Monday, October 21, 2013

Kuwait Tourism (an Oxymoron Case Study)

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The Kuwait Times is running a story this morning entitled, " Eid sees loads of cash spent, big chunk of it abroad – Call to boost local tourism."  To wit I say, 'No shyt, Sherlock.'  It is an interesting article and I'm not degrading the writing (by Nawara Fattahova) by any means (well written, good factual content).  I'm just tiring of the subject after so many years of hearing about it with no movement from the Government.  It seems that regardless of how many people make the point:  it is all falling on deaf ears.

The article states:   Estimates show that more than 250,000 passengers left Kuwait during the Eid holidays. According to General Directorate of Civil Aviation, more than 121,000 passengers left Kuwait through Kuwait International Airport within the first three days, while about 70,000 travelled through land borders. Hajaj Bukhadour, an economic analyst, believes Kuwait lost another KD 1 billion which the potential tourists may have spent in Kuwait if it was a touristic country. “All countries pay attention to tourism as it is an important economic source for the country. Unfortunately, Kuwait is not one of these countries and tourism here is appalling. Kuwaitis and expats who have accounts in Kuwaiti banks spent around KD 1 billion during this short holiday inside and outside Kuwait, so if there were tourists visiting Kuwait, they would spent a similar amount here,” he told Kuwait Times. “If local tourism was attractive this would be an additional income of Kuwait. Unfortunately the awareness of the importance of tourism is very low in Kuwait between the people as well as the government and parliament. To have tourism in the country requires having laws for visa and residency and touristic projects to attract tourists and encourage local tourism,” ...

There was another interesting article in the Kuwait Times, quoting Nabila Al-Anjari on how "Kuwait placed last in GCC tourism, 101 worldwide: Al-Anjeri."  Ms. Al-Anjeri was former Assistant Undersecretary for Tourism Affairs at the Kuwait Ministry of Information.  I recall that she worked very hard to promote the 20-year tourism plan for Kuwait (which resulted in the building of many of the hotels you now see in Kuwait – with a current occupancy rate at about 30%)  and endeavored to work towards promoting Kuwait.  I also recall hearing that she was met with bureaucracy and brick walls.  That is a pity.  Ms. Anjeri provides valid points in this article and again – an interesting read.

When I first came to Kuwait in 1996, Kuwait’s tourism tag line was, “Kuwait:  It’s Different.” (With an illustration of Kuwait Towers).  I loved that!  It is exactly what I think of Kuwait.  It IS different; no other country has the flavor that Kuwait has, nor the ability to remark on its own quirkiness.  What is the slogan now?  Does anybody know?  “Kuwait:  Don’t Come Here.”  Or maybe, “If you’re gay, don’t even think about it.”  Or perhapsee, “Kuwait:  If you want a drink, go to Bahrain or Dubai.” or "Come to Kuwait:  We'll F up your national anthem too"   (I could continue…)

Ok, even back then in 1996, the official Kuwait tourism board, “Kuwait Touristic Enterprises Company” (KTEC) was well-maintained.  We went to Entertainment City in Doha.  It was fun.  Most of the country-run facilities were clean and well cared for.  Who goes to these places now?  It is a national joke.  The stats speak for themselves – people want to leave.  Those who can’t afford to leave stay here and make barbecues on the Gulf Road (hey, wasn’t that a law they passed a while back – you could be fined 1,000KD for making a fire in a public place?  Enforcement?)  If you were here during this Eid, you couldn’t find a parking space anywhere along the 25km Gulf Road.  That is where everyone went.  The majority of Kuwaitis and expats aren’t going to go near any of the KTEC’s properties.  When was the last time you went to Kuwait Towers, for example?

In my personal experience, I found that the KTEC properties are not English-speaking expat friendly.  If I go to one of those properties, I want to feel welcomed.  Am I alone in this?  There are what – 2.5 million expats in Kuwait?  A whole lot of us can’t read signs in Arabic.  And if I go someplace that I’m being stared at blankly by an Egyptian security guard, I’m going to turn around and leave.    Not to bash the KTEC too bad (but I will), even their website is a turn-off (if you can read and understand the link – in English – you are a better person than I). It’s a shame because Kuwait has SO MUCH potential.  There is just no marketing!  Have you ever seen a KTEC facility marketed on Instagram or Facebook, for example?

What happened to Hala February (in competition with Dubai’s Shopping Month)?  It was a good idea.  It fizzled out much like everything else.  Why not have the Proud 2 Be Kuwaiti exhibition at the same time as Hala February and work in conjunction with each other to pull off something great.  P2BK – those guys are promoting Kuwait at a grass-roots level and should be looked at as a case study in how to do it properly.  Why doesn’t Kuwait have a cultural festival?  Oh wait, I think there have been a few, but all the “advanced” advertising was done about a week prior – and in ARABIC.  Exats want to experience the country where they live.  Why aren’t they being given that opportunity in a common language?  

The Local Economy

Kuwait is going to have to wake up to some cold, hard facts (wake up and smell the chai 7alib). The proposed Kuwaiti 20-Year Tourism Plan kinda died in 2003;  around the same time the US Forces moved into Iraq and planted themselves - and about 20,000 local-economy-boosting Americans and their families (I write that figure only because I know the stat for that particular year.  This number does not include Westerners of other nationalities or TCN laborers brought in).  All of a sudden, a multitude of new services were required:  accommodations, transport (vehicles, trucks, etc.), logistics services, sponsorship services.  Contractors brought their families, so schools and other related child services flourished.  All this drove the economy.  

The ramp-up was staggering.  Local companies made millions (and if you want to write to me for specifics instead of commenting that "blab blah blah that wasn't the case" - I will tell you who and how).  A record number of new apartment complexes were built.  On average, a 2 bedroom apartment in Salmiya (for example) went from 200KD/mo to 450KD/mo (and more) almost immediately.  Trucking companies were doing great as convoys were going in and out of Iraq constantly.  At the height, you could lease a truck head for 1700KD/mo.  People couldn't bring enough trucks into the country to meet the demand.  There weren't enough drivers; all had to be recruited (and hey - in some cases, even trained). Leasing companies were renting out 4x4's as fast as they could get them to roll off the ships. Sponsorship?  The main sponsorship company went from a decrepit office in a very old building into a high-rise tower that they purchased.  They diversified to suit the needs of almost every logistics requirement a contractor might require.  Need full coverage insurance to go with all that?  Sure.  Medical?  Sure.  How are all these people getting in and out of Kuwait?  United Airlines put on daily flights - and they were always full (they recently cut back to 4 flights per week).


There are no more US troops in Iraq.  There is no more need to support them through a hub in Kuwait. CSA lost their Army support contract in 2010.  The contract went to the lowest-cost, technically qualified bidder:  ITT (emphasis on "lowest-cost").   It's no secret that as the military has reduced their numbers in Kuwait, ITT has had to cut back also.  Gone are the days of the over-the-top accommodation, individual lease cars (they are often shared now), and other benefits.

Kuwaiti real estate companies practice the “cut off your nose to spite your face” methodology of business.  They continue to charge the same rates for apartments around Kuwait, hoping to draw Western renters.  (I say, ‘HA! Where are they going to come from?’  There hasn’t exactly been a huge re-introduction of Westerners at the same scale:  educational institutions top the industry, perhaps seconded by Al-Shaya, as probably the two largest employers of Westerners in the country.  Still, nowhere near the number of Westerners previously in Kuwait prior to say 2011.)  Regardless, real estate companies in Kuwait would rather have their properties sit empty for months, hoping to rent at a higher rate, than to reduce the rent and lease today:  A philosophy that is stupid and short-sighted.

I also get a kick out of the number of people with “logistics” and “defense contracting” companies in Kuwait that are now scrambling to diversify their businesses.  “Can you help us get a military contract…”  NO!  There ARE NO contracts.  It’s all gone.  Forget it.  Go buy a sheesha café or a mini-anything-bakery; You’re SOL.

Less talk, more action

Kuwait needs to revisit it’s tourism plans in order to boost the local economy.  It’s gotta happen.

So now we have all these beautiful hotel properties around Kuwait (just waiting for all those Saudi families to come visit – because that is the main tourism draw right now).  They’re marketing only regionally.  If there is a special offer; expat couple beware.  You need to have a copy of your marriage certificate with you or you may be turned away.  This is not something that is advertised and if even one couple was turned away, they can just click over to somewhere like Trip Advisor, make their comments, and BAM – the hotel has lost potential business.  Further, many hotels will not welcome single female guests.  Isn’t that nice?  It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer or doctor or professional of any kind; the connotation is immediately that you are there for prostitution (chicks love this).  They can turn you away.  I had a nice conversation with a representative of the Kuwait Hotel Owners Association regarding this issue.  The KHOA is the Kuwaiti conglomerate that dictates hotel rates in the country – giving very little margin for variance on pricing to any hotel in Kuwait.

In my DG opinion, Kuwait should promote more private entertainment projects like Dubai has.  But alas, that goes back to Ms. Al-Anjeri’s article citing necessary infrastructure requirements for cultivating a tourism industry.  And (for those of you who don’t drink - you can’t speak from personal experience, but I can) people who understand the importance of a quality glass of wine with dinner at a 5 star hotel aren’t going to come here unless you ease the rules.  It isn’t going to happen.  I also believe that until Kuwait hires serious public relations communications experts (go get Hill & Knowlton, for Gods sake!  Look what they did for Kuwait in 1990!!!), they are going to have a bad reputation throughout the globe (case in point:  Homosexuality testing in the airport = negative communication impact; like it or not.)  You must have a common communication and present that in a positive manner.  If there are any negative impact statements, again, a common (damage control) communication must be provided.

Promote Kuwait!  Promote the culture, the diversity, the desert, the sea. This is a fascinating country with so much to see – but nobody knows what’s here!   Offer incentives to small companies to join into a group so that resources are shared (for example, the small tourism companies, the dive/boating companies).  Offer assistance to those wanting to start tourism-related businesses.  Create real marketing documents, websites, etc.  Hire people who are experienced in tourism (wow – now that thar is a thought).  Outsource English copy writing to English speakers (and even then, have it edited again by an independent source so that you don’t look like an idiot if it’s wrong).  Think “welcoming” and “friendly”.  Train first-line employees at the airport to be welcoming and friendly.

Sigh…. Again, this is all going to fall on deaf ears.


naresh said...

such a nice post.
I wish I could love Kuwait the way you do. Appreciate your effort.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an honest synopsis on a very critical topic facing the State of Kuwait. You have a deep passion for this country that can be commended. I remember reading an article in the local newspaper about a cruise ship that had broken down off Kuwait. This cruise ship was full of European tourists that had caught this boat from the UAE and were travelling to Iran. A Kuwaiti man assisted the tourists to shore; however, instead of asking can Kuwait be added to your itinerary, he asked, “Can you take people out?” to the ship’s captain. Kuwait is about leaving it is not about welcoming; let’s face it, with the horrendous condition of the airport and their current view of foreigners, that is very well published in the regional press, why would anyone come here? You state that Kuwait has so much to offer, I agree, the country does have potential, but I have never seen a country that needed foreign expertise more in my life. How do you think Dubai was built? With the correct foreign expertise where visas were restructured and business laws were refined to attract these ‘movers and shakers’ that developed the framework and assisted the UAE with their development plan. I recall another article where an Italian delegation came to Kuwait to discuss future business ventures with the government and in the article one of the Italians made a comment to the press stating, “The country has so much potential, it is a shame the government doesn’t care.” Kuwait is more or less a welfare state; its nationals are very dependent on its government for its basic needs that are subsidized. If the people see that their government doesn’t care about building large infrastructure projects that are sorely needed like an airport, a metro, and upgrading the national carrier, developing projects that promote Kuwait as a tourist destination they will be on the same planes, spending their money overseas. Nobody cares, it’s how can we siphon the country and invest overseas, spend our money overseas as the country stagnates in a third-word status. If this government is serious about changing the mindset of this nation, then they have to make concerted efforts to change their mindset about this nation. It will take years to unravel the damage that has been done to this country from ineffective, inefficient government if they ever do want to upgrade this nation to GCC standards and with the amount of negative press on this country in the region, you suggestion about hiring a reputable PR firm is a valid one. If this country does not diversify their economy, its descendents will be facing hard times and will have to spend their Eids in run down amusement parks instead of lunching at Harrods. One can only hope that the youth of this nation will want to invest in their nation and to tackle a host of issues that they inherited from their elders and inject some national pride back in this nation.

Desert Girl said...

Anonymous 12:26 - Very well said. My mantra about Kuwait has been (over the past few years), 'They just don't care.' The level of apathy is staggering. It is sad; I see young Kuwaitis returning from overseas with knowledge and degrees and what they long for is experience in their own country. They're usually beaten into submission within the first 1-2 years by "the way it is here." I think there are many Kuwaitis who are very talented and forward-thinking, but they are never given the opportunity to excel.

The Italian delegations comment doesn't surprise me. Foreign trade delegations are paraded in and out of Kuwait like a school day trip. They never get to do any business; in fact, they are sequestered from meeting business people in the market so the cronies can keep their information for future personal use. It's pathetic. None are even given business guides or any reference materials on Kuwait.

"Kuwait is about leaving and not welcoming" - I like that statement. It's so true.

Great comments! I hope you'll post more.

Anonymous said...

@DG 1:11, Bottom-line is this, if you implement a development plan with major key projects in the country, you increase job opportunities for your nationals. New engineering graduates would have job opportunities to work on the new airport, or to work on the new metro. Passengers would want to fly Kuwait Airways again if they just purchased new planes, upgraded their services and put a smile on their face. With the recent unemployment numbers, Kuwait could greatly benefit from FINALLY implementing the development plan. To network the country by linking driver’s licenses, with insurance companies, traffic violations, registrations, taxis, buses under one government Roads and Transportation Authority would streamline the country. But this sort of infrastructure project takes foreign expertise to set these up, and from these foreign experts, the Kuwaitis will learn to run the process. Just think how efficient it would be as a resident to enter the country of Kuwait with an EGATE system? This certainly would make an immigration officer’s job easier at that airport. It doesn’t have to be that hard, it doesn’t have to be run inefficiently all the time; the solutions to Kuwait’s problems are very simple. It just takes the right leadership and correct decision-making skills to move this country forward.

Chirp said...

That's my mom! :)

Anonymous said...
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Rob said...

Really well written piece, DG, I enjoyed reading it. I couldn't agree more with everything you've said - Kuwait is a beautiful country with so much potential, just stifled by so much apathy.

Traveler said...

As I have been moving through my Bucket List, I have discovered a lot to like and admire about Kuwait ( At the same time I have found the lathargy about marketing the attractions of Kuwait to be prevalent.

As the oil money surpluses dry up, Kuwait will be forced to realize they need to expand in new a different directions to maintain their life style. They do need a plan and now.

Also, I still run into signs that are in Arabic only. That is their choice, but in doing so you have locked out a lot of the world who might have been interested. When Korea prepared for the Olympics all of their signs went to Korean/English. It made a huge difference in how I felt about traveling around and led many discoveries of the world that surrounded me.

Expat and the City said...

@ Chirp ~ you are soooo cute!

@ Traveler ~ quit hijacking posts with your post links...;p

@ DG ~ Fantastic post! 100% agree. Preach sistah!

Desert Girl said...

Anonymous 11:34 -

You should be careful who you call "kafur". Regardless, you sound like a 3 year old and I'm not publishing your nonsense. This post has nothing to do with religion. It's about tourism, dumbass.