Last week media sources in the United Kingdom and elsewhere hinted that Kuwait would be added to the UK government’s red category of countries, which would then place it among more than 40 countries that travelers from the UK need to avoid visiting as a precautionary measure against the COVID-19 virus. Also, travelers from Kuwait to the UK would then have to spend a mandatory 10-day period in hotel quarantine on their arrival.
Luckily, Kuwait has not been added to the list and the UK embassy in Kuwait released a statement saying that “rumours circulated about Kuwait going to the Red list were inaccurate. Kuwait remains on the amber list. There have been no changes on Kuwait’s status since.”
In view of the large influx of visitors from Kuwait to Britain each summer, placing Kuwait in the red light category with the aim of regulating their entry to the UK as a precautionary measure would have been an understandable step. What is less comprehensible is warning travelers from the UK about choosing Kuwait as their travel destination. In the first place, the relevance of this warning fades given that only Kuwaitis and their first-degree relatives are currently allowed to enter Kuwait. Moreover, even before the eruption of COVID-19 crisis, very few British travelers considered Kuwait as a travel destination of choice.
Official travel data from the UK government show that around 10,000 people from the UK visited Kuwait in 2019. While at first glance this would appear to be a relatively fair number of visitors, it is worth noting that many of the visitors are spouses or children of the nearly 8,000 Britishers employed in Kuwait. Prior to the pandemic, and even much earlier, inbound tourism to Kuwait was a sluggish sector, with only an insignificant number of arrivals compared to many other countries worldwide, and even in the region.
The majority of tourists to Kuwait arrived from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, with most of this travel consisting of business trips and people visiting their families. According to data from the United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO), inbound tourism netted Kuwait a total of $1.8 billion in 2019, with per arrival spending a mere $137 during their stay. Both in terms of total revenue earned from inbound tourism, and in individual tourist spending, Kuwait ranked the lowest among GCC states.
In comparison, the UAE, which topped tourist arrivals in the region, received $38.4 billion in revenue, with each visitor spending on average $1,782 during their stay..
Though inbound tourism is lethargic in Kuwait, the same is not true of outbound tourism, which has been flourishing in the country for years, arguably more so since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The seven-month occupation of Kuwait and its aftermath probably gave a large section of Kuwaiti society their first exposure to countries in and around the region that provided shelter to the ‘affluent refugees’.
Since then, outbound tourism has become an almost unavoidable annual ritual for most families, with some making two or more leisure trips abroad each year. For instance, in contrast to the relatively small number of inbound British visitors to Kuwait, more than 180,000 travelers from the country visited the UK in 2019, with London being the preferred destination in Western Europe for many families.
Figures show that outbound travel and tourism in Kuwait grew at an average annual rate of 11.16 percent in the nearly two decades from 2000. In general, Kuwaitis, endowed with a sizable disposable income, tend to travel a lot. Available statistics from UNWTO and other travel databases reveal that more than 4.6 million passengers from Kuwait traveled abroad in 2019. Not only do they travel more, they also spend appreciably more at their destinations. In 2019, outbound travelers from Kuwait spent in excess of US$15.8 billion on international travel and tourism expenditure, ranking the country 24th globally in terms of expenditure on international tourism.
A closer look at why Kuwaitis tend to travel and spend abroad reveals the dearth of tourism attractions and venues in the country. In a highly telling condemnation of the limited entertainment and leisure infrastructure in the country, most people choose to travel abroad to relax even during short extended weekend breaks.
Latest numbers from the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) show that a total of 21,000 people, mainly citizens, their first-degree relatives and the ‘all-important’ domestic helpers, traveled during last month’s five-day Eid-al-Fitr holidays. Of these numbers, the overwhelming majority (76%), or more than 16,000 people, spent their brief holiday abroad, while only around 5,000 came home to celebrate the Eid holidays.
Kuwait lacks many of the tourism inducements, both natural and man-made that draw international tourists. It lacks the iconic ancient attractions found in Jordan and Egypt, the modern attractions of Qatar and the UAE, the natural beauty and terrain of Oman, or the appeal of Bahrain, which despite its small size has made the most of its available tourism potential. Even Saudi Arabia, long a reclusive state to foreign tourists, has since opening up its economy welcomed tourists, facilitated their inbound travel, and developed attractions to lure visitors.
Tourist attractions currently available, and new ones rapidly coming up in the kingdom, could even pose a challenge to the glitzy and glamorous venues that have drawn millions of tourists each year to Dubai. Unfortunately, Kuwait remains far behind the region when it comes to tourism offerings, and more sadly, it appears in no rush to catch up with its neighbors.
It is not that Kuwait does not have attractions that could be leveraged to attract travelers. Other GCC states, especially Dubai the icon of tourism in the region, may have the biggest, glitziest and the first or best of everything, but Kuwait does have its own treasures and charms that may not be immediately apparent. It needs to be ferreted out by visitors willing to spend the time and effort on discovering Kuwait. They would be rewarded with wonderful cultural experiences, and interactions with local people, especially if they are white caucasian from Western Europe, the US, Canada or Australia.
In fact, despite its seeming shortcomings, some visitors have indeed waxed eloquently about the lovely mix of rich history and youthful culture that can be found in Kuwait. But these could at best be construed as back-handed compliments, seeing how their expectations of the country to begin with start from a low base. As they say, sometimes the lack of development is an attraction by itself, and even travel buffs could consider Kuwait among the highlights of their travels.
While the lack of attractions provide some visitors with positive vibes, it also means that the travel industry in Kuwait has very little to work on, in order to market the country to international travelers. However, it is not that Kuwait lacks attractions. Kuwait has a storied history, dating back to long before the Greek settlements on Failaka Island that are currently the country’s few claims to antiquity. In fact, Kuwait is now being considered an extension of the cradle of civilization that existed in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where the world’s first complex urban centers were discovered. Latest archeological findings in Subbiya and elsewhere by Polish, Kuwaiti and archeologists from other nations, confirm that human settlements have existed on this land from the time of the Ubaid civilisation more than seven millenia ago.
Rather than develop and promote these findings as a major tourism draw, or at least arrange for a virtual museum displaying the artefacts and narrating the findings, the authorities appear least interested in promoting Kuwait on the global tourism map. So it is not the lack of historic sites or the absence of attractions, if you are willing to dig deeper, figuratively that is, there are plenty of opportunities and ideas, especially being put forward by young entrepreneurs in the country to develop unique entertainment venues in Kuwait.
The government is cognizant of the importance of tourism to the country, but it appears paralysed when it comes to taking decisions and implementing policies designed to foster tourism. Since the oil crisis in the 1990s, in particular, after the steep fall in oil prices witnessed in mid-2014, Kuwait has been eager to move forward with diversification, privatization, liberalization and deregulation plans so as to support long-term sustainable economic growth and development of the country.
The promotion of the tourism industry was a core component of these strategies and a main focal point of the government’s ambitious economic diversification plans. Kuwait also made tourism an integral element in its New Kuwait 2035 strategic vision that aims to transform the country to a financial, trade and cultural hub. Sadly, very little of these plans have materialized and most remain confined to reports and surveys. Meanwhile, citizens and expats in a rare concurrence of views, continue to chorus about the lack of attractions and affordable recreational venues, which could make life more enjoyable and less monotonous in this country.
Tourism experts say that although Kuwait has all the potential to be a tourist destination, the government does not have any practical, long-term plans or policies on tourism, or even an effective tourism entity tasked with promoting developments in this sector. They point out that the absence of recreational facilities, which makes the tourism sector almost non-existent in the country, has worsened with the scrapping of available facilities, including with the dismantling of entertainment city, the closure of Shaab Park, and shuttering of the lone ice-skating rink in the country. The morbid inbound tourism sector could be rejuvenated and the country made attractive to international travelers, if the government has a serious desire to do so.
Among some of the suggestions offered by young entrepreneurs in the country to develop a distinctive tourism infrastructure and unique entertainment projects are for the government to:
Provide land for entertainment projects and support investment in this sector; Encourage the private sector by allocating Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) licenses for recreational projects. Designate Kuwait’s offshore islands for development and management by specialized local companies with legal and ethical restraints in place. Attract foreign investments to the tourism sector through roadshows and other marketing tools. Finally, it is also important to facilitate visa procedures, including e-visas for all foreigners, not just those from a few select countries, so as to encourage inbound tourism to a wider international audience.
However, for this to happen, the government needs to have a clear vision and interest to support and promote domestic tourism, as well as to place Kuwait on the global inbound tourism map. But the authorities apparently have no time for such mundane tasks, they have more important issues to handle at hand, including the matter of who sits where in the august Abdullah Al-Salem Hall in parliament.
But while the executive and legislative play musical chairs in parliament, the opportunity to develop a robust tourism industry in Kuwait is slipping away, just as so many other opportunities in various sectors have in the past.