The government, policy planners, the public, in fact, everyone you talk to, agrees that developing tourism is vital to Kuwait’s economic growth and development. So why is it that we are still mired in an obsolete tourism ecosystem that no public entity wants to promote or take ownership of, and even fewer public want to visit. The exodus of people from Kuwait every summer is indicative of the withered tourism ecosystem that exists in the country.

The government admits that tourism supports its economic, financial and social priorities, including in diversifying the economy, encouraging greater private sector participation in the economy, and providing national youth with gainful employment opportunities. But beyond acknowledging the importance of tourism there have been few, if any, attempts by the authorities to rejuvenate this sector.

Any interest by the government in developing tourism usually arises only when international oil prices remain low for a sustained period, and consequently oil revenues shrink and economic travails loom. But, under a low revenue scenario, there is no funding available for any new tourism project to take off. And, the moment the trajectory of oil prices swings up, tourism development plans get shelved and languish there until the next economic downturn.

Following the global pandemic, there were reports once again that the government was keen to develop the tourism sector. For its part, the Touristic Enterprises Company (TEC), the government-entity in charge of promoting tourism in Kuwait, revealed that it planned to implement three major projects as part of plans to redevelop the country’s hospitality, leisure and entertainment sector. Forget three projects, we would be happy if even one was realized.

Kuwait’s relatively weak tourism ecosystem is spotlighted in the latest World Economic Forum’s biennial Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI). While the TTCI is not indicative of a country’s attractiveness as a tourism destination, it assesses factors in a country that make it attractive to develop business in the travel and tourism industry.

A look at the TTCI 2021 report, with a focus on rankings of the six states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, reveals the truly decrepit state of travel and tourism sector in Kuwait. The United Arab Emirates took the pole position in the region with a rank of 25 in the global index. This was followed by Saudi Arabia at 33, and Qatar in 43 — while the ranking for Oman was not available in 2021, its position in the 2019 index placed it right next to Qatar. Bahrain came in at 57, and Kuwait, no surprise, trailed the GCC states at rank 85.

Kuwait was also the only country among its GCC counterparts to fall below the global average, dropping by a dismal 11 percent from the TTCI mean. Kuwait’s poor ranking is not unexpected; the country has consistently neglected developing tourism infrastructure, and has very little by way of natural or man-made attractions to lure international travelers. It neither has iconic attractions from antiquity, nor the modern glitz and glamor of entertainment and recreational facilities offered by many other countries in the region.

Even the few tourism attractions that Kuwait has, such as Failaka Island, the Al-Subiyah excavations, or the inland salt marshes and nature reserves, the country is unable to brand properly and market effectively. Many citizens and residents, having experienced the entertainment facilities and recreational activities available elsewhere in the region and abroad, often find the limited leisure choices available in Kuwait archaic.

A quick weekend trip to the UAE, or increasingly to Saudi Arabia, or any of the other Gulf states offers better leisure and entertainment opportunities than in Kuwait. No wonder then humongous crowds gather at the airport to exit Kuwait over extended weekends, and during the summer travel season, when millions make a beeline out of Kuwait. Outbound tourism from Kuwait has become an almost unwavering annual ritual for most families in Kuwait, with some making two or more leisure trips abroad each year.

Developing and promoting appealing tourism venues and activities inside Kuwait could hold back at least a few of these million travelers each year and motivate them to spend money on leisure pursuits in this country. And, the money that citizens and residents spend on travel and tourism is no trifling amount either. According to data issued by the Central Bank of Kuwait, local spending on travel witnessed a record jump during the first nine months of 2022, reaching KD3.14 billion, a growth of 97.5 percent compared to the same period in 2021.

Available statistics from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) also show that more than 4.6 million passengers from Kuwait traveled abroad in 2019. Not only do people from Kuwait travel more, they also spend appreciably more at their destinations. In 2019, outbound travelers from Kuwait spent in excess of KD 4.8 billion on international travel and tourism, ranking the country 24th globally in terms of expenditure on international tourism.

Absence of suitable entertainment outlets in Kuwait, the puritanical approach taken by some influential quarters to tourism, and the government’s lackluster interest in developing this sector has discouraged inbound tourism to the country. Kuwait’s insipid approach and neglect of inbound tourism is evident in that until recently tourism was relegated to a small division of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. It has since been moved to an even smaller section at the Ministry of Information.

According to the UNWTO, travel and tourism is one of the world’s biggest economic activities, driving the creation of wealth, employment and development. Growth in this sector offers increases to GDP and helps diversify economic activities. A large percentage of the money spent by tourists goes to local businesses and individuals who reinject a significant portion of this back into the economy creating a multiplier effect that benefits everyone.

In addition, tourism revenues allow a country to diversify its source of income. Diversifying economic activities so as to wean itself off its over dependence on oil revenues has been a key economic goal of Kuwait. But, in order for tourism to become a steady and sustainable stream of income, and consistently attract international travelers, the country needs to get several things right.

For starters, tourism needs to be placed under an independent ministry, board or self-financing public entity, and designated as a full-fledged industry guided by its own laws and regulations. In addition, the authorities have to provide adequate funding to develop a robust tourism infrastructure that meets the needs of tourists, including developing interesting cultural events, appealing entertainment venues and activities, as well as business and leisure attractions.

Kuwait will also have to attract local and international investments into the travel and tourism sector, and encourage private sector involvement by allocating sufficient land and licenses for entertainment and recreational projects. There is also the potential for the country to designate Kuwait’s offshore islands for development and management by specialized local and international companies, with adequate legal and ethical restraints in place.

Equally important, the country has to improve its openness to international visitors, ease the currently restrictive policies that detract visitors, and enhance visit-visa procedures, including e-visas for all foreigners, not just those from a few select countries. This would encourage inbound tourism from a wider international audience and bring in more tourism dollars from everywhere.

Interestingly, in recent weeks, there have been hints of genuine interest in developing and promoting tourism in policy circles. Earlier this year, the Assistant Undersecretary for the Tourism Sector at the Ministry of Information, Saud Al-Khaldi held discussions with the visiting Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, Zurab Pololikashvili, and the Director of the Regional Department for the Middle East of the UNWTO, Basma Al-Maiman, on enhancing tourism in Kuwait.

The two sides discussed using the expertise and experience of the organizations to reorganize and advance the tourism sector in Kuwait, as well as qualify and train national cadres in the field of tourism and hospitality. Attracting tourism investment, as well as benefiting from programs offered by the organizations, were also discussed during the talks. In a related major revelation, the Minister of Tourism in Bahrain, Fatima Al Sairafi, while speaking at a panel discussion during the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) held in Dubai last week, stated that discussions were being held at the ministerial level among the GCC states to launch a ‘Schengen-style’ visa for tourists. This visa would allow international travelers to travel across all six GCC states with a single visit visa to any one state.

Adding that this is likely to happen very soon, Al Sairafi said, “We see people flying to Europe on a Schengen-visa usually spend their time in several countries rather than in one country. We really saw the value this can bring not to each country in the GCC but to all of us.” If adopted as planned, this move would be a game-changer for tourism in the region, boosting revenues and footfall for all countries in the six-nation bloc.

In another indication of a whiff of change, Kuwait is said to be reviving plans to join the pan-Gulf railway network by building its domestic rail sector. The Public Authority for Roads and Land Transport (PART) recently floated a tender valued at KD1 million, for the study and detailed design work on the first phase of Kuwait’s rail network, with the deadline for submission set for 30 May. Kuwait is the northern terminus of the planned GCC Rail network that will span over 2,100km.

When eventually completed the GCC Railway is expected to link the six GCC states and extend from north of Kuwait to the west of Oman, with the potential, in future, to extend further to Iraq in the north and Yemen in the south. Developing the GCC Railway network and the introduction of a Schengen-style visa for entry and exit from the six-nation bloc could do wonders to develop and energize travel and tourism in the GCC, and particularly in Kuwait.

Given the consensus among everyone on the importance of developing tourism and its economically vital nature, it is disconcerting that governments in the past have generally neglected this sector. While a contentious parliament and ensuing political instability have been blamed for the current status of tourism in the country, one can always hope that a new government and parliament, formed after the upcoming elections, will provide tourism sector with the attention and boost it sorely deserves.

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