If you’re in the tourism and hospitality industry, you have definitely heard of the phrase ‘experiential tourism’. It’s a topic that we have discussed before through coverage of Arabian Travel Market which had experiential tourism as its theme this year [see the April 2017 issue], and through various interviews and site visits where many have bandied that phrase about.

The region is definitely working hard towards focusing on offering authentic, local, and honest experiences to tourists who want it. We have fantastic theme parks and water parks now —which have always been, and will be, a draw — but it’s also about culture, which is, I believe, now taking off in a much bigger way than ever before.

In the UAE, visitors can go to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, visit the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood in Dubai, take a tour of Al Khaznah Tannery in the UAE capital, which signed an MoU with TCA Abu Dhabi to allow visitors to discover and experience the process of producing hide leather goods, or learn more about the country at the Etihad Museum in Dubai.

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In Bahrain, guests can go pearl diving, and it was recently reported that there have been investments set aside for the regeneration of the historic bazaar district, Manama Souq and similar projects at Bab Al Bahrain.

Oman has also focused on its experiences, especially in eco-tourism, and offers opportunities to explore the Al Hoota Caves, visit Nizwa, check out mountain trails in Jebel Akhdar (something which Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar also offers), turtle watch in Ras Al Had or Masirah Island, and snorkel and dive in Damaniyat.

Hotels and tourism boards are on it, and so are companies like Airbnb. Have you noticed the ‘Experiences’ tab on that website now? It offers activities “designed and led by local hosts” which give guests “unique access into places and communities in their city”. You can do anything, from local organic cooking in Florence’s country hills to experiencing and tasting the inner-workings of a sake brewery in Toronto, or paddle surfing in a secret lagoon in Lisbon. In fact, when you go to the website, the tag line says: “Book unique homes and experience a city like a local.”

One of my favourite international experiential tourism moments was in Cambodia this year with GranTourismo — I signed up for a nine-day culinary tour which aimed to provide tourists with local experiences around Siem Reap and Battambang. I visited local villages and met mat makers, mushroom growers, families that cooked traditional Cambodian food, and also visited temples like Angkor Wat and Preah Khan and many more. I met people who ran NGOs, chefs looking to elevate local Cambodian food to the next level, and tried out street food along a Cambodian market. All of that gave me a richer understanding of Cambodia, its people, and culture, and that’s what I wanted.

The Middle East, like other parts of the world, is filled with authentic and local experiences to try, and I think it’s up to the tourism and hospitality industry to find them and let tourists discover a different side of the region.

During the Hotelier Middle East: Great GM Debate advisory panel, Southern Sun Abu Dhabi general manager Pierre Delfau commented (see pages 48-52): “Our jobs as hoteliers with finding that off-the-beaten-track experience, that genuine authentic experience is a lot harder. A lot relies on the concierge as well, and how much work they put into those experiences.”

Marriott International’s Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai  thinks it’s got some ideas — for ‘Global Day of Discovery’ this year, it partnered with Frying Pan Adventures and Andrew Zimmern for a food and culture tour across the Satwa district. It’s been hinted that the hotel hopes to offer a lot more experiences once it opens — that’s something I am looking forward to, and hope to see much more of from hotels in the Middle East.