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Experiential tourism – Going beyond the usual

“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then, turns you into a storyteller” – Ibn Battuta. These words resonate in every sense with the concept of experiential tourism. The term, which was coined around the 1980s, has become the new buzzword within the tourism industry. It is a result of technology advancement resulting in emergence of a social platform, which in turn, empowers and educates the end consumer. The rise of social media has in a large way changed the way today’s traveller go on a holiday. In a bid to cater to this evolved traveller, every segment in travel is looking for ways to imbibe this concept into their promotional strategies. However, the fact still remains that there are many pieces to be put together.

An Adventure spot in Russia

The Concept

A very relevant question is ‘What is experiential tourism?’ The answer to which is immersive, personalised, customisable travel and the list goes on…However, simply put, it is people who create meaning through direct experiences. These people can be varied segments that comprise the tourism industry. An experience is created right from the time a holiday is planned.

As Mamoun Hmedan, managing director – MENA & India, Wego.com say, “The experience starts from the moment a traveller starts the planning of a holiday right from the search, to the booking and the whole experience itself. We have noticed that nowadays people are saving on their travel and spending more on experience. There has been a significant mind-set shift.”

This shift in a traveller’s view can primarily be attributed to prominence of social media and its trickling down effect. Social mediums be it Facebook, Twitter or even Instagram undoubtedly have made it possible for people to share their experiences be it good, bad or ugly. These mediums have pushed word-of-mouth marketing to the next level, literally.

Geet Bhalla, co-founder of HolidayME puts it out very simply,”there has been a significant shift in the way customers are looking for their next holiday. This is not just specific to the Middle East market but other markets too. Traditionally, a traveller looking for a holiday would pick up the phone and speak to his travel agent. Today’s travellers first get on to Google before they take the next step, it is here where OTAs come in to share our experiences.”

The essence of the matter is to catch travellers at that deciding stage and shape his views thereon. This brings us to an obvious questions, when did the change take place? It’s more like a chicken and egg story, of who came first.

Music tours gains momentum

The Metamorphoses

If one has to go back a couple of years or even a decade. Travel was a luxury of a select few and all about packaged tours. The idea was to get as many sights as you can capture in your camera. Travel agents and tour operators played to the masses and planned out holiday products. The whole ‘experience’ factor was not in the spotlight besides the destination showcasing its unique offerings. This percentage of traveller were in single digits cause the traveller then was all about sight-seeing.

There has been a drastic change over the years with the advancement of technology and emergence of social media. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram gave people the opportunity to share experiences, give constructive feedback and propelled a change in the business of travel. The tour operator was no longer just selling standard packages. They had to be more informed and provide value in order to have a competitive edge. Travellers wanted to go beyond the regular and this made travel companies rethink their strategies.

As Rajesh Pareek, Group CEO of Musafir.com says, “The experience becomes relevant when it is not focused on profit and loss. A company needs to understand that it is all about doing the right hand-holding along with the right service, so you end up surprising your client in a positive way rather than negative.”

Effect of the global recession in 2008 also had a significant impact on travel. The whole concept of value emerged and with it innovative new concepts across verticals of aviation and hospitality. The focus also moved to the millennial travellers who made informed decisions.

“There have been very interesting changes to the way people travel. This has been more evident this year. Travellers are not looking to stay in a traditional hotel room, they are looking for unusual inexpensive designs like the Airbnb style or new boutique hotels. Air travel is moving from full service to low cost carriers. The objective was all about exploring a place and what mattered most was the experience,” added Mamoun.

Art tours

The new traveller

The new-age traveller is definitely more informed and empowered. As Simon Press, senor exhibition director, ATM says: “Today’s travellers are seeking more than amenities and creature comforts; more than a sight-seeing tour and a picture beside a famous landmark. The increasing trend is for an immersive style of tourism, which encompasses different areas of local life – culinary, culture, history, shopping, nature, sports, halal, theme parks, wellness and spa, medical tourism and extreme luxury – and can be the basis for a holistic travel experience, by connecting with a place rather than just visiting it.”

If we have to go by this norm, tourism boards have been the first to delve into the whole experiential factor. They have showcased varied facets of a destination to lure travellers and keep them coming. As Salim Al Mamari, Director General for Tourism Promotion, Ministry of Tourism, Oman explains, “This concept is not new for a destination like Oman that has a diverse range of experiences for visitors in various locations – from beaches, to deserts, mountains and wadis. They offer some very unique experiences for visitors. For instance, the Frankincense trail in the Dhofar region, scuba diving and snorkeling in the Damaniyat Islands, camping in Sharqiya or exploring the old forts in Nizwa and Bahla are all very unique experiences for visitors looking for a slice of the real Arabian experience.”

So what has changed now? It is undoubtedly, the awareness coupled with stronger penetration of social channels have changed the way people view travel. The ideology of enhanced disposable income is making today’s traveller speak his mind and insist on choice, which is going beyond the regular. They are not looking for run-of-the-mill packages.

Gourmet tours

Changing travel patterns

Today’s travellers want every segment of travel to given the multiple choices to choose. As Amruda Nair, Joint MD & CEO, Aiana Hotels says: “From Aiana’s perspective, our first interaction is at booking stage, so if we can gauge the properties being considered, we can have itineraries precurated based on their personalities.”

It is certain that the traveller is not looking for cookie-cutter options. They are looking for more flexibility coupled with more technology integration but all at a value.

Elaborating further Nair adds, “We see a lot of people looking for interaction at a ground level, with the local community, their objective is to be able to learn something while on a holiday or even acquire a skill. To cater for this from an Aiana perspective, in our Munnar property, we have a spice picking trail. Here our guests pick the spices, go back and learn how to cook a kerala-style meal. As a give-away they get to take the recipe cards and apron home. We certainly believe that today’s traveller are willing to pay for the experience, if they see value.”

To cater for this ever-evolving segment of experiential travellers, tourism boards have especially studied travel patterns and curated ideas. An example being Oman, where the Ministry of Tourism is working closely with all its partners to ensure that visitors get to experience the unique facets that go much beyond the typical desert experience. The key aspects of Oman that can be classified as experiential are centred-around history, culture and activities such as diving, spa and wellness, camping, sailing, trekking and golf.

Companies like Musafir.com adopt a more technological approach with its virtual reality campaigns. Customers looking to go on a holiday through Musafir.com can immerse themselves in their preferred choice of destination through this campaign.

Hikers explore Ras Al Khaimah

Ras Al Khaimah is also another destination within this region to focus on this new breed of travellers. As Haitham Mattar, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah TDA says, “We are looking for people seeking adventure tourism as well as wellness. The idea is to connect with yourself. These experiences can range from mountain safaris, star gazing or even driving through the beautiful canyons. Our focus is experiencing the connectivity with nature while at the same time learn about the culture and heritage.”

Interestingly, even today in Ras Al Khaimah, locals who invite tourists to their homes. There are also still places where you get fresh baked local bread, local tea / coffee and meals.

Dubai too takes on a very technological approach, as Issam Kazim, chief executive officer of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (Dubai Tourism) says, “We continue to work with industry partners to innovate and deliver inspiring, experiential and shareable content. For instance, a social listening tool called ‘BrandWatch’ helps us track relevant conversations that use Dubai-related keywords, enabling us to always be aware of social media exchanges about Dubai, respond to queries and engage with audiences across the digital space. This is in addition to creating and curating our own platforms to promote Dubai and its offerings. These include the ‘Visit Dubai’ Instagram page and new ‘Dubai Calendar’ app.”

Considering the various strategic approaches adopted, one can safely say there is no one idea that fits all. It is undoubtedly more and more about customisation, understating your customer and finally making sure it is not just a package that is experiential but the complete process. This will ensure the ‘repeat’ factor in today’s competitive world.

Sports activities at Munich Airport

An Airport Encounter – Munich Airport

This European airport takes the concept of experience to the next level. Visitors can join locals as spectators at polo or tennis matches, surfing competitions, volleyball tournaments, as well as Audi and BMW show-cases, all at the airport. During major Soccer events, a huge screen displays the action in the Munich Airport Center (MAC).

From end of November to end of December, the airport is transformed into a Christmas winter market, the longest-lasting winter market of its kind in Europe. Under the roof of the Munich Airport Center, more than 40 market stands invite travellers to partake in an ‘Old World’ Christmas feast. Bavarian specialties and handicrafts are plentiful with the tempting aromas of mulled wine, sweet roasted almonds, sausages and gingerbread.

This year will mark the 19th year of this successful Christmas market. A huge ice-skating rink sits in the middle of the market, along with over 450 real Christmas trees.

Passengers with layovers or time between flights can try the Napcab sleeping cabin, developed by Munich Airport. Napcabs offer privacy to beat jetlag. These innovative pods provide a comfortable bed for sleeping or relaxing, and self-adjusted music and lighting. Napcabs are located in Terminal 2 and in the satellite terminal and can be booked by the hour, directly on location.

New Visitors Park with the Visitors Hill: The increased playground area of the Visitors Park will be newly de-signed to educate as well as entertain children as “they travel around the world” here. The area is then divided into five continents with jungle gyms, swings and sandbox toys designed and constructed in association with each continent. A rope slide runway connects the different parts of the world so children can travel “around the world” as they play, riding camels in Asia, surfing in North America, or climbing a rope jungle in South America. (Parents, meanwhile, can enjoy the beer garden that overlooks the play area). Another favorite is the Viewing Hill in the Visitors Park. Kids can climb up 172 steps to the viewing platform on top of the Viewing Hill overlooking the airport. Telescopes offer a fantastic panoramic view of the apron and the ongoing flight operations on both runways.

What’s trending

  • Taking a cue from the Kuoni annual trend reports 2017, we see that hobbies are becoming holidays. Many travellers are looking for photography tours, pottery or even painting tours
  • For Middle East traveller, the new norm is doing away with the regular and exploring new territories. Destinations such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Tblisi, Eastern European countries and Asia are being explored more rampantly.
  • More holidays but shorter durations rather than long month-long vacations
  • New segments being explored such as disabled-travel, Single Income Ladies, silver generation
  • A shift from the touch and go tours to the more immersive
  • A professional approach to tourism

Nature trails

Kinds of experiential tourism offerings

  • Gourmet tours
  • Culture tours
  • Art tours
  • Turtle watching
  • Star Gazing
  • Spa tours
  • Heritage tours
  • Ghost tours
  • Adrenaline-filled tours / extreme adventure tours


Passion with Purpose – Haitham Mattar

Haitham Mattar, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA) in a tête-à-tête with TBME’s Charmaine Fernz divulges what drives him as a professional, how routine is not his cup of tea and being the family man….


Haitham is a Lebanese born American. His family left for the United States when he was five years old (during the first war in Lebanon). The United States of America has been home to him since kindergarden right through university. He graduated from the University of Central Florida, specialising in marketing, followed by an MBA in Marketing from University of Liverpool in United Kingdom.

Going back in time

Haitham started his career young with the first job at 17 years old right after high school. This was none other than the hotel industry close to home as a dish washer in a very busy kitchen. His first salary as a dishwasher was a minimum wage of US$3.25 (three dollars and 25 cents) an hour. When he grew in his work place and worked as a waiter, he received US$ 2.01 (Two dollars and one cent) while surviving on tips. He recalls saying, “I remember telling my mother that I do not want to hear anything about washing dishes one day as I wash more dishes than you did all my life.”

The mountain range in RAK

The journey so far

Haitham has never studied hotel management as a subject but has imbibed every aspect of the hospitality industry through his career path. The industry grew on him as he progressed with hard work and dedication. His career path took him from being a dishwasher to a waiter, cook, bartender and finally, the youngest restaurant manager at 19 years of age with the Marriott back (1989). Having worked in several areas of a hotel, he had a well-rounded understanding of the business from housekeeping to sales and marketing finally to operations. Through, he entered the hospitality industry in 1987, it was not until 2000-01 that he got his first sales and marketing role. He headed up sales and marketing for IHG in Middle East/Africa and then with Hilton Worldwide, with a bigger regional portfolio covering Eastern Europe, Turkey, Russia and then Middle East/Africa.

The shift from hospitality to tourism happened in May 2015 with Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA). Haitham brought with him his immense marketing experience; something the destination really needed.


One of the initial challenges Haitham faced was working through university while at the same time educating himself. This became even more challenging when he pursued his MBA, as work brought in more responsibility which meant dealing with a bigger team. The next challenge came up in RAK TDA initially with finding the right team who are willing to drive at the same speed. This resulted in us loosing many people on the way.  In the beginning although when I hired people I was clear about the expectations. This is like a start-up company so you will have to work long hours or even on weekends. We have to be there as we did not have the luxury of time.

Mountain Excursion

The RAK Story

When Haitham took on the mantle for RAK tourism in May 2015, his directive was like drawing on a white canvas. He was told by His Highness Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah that he has all the powers and authority to do what he knows best for Ras Al Khaimah provided he delivers. He was given six months to show results. According to Haitham, “This was the best motivator ever – Authority, Power and Funds – to re-resurrect a destination.”

Though it looked all simple but there had to be immediate impact. There were several areas to be worked upon such as Ras Al Khaimah was trending backwards in terms of its tourism numbers from the German and UK markets; visitor numbers were low, hotel occupancies were down. Haitham did not have the luxury of time, yet, despite all roadblocks, he has managed to revive the destination to what it is today.

In his words, Haitham feels, “I was the luckiest person to be on the seat with all the right recipes for success. I could not take all credit for what we have done here cause there have been so many players who have contributed. One of the key people was His Highness who was knew what he wanted for the emirate and had the right focus.”

Motivating factors

Haitham is motivated by a number of factors – the main reason being results…positive results. As he says, “When I see results and achievements it motivates me to do more”. In his opinion, one has to love what they do. This is evident from his working style which is undoubtedly long working hours and not a routine. He is also very accessible as a leader. However, the love and passion for his work certainly results in a drawback somewhere. In this case, his personal life took a hit with not much holidays (barring the 10-day break) since the last two years of joining RAK TDA. Prior to this, he worked for two full years straight without a vacation. In his view, “I feel joy when I come to work cause I enjoy what I do. People call me a workaholic…I am what I am…at least I am not an alcoholic.”

The passion for business, love for the industry and drive for success is what keeps him going. Haitham feels that, “in my business you keep meeting new people; the fact that you can make tourist happy by discovering a new aspects of a destination is a big motivator.”

If Hospitality was not an option, what then…

Haitham cannot see himself anywhere else besides this industry. “This is what I live, love and breathe,” he says. He went to school first in Dentistry but knew right from the start that he did not want to look down people’s mouth the whole day or be confined in a clinic the entire day. His passion was simple… pursue a profession which involves interaction with people, making people happy and delivering experiences.


Marriage for Haitham was at a young age of 25 years. He has been married for 22 years with two kids who are going to be leaving for University soon. His daughter is 17 and will be going to New York while his son is 14 years of age; a few more years before he leaves for University.  His better half is a working professional, who owns a company in brand representation for interior designs.

Donning the DAD’s role

Haitham feels it is difficult to be the perfect husband, father or even professional. His passion for work makes it difficult for him to spend a lot of time with the family.  “My wife and kids do complain about my lack of presence – this is not just physical but sometimes even my mental presence,” he adds.  He claims many a times when he is home, it is like he is there yet not there. Despite these factors, he is always there for the big stuff…be it his son’s final soccer game or his daughter’s prom. He smirking says, “I promised my daughter I will be there for her wedding…not just to pay the bills.”

Haitham has some strong views when he says, “I cannot be everything to everybody including myself. For me, family is important. However, I always have these mixed feelings about what comes first – is it my career or family?”

He further explains, “People tell you, if you ever lost your career your family will always love you. This is true. But, you are the provider and in today’s world; they love you when you provide. Maybe when you do not provide, it is not that they will not love you, but it’s a different kind of love.” A classic case of ‘you have to lose in order to gain elsewhere’.

He certainly feels he works really hard but never gets to enjoy his money but his children do; he never takes a holiday but his family certainly go holidays. It takes him a long time to buy something for himself but his kids certainly get the luxury stuff. All of this makes him happy especially because his family is happy. He cannot spare more of his time because that would mean taking a setback in his career, which he does not want to happen.

Best Holiday Destination

Haitham is an out and out city person; he cannot take the resorts and seaside. He needs to see and interact with people; hear the noise and most importantly walk. Like he puts it, “Cities suit me best. There is no way I would be on a cruise ship or a remote island resort. I have been to Mauritius and Seychelles for work in a suit and tie.”

He loves cities that are romantic and rich in culture and architecture such as Rome, Berlin but his all-time favourite is undoubtedly – London.  He can visit the destination anytime of the year and loves walking exploring the city. “I love walking so I could walk for hours in the city. I love the gastronomy of the place, love going to the parks and relaxing,” he says.


Working is Haitham’s biggest hobby. He also loves exercising be it cycling, swimming or simply going to the gym. He loves music and can listen to music anytime of the day. His favourite is the recent pop music. He claims music helps him work better and he works four times faster with music on… without music he gets distracted.

He likes reading too especially books like the Da Vinci Code, books on strategic thinking / alliances and mostly magazines related to health.

Haitham’s Five Mantras

  1. You have to be passionate about what you do
  2. You have to have the drive for success… See success not an end goal but a lifestyle
  3. Having a purpose in life…roaming life without a purpose makes people loose opportunities, trust and motivation…focus on what legacy do you want to leave behind
  4. To really lead by example…be prepared to be criticized. Have it in you to accept your mistakes
  5. Be prepared to learn…no matter how much you grow either in age or career… either from a younger or older person


Haitham can cook and does so on the weekends when at home. He likes the simple, clean organic kind of food… be it grilled fish, steamed vegetables, marination on poultry. He really enjoys Asian cuisine and particularly Indian food. “I can actually handle more spice than most Indians,” he claims.


When he does get the time, Haitham enjoys the movies mostly the action ones. He is not the romance kind… so it would be the legendry Rocky Series, The God Father series which work for him.

To sum it all up

Haitham says, “I am passionate about what I do, I commit to what I am passionate about, I am driven by success and rewarded by achievements.”