Brand Travel, by Interbrand’s Nancy Villanueva

Why the start of the Covid-recovery is the perfect time for the travel industry in the MEA region to rebrand, writes Nancy Villanueva, CEO Iberia and Middle East, Interbrand.

The latest UNWTO Barometer states that 67 per cent of respondents in the Middle East expect tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2022, while most people surveyed in Africa believe it will be delayed until 2023. Be that as it may, the race is on, and the competition is fierce. Tourism – as a strategic sector for national economies (because of its impact on other industries) – has undoubtedly been the most affected of all, therefore, the industry that has made the greatest efforts to creatively bounce back in the best condition possible.

With global vaccination progressing and restrictions easing, companies and countries are bracing themselves for a post-Covid scenario that may be different to prior to the pandemic. Consumers have changed and so have their expectations – factors such as health and safety will become drivers in their travel decisions. So, transparent communications of protocols, restrictions and measures are essential, but not the only factors – as competition mounts, strong destination brands will make the difference.

It’s often been said that the Middle East is set to become the next great global destination. It certainly doesn’t sound far-fetched: the region, which lost 75 per cent of its tourist arrivals by 2020, has been preparing for years to put tourism at the heart of its economy alongside other innovative industries.

KSA wants to attract around 100 million visitors by 2030, challenging its more advanced neighbour, UAE, which has developed one of the world’s most important international hubs and has populated its major cities with hotels, attractions and experiences that appeal to a wide range of tourists. Meanwhile, Qatar hopes to attract six million visitors a year and is expecting to welcome around 1.5 million visitors for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

MEA’s ability to host major international events, together with world-class infrastructure, urbanism and technology, proves that the region is poised to become a global tourism player. It is time, therefore, to transform this story of progress, innovation, culture and technology into strong destination brands that upgrade its image and perception among those tourists eager to travel again. And for this, there is no better tool than destination branding.

For KSA, Vision 2030 has become the best vehicle for updating and refreshing its brand. The national strategy promotes the revitalization of existing industries and the development of emerging ones, including tourism, through boldly integrating tradition and modernity – from the ruins of Al Ula (the country’s first World Heritage Site) to the disruptive megaproject of Qiddiya (“The capital of entertainment, sports, and the arts”), among others.

A well-defined tourism strategy anchored in a strong brand can change a country’s position in the world. This has always been the case, but nowadays digitalisation provides us with more tools and possibilities to do so effectively and globally. When it comes to destination branding, we are dealing with more than just associating a specific place with a logo. Transforming a destination into a brand is a complicated process, even more so if you consider several geographical areas, each with its own heritage, culture and identity.

This was the main challenge in a recent destination project developed by Interbrand for the vast Italian region of western Trentino – Madonna di Campiglio, a region that draws tourists from over 50 different countries around the world every year and is known for hosting the skiing world championships. To build a strong brand, a Strategic Destination Plan was defined to create a hub that had the potential to attract new segments of tourists and commercial partners. The valley now expresses itself through visual language and consistent experiences that will radically transform the way Madonna di Campiglio presents itself and interacts with all stakeholders.

To rival the Italian region and other places around the world, the MEA region should build its own authentic and differentiated destination brands, conveying to the public a millenary – yet cutting-edge – identity, underpinned by a solid foundation of relevant, yet differentiated products, services and experiences. And what must not be forgotten is the importance of communicating its story – its promise – on a global scale. It is time for the region to share its own unique story.