelers from the Middle East. Now in lieu of pepper and cinnamon, these destinations lure visitors with shopping, spas and theme parks.

In this era of high oil prices, almost everyone in the business wants a share of vacation dollars from the Gulf. And in many parts of Asia, where tourism is seen as a key component of economic development, governments are aggressively courting those who bring the biggest bang for the buck. "Middle Easterners are affluent and they spend," says Belinda Yeung, the chief operating officer of Regal Hotels, which operates mainly in Hong Kong and on mainland China. "They are high-yield travelers because they stay in the better rooms, and come as a big group."

Malaysia, which styles itself as a modern Islamic society, was one of the first countries in the region to target Middle Easterners, launching a campaign more than a decade ago. Kuala Lumpur spread the word about such things as friendly visa policies, luxury shopping and the abundance of Halal food, prepared in accordance with Muslim dietary rules. The strategy worked: in 2000, Malaysia welcomed fewer than 60,000 visitors from the Gulf; last year, the figure topped 250,000.

Now Gulf travelers are beginning to venture farther afield. Annual arrivals of Middle Easterners to Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) countries—which include Australia, Canada, the United States and most of Asia—were up by 780,000 in 2007 compared to five years ago, a 60 percent increase attributable primarily to the Asia-Pacific region. John Koldowski, director of PATA's Strategic Intelligence Centre, notes "significant movements" into Asian destinations beyond Malaysia. Since 2003, Hong Kong's Gulf visitors have tripled, to nearly 170,000; tourism powerhouse Thailand has more than doubled its travelers from the Gulf, to 423,000, and Australia has seen a 150 percent increase, to 73,000. "We are expecting this trend to continue for a while at least," says Koldowski.

Visitors from the Gulf cite logistics, immigration policy and cultural sensitivity as the main factors determining where they vacation. It's no coincidence that travel to Asia has increased in tandem with the number of flights. "Arrival trends run parallel to what airlines are doing," says Austin Frost, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts' London-based sales and marketing vice president for the Middle East. Dubai's Emirates Airline had only two planes when it began in 1985. Now the company, estimated to become the world's biggest airline by 2015, flies to more than 100 destinations—17 of them in the Asia-Pacific region.

Another key motivator, says Koldowski, is eliminating "the hassles associated with getting visas." Malaysia, for instance, has been effective in trumpeting its visa-free policy for most countries with predominantly Islamic populations. After years of political and economic turmoil, Indonesia—the world's largest Muslim country—aims to increase arrivals from the Middle East by 50 percent, helped largely by a visa-on-arrival scheme for the citizens of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain.

The region's tourist boards have had to learn to acknowledge and respect Islamic customs. "We have to be sensitive to cultural requirements," says Maggie White, Tourism Australia's general manager for countries in Asia and the Gulf. "Definitely no bikinis in our ads." That can be tricky, given that one of Australia's top tourist attractions is the Gold Coast, popular for its beaches. Tourism Australia, which raised its marketing budget for the Middle East by 20 percent last year, has been conducting surveys of Gulf travelers. They found that peak travel months are between July and September, when the temperatures at home are highest. Stays also tend to last from 30 to 45 days, explaining the preference for apartments. "They go for family vacations," says White. "They like the city experience and the theme parks. We promote the Gold Coast because it has these, but stick to the family imagery."

Macau has had a tougher time winning Gulf visitors, given that 90 percent of its tourism revenues come from gambling—a big taboo in Muslim countries. But the potential market is too big to ignore. "We are well aware that the Middle East market had a steady growth of outbound travel in recent years," says Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, deputy director of the Macau Government Tourist Office. So the former Portuguese enclave has been busy hosting Middle Eastern travel agents for "familiarization tours," promoting its storied cultural heritage and new entertainment facilities: concert halls, sports venues, theme parks and shopping arcades. The measures appear to be helping; last year Macau saw its tiny number of Middle East arrivals rise by 88 percent, due mostly to day trippers coming for a look around.

For others, catering to the burgeoning Gulf market is simply part of a grand global plan. By the end of the year, Singapore's Banyan Tree Group plans to translate all promotional materials for its flagship resort in Phuket, Thailand, into Arabic, and increase the number of Arabic-speaking staff members from four to 20. The goal is not only to attract more Gulf guests to the resort but also to build brand loyalty. By 2012, the group aims to have a dozen of its 65 ultraluxurious properties in the Middle East. "We want [Gulf travelers] to be comfortable," says Russell Loughland, the property's director of sales and marketing. "When they call to book an appointment at the spa, we want to answer their questions in Arabic. All around the world there are great destinations and hotel companies. I say: what do we do to get their business?" The smart answer: whatever it takes.