Most hoteliers welcome GCC crackdown on smoking

Strict policies mirror those abroad but some say business will suffer


New smoking regulations recently implemented in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will mostly have a positive impact on business say hoteliers, but some may suffer.

In February, Kuwait was the first of three GCC countries to crack down on public smoking regulations, imposing a ban in public areas including restaurants, cafes and hotels, but exempting shisha parlours.

A few months later, Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Al Bida’a became the country’s first hotel to implement the no-smoking policy throughout its public areas and restaurants.

While some have expressed concerns that a smoking ban would lead to plummeting revenues, Mövenpick director of sales and marketing Mohamed Ibrahim said he expected the ban would be good for business.

“I do not think it will affect our business at all, in fact I think it is a plus point. We are a certified Green Globe hotel, a certification we got last year, and the non-smoking policy will help enhance our image,” Ibrahim told Hotelier Middle East in June.
Speaking last month, the hotel’s F&B director Mario Bassil said revenue had remained unaffected two months on from the ban.

“However, it did change our customer scheme and category from single customers to families. Some of our regular customers complained but accepted it as we communicated [the policy] one month before implementation of the ban and put no-smoking signs on all tables,” observed Bassil.

Following Kuwait’s lead, last month Saudi Arabia banned smoking in restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets, shopping malls, as well as government offices and most public spaces. It also went one step further banning the smoking of waterpipes and shisha in public, and prohibited the sale of tobacco to those under the age of 18, according to media reports.

Despite wide media coverage of the ban, Toni Riethmaier, assistant general manager, Il Villlagio Restaurants & Lounges in Jeddah said he had yet to receive official guidelines from the local municipality.

“Since we haven’t received a notice from the government people are still smoking in- and outdoors — weather it’s Shisha, cigars or cigarettes,” he told Hotelier on August 21.

*Hotelier Middle East poll results (number =100): 

Should there be a full smoking ban imposed in UAE public places, including bars, like in the UK?
Yes, this would create a healthier environment for customers and staff. 37%
Yes, but some outlets such as shisha and cigar lounges should be exempt. 26%
No, customers should have the choice of a smoking or non-smoking area 26%
No, this would cause revenue loss and harm the industry 11%

Cultural shift
Currently Il Villlagio Restaurants & Lounges operates one non-smoking outlet, which was established two years ago. Guests are also banned from smoking in the playground area of the restaurant complex. There are two other indoor outlets; one serving shisha and another where smoking is allowed but shisha is not served.

“At first we were sceptical as to whether the non-smoking outlet would work, but with explanation and the possibility for guests to choose a smoking outlet we succeeded quite well and there are guests who request non-smoking sections and appreciate our non-smoking restaurant.

“For sure if the smoking ban is put in place more guests will complain about not being able to smoke inside and blame the restaurant operators, but with time they will also learn and understand,” said Riethmaier.

Rosewood’s Al Faisaliah Hotel and Hotel Al Khozama in Riyadh have both implemented the ban, making all public areas with the exception of Asir cigar lounge smoke free.

“This has not been difficult for us as we had several of our restaurants designated as smoke free previously,” said managing director and regional vice president Erich Steinbock.

He described the reaction from guests as a positive one: “Our guests are quite sophisticated and most have travelled to the many parts of the world where smoke free zones have been in effect for quite some time. Simply removing the ashtrays sends a strong signal.”

Majdi Saqer, director of marketing and sales for Saudi-based operator Makarim Hospitality Group added that it had received minor complaints from group corporate accounts, but said many guests "appreciated the ban and the non-smoking rooms in the hotel".

"Some guests demanded to smoke in the lobby but they were politely asked to smoke in the smoking areas," he explained. 

Public smoking also came under fire in the UAE in August, with the Department of Economic Development’s Consumer Protection Division instructing restaurants that allow smoking on the premises to display signs warning potential customers.

There was also a ban imposed on families with children aged under 18 and pregnant women from being present in a designated smoking areas. According to media reports, nine restaurants were fined for not enforcing this ban in August.
Some hospitality industry professionals believe that a blanket ban, like that imposed in Saudi Arabia, will follow.

“It’s happened in Europe and everywhere else so I don’t think we’re far off from actually being told ‘no smoking’,” said Mirzo Hafizov, general manager, The Ivy at Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai.
Unfair advantage
As long as the ban is enforced strictly across all relevant outlets, most hoteliers believe customers will be undeterred.

“If it happens across the board everywhere in Dubai, I don’t think it will have a major impact because everybody’s going to be in the same boat,” explained Hafizov.

In Doha, smoking policies are said to be rarely enforced, but InterContinental Doha — The City director of F&B and kitchen operations Nick Flynn said: “If a ban was to be imposed across the board and everybody stuck to the rules I don’t think it would impact business.

“The problem is when you do the right thing and abide by the law then your competitors don’t and they get the advantage over you because they’re not cooperating.”

According to Makarim's Saqer, this is not an issue in KSA. He said revenue had not been impacted since imposing the ban "for the simple fact that the law covers the entire kingdom so there is no other alternatives and we don’t see that it will impact revenue in the future as we see a rapid decrease in violations and complaints".

Like in other GCC countries, some UAE hotels have already established smoke-free restaurants and other non-smoking areas of their own accord in order to create a healthier environment for diners and employees.

Sharjah-based Coral Beach Resort recently became one of the first destinations in the UAE to introduce a non-smoking zone on its beach after complaints from guests about the number of cigarette butts in the sand.

Novotel & Ibis World Trade Centre Dubai F&B manager Mohsin Yaqoob told Hotelier Middle East: “We have designated smoking areas; our restaurants are either completely smoking or smoke free. We have two non-smoking outlets – both restaurants. Then there are two bars where smoking is allowed”.

Yaqoob made the restaurants smoke-free environments several years ago and said revenue had been slightly impacted at the time of implementation but was no longer an issue.

Burning out

However, not all hoteliers are convinced that a smoking ban would mean business as usual.

“It would definitely have an impact on business if a ban came in. When it happened in the UK and Ireland, pubs suffered – a lot closed down,” observed Andrew Joyce, director of food and beverage – MEA, Hilton Worldwide.

But those restaurants that specialise in offering shisha at a high margin are expected to suffer the most, according to Reithmaier.

“Most probably many restaurants or cafes will loose customers or even close their business if the smoking ban is introduced. Many restaurants here only exist because of the sale of shisha and their food is of a very poor quality,” he said.

But most hoteliers agree that a customer should always have the choice of sitting in a smoke-free environment.

“For us it’s about guest choice and providing both areas for smokers and non-smokers as long as the guest is happy,” said Joyce.

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