While at Dubai International Airport in June, I witnessed more than 10 large groups of happy and excited Chinese tourists pass by within 45 minutes. Two days later, while having lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant in a tourist area, the only people outside taking pictures of the iconic Burj Al Arab in the burning summer sun (with 44 degree heat and 80% humidity) were Chinese. 

China’s growing (upper) middle class is becoming more curious about the world and is ready to travel beyond its geographic and climate comfort zone. Between 2010 and 2015, Chinese outbound trips have more than doubled and are expected to reach 160 million by 2020. The global competition is fierce to catch a piece of this estimated $315bn pie

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The culturally rich and naturally diverse Middle East and Africa (MEA) region has invested heavily in its hospitality, leisure and retail sector to attract Chinese visitors. But the most effective measures were direct connectivity, less restrictive visa rules, addressing the language barrier and adopting to the specific needs of Chinese tourists, which have led to impressive growth of 240% in Tunisia, or even 378% in Morocco. 

Close business ties, free-trade agreements and enhanced collaboration between the tourism authorities of the GCC countries and China are expected to lead to 81% more Chinese visitors in 2022 compared with 2018. Even Iran, being economically isolated, is reaching out to Chinese visitors to secure an important revenue source for its tourism industry.

Being the world leader in outbound tourism, China will undoubtedly play an outstanding role in the MEA region for the years to come, offering great opportunities beyond this industry. But the most remarkable observation is that in a global era of protectionism, populism and growing nationalism, it is openness, free trade, tolerance and hospitality that is leading to economic growth, cultural exchange and to close collaboration between people and their countries – and this may be the most important lesson from the tourism industry for our region. 

Mazdak Rafaty is managing partner of Ludwar International Consultancy and SME adviser to the joint Emirati-German Chamber of Commerce. E-mail: m.rafaty@lic-consulting.com