Entrepreneurs and start-ups have long been at the forefront of disrupting traditional industries, and the travel sector is no exception.
Through innovation, technology, and a fresh perspective, these dynamic individuals and companies have the power to transform the travel industry in profound ways.
There are many stand-out examples of start-ups that have re-shaped travel: Airbnb has revolutionised the way people find and book accommodation and created new opportunities for property owners to generate income; companies like Uber have challenged traditional taxi services by connecting riders with independent drivers through user-friendly apps; start-ups like Hopper are utilising artificial intelligence to provide consumers with personalised travel recommendations and fare predictions, helping them identify the best times to book flights and hotels; and Responsible Travel led the way to help travellers to make environmentally responsible choices, such as staying in eco-friendly accommodations and supporting conservation efforts. There are many more.
ATM recognises role of newcomers
In 2023, entrepreneurs and start-ups are continuing to pioneer new travel concepts aligned to industry trends and evolving traveller priorities. This covers a broad spectrum, from AI-driven personalisation and travel planning, urban mobility solutions, and the evolution of the sharing economy, to destination discovery platforms, and future-thinking initiatives related to sustainable, responsible and philanthropic tourism.
It’s happening globally, but in the Middle East, where entrepreneurs have forged a reputation as first-movers, supported and nurtured by government initiatives to attract pioneers and drive innovation, start-ups in the travel sector are making their mark.
Recognising the important role newcomers play in driving diversity and growth in the travel industry, Arabian Travel Market has announced that its 2024 edition will be themed: ‘Transforming Travel Through Entrepreneurship’.
The Middle East’s leading travel industry event, which will take place at the Dubai World Trade Centre from 6-9 May, will shine the spotlight on innovators reshaping the sector, and in particular, demonstrate how the spirit of entrepreneurism can be harnessed to create a more sustainable travel industry.
This theme will be integrated across every aspect of the show with a view to highlight ways in which an entrepreneurial mindset can lead to positive change across the sector.
With the UAE a strong promoter of entrepreneurship, one of the region’s fastest-growing tourism industries, and known for its ease of doing business, it is no surprise that many travel start-ups at the forefront of change are based here. As of August 2023, the UAE was home to more than 165 online travel start-ups alone, according to Tracxn. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, where travel and tourism has grown 12% over its pre-pandemic market size, according to Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb, and the target is 100 million visitors by 2030, the travel entrepreneur scene is thriving. There were 77 online travel start-ups operating in the kingdom as of August, says Tracxn, and a new tourism law passed last year granting special Ministry of Tourism licenses to experimental tourism businesses will only grow that number.
Meet the hoteliers
While there are too many travel start-ups driving change in the Middle East to mention them all, there are some standout examples.
Covid-baby ENVI Lodges, launched in 2021 during the pandemic, is a start-up revolutionising the concept of eco-friendly accommodation in the Middle East and globally. The only experiential ecolodge company to be born in the GCC, the Dubai-headquartered brand and management company is dedicated to creating sustainable and immersive travel experiences by developing ecolodges in breath-taking natural settings, with projects already announced in Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica and Zanzibar. These lodges use cutting-edge technology to minimise their environmental impact, from energy-efficient designs to waste reduction programmes. Through its unique approach, ENVI Lodges not only provides travellers with exceptional experiences, but raises awareness about sustainable tourism.
Another innovator, also UAE-headquartered, is Earth Hotels, combining a boutique hotel concept with a commitment to environmental responsibility. From energy-efficient buildings to locally sourced materials and amenities, the hotel operator prioritises sustainability without compromising comfort or style. Promising guests a “break from the ordinary” and a place to “get grounded”, its first two properties will be located in Ras Al Khaimah – on Marjan Island and on the UAE’s tallest peak, Jebel Jais.
Both hospitality companies are playing a key role in diversifying the tourism offering of the destinations in which they operate, growing the destination ecosystem. And, by incorporating eco-friendly technologies, conserving resources, and supporting local communities, they exemplify how businesses can thrive while being responsible stewards of the environment.
And the tech firms
Start-ups in the Middle East are not only enhancing sustainability, but also leveraging technology to streamline and enhance the travel experience, catering to the needs of modern travellers.
In Saudi Arabia, apps and platforms for booking accommodation are booming, with newcomers including Mabaat, an online marketplace for vacation rental accommodation; Gathern, which enables travellers to compare and book villas, chalets, desert cottages and campsites; and Darent, a holiday homes booking app. Car rental booking apps are also taking off while Saryah helps tourists plan itineraries, tour guides and more.
It’s a similar story in the UAE where the established start-up scene is dominated by accommodation and car rental booking solutions, however, entrepreneurs are turning their attention to otherworldly tech, including the metaverse, and it’s not just a B2C thing, but a powerful B2B tool too.
For example, Virtuelle, new-to-market this year, builds immersive experiences leveraging video game technology, web3 and AI across any platform, virtual world and device, to increase stakeholder engagement and revenue. With its founders experienced in building digital twins for destinations, museums, attractions and more, there is profound potential to roll this out for forward-thinking hotel and destination developers and operators in the Middle East.
The tech can also be used for gamified employee onboarding, training and engagement, which is much needed in a fast-moving region where new staff are required on a constant basis to keep pace with growth. It’s also more cost- and carbon-effective to train a global team this way.
Staying back-of-house, and Klimato is a new company helping hospitality businesses calculate, communicate and report the climate impact of the food they serve. It produces labels so restaurant guests can choose items with the lowest carbon footprint.
There are many more examples, but the current start-up landscape proves that these businesses and the entrepreneurial minds behind them, have the power to transform the travel industry for the better, contributing to sector and economic growth, creating sustainable and meaningful experiences for businesses and customers, and solving some of the key issues facing people and the planet today.
Join us at Arabian Travel Market Dubai
The market leading travel and tourism event brings the whole world together in Dubai, UAE.
Join us from 6–9 May 2024 at Dubai World Trade Center.