North African hospitality: spring forward11 July 2018
The Arab Spring put a big dent in North African hospitality, with regional visitor numbers and investment opportunities tumbling. The situation has drastically improved over the past few years, but the region has not simply reverted to business as usual. Andrea Valentino talks to experts from across North Africa about how operators are pivoting towards more luxury offerings, and the importance of state support when opening new hotels.
For years, the Riu Imperial Marhaba, near the Tunisian resort of Sousse, was popular with tourists. There was plenty to keep them busy: they could try local food at one of the many restaurants, or indulge in a body treatment at the thalassotherapy centre. But one day in June 2015, the killing began. Over the next 75 minutes, an Islamist gunman killed 38 people, making it the worst terrorist attack in modern Tunisian history.
Coming just after the massacre at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, where 24 people perished, it felt as if the government was helpless to protect either its own people or foreign visitors. One year on, the Riu Imperial was deserted, and ultimately closed. Not that Tunisia was alone: from the bombing of a Russian airliner at Sharm El Sheikh to an attack on a Tripoli hotel popular with foreigners, the violence felt without end.
Combine these tragedies with the wider mayhem of the Arab Spring, and it is unsurprising that this decade has – superficially at least – been so tough on North African hospitality. In 2013, only 9.4 million tourists visited Egyptian hotels, compared with 14.7 million in 2010.
The following year, total tourism revenues in the country slumped by 54%. Tunisia suffered a similar drop. After the attack at Sousse, tour companies cancelled trips to the country, cutting the number of British visitors by nearly 90%.
These pressures also squeezed new hotel projects. In 2014, for the first time since its records began, W Hospitality reported that sub-Saharan countries had more new rooms pipelined than their North African competitors. Speaking at the time, one analyst noted that sub-Saharan Africa enjoyed the “virtuous circle of cessation of conflict, economic growth and investor confidence”. He hardly needed to add that the Arab countries to the north were plagued by political turmoil and weak business prospects.
Reasons to be cheerful
But as the region emptied out, the essentials of North African hospitality were less dreadful than the headlines suggested. Even during the worst of the downturn, Egypt and Morocco both pipelined more hotels than any other African country. Sub-Saharan Africa had a bigger overall total, but 49 countries were competing with just five along the Mediterranean coast.
“Things slowed down during the Arab Spring, but they did not come to a halt,” summarises Trevor Ward, principal at W Hospitality. “The regional hotel industry is very mature.”
Like Ward, Middle Eastern vicepresident of development at AccorHotels Jean-Baptiste Recher credits this revival to the longevity of North African destinations. History is one draw. “When I was a kid, it was my dream to go to Egypt,” he says. “People still dream about it now. You cannot duplicate the Pyramids anywhere else.”
Ward agrees, adding that from the tumbledown elegance of the Marrakesh medina to the ruins at Carthage, North Africa has “history in abundance”.
Natural beauty is another magnet.
White beaches and coral reefs will always be popular, especially if visitors can get an adrenaline fix before resting by the pool. “People want experiences,” Ward says. “Tourists want to know that there are things to do, like extreme sports, or the other things you see on CNN.” It helps that resorts like Djerba or Essaouira are so close to London and Paris, particularly compared with most distant destinations further south. “North Africa has very good proximity to Europe,” explains Mohab Ghali, the Egypt and North Africa vice president of operations at Hilton. “This really helps us, moving forward.”
These advantages have allowed North Africa to bounce back. Last year saw a total of 23,836 rooms pipelined across the region, up from just 18,000 in 2013 and a 16% rise on 2016. Top Hotel Projects found that Morocco was doing especially well, with 47 projects planned or under construction. For its part, Accor has 21 hotels pipelined in North Africa, including 12 in Egypt and five in Morocco. Hilton is just as bullish, with 5,000 new keys in development from Sinai to the Atlantic over the next seven years.
The construction boom is shadowed by strong visitor numbers. “Are we recovering to pre-2010 levels?” asks Ghali. “No. But the region is doing great.”
In particular, he cites the “excellent” figures from his native Egypt, noting that tourism in the country grew around 75% last year. At the other end of the Mediterranean, meanwhile, travellers contributed 64.4 billion dirhams [£508 million] to the Moroccan economy in 2017, a 6.6% increase on the year before.
None of this would be possible without security. As Ward notes, hoteliers have “long memories” and would not back investments if they could not ensure their guests’ safety. Happily, North African states have been working hard to reassure them. Security at Egyptian airports is much improved, while Tunisian spies train with their experienced UK counterparts. These efforts have paid off – tour operators, long the bedrock of regional hospitality, are now returning to the region. Thomas Cook restarted trips to Tunisia in February this year.
Climate of safety
Add the healthy development situation to the improved security and it is tempting to think that regional hospitality can return to its pre-2010 boom days basically unchanged. But even before the Arab Spring, hoteliers started ditching package tourists, pushed in part by competition from the very operators they once relied on. “A few years ago, you could book an all-inclusive trip to Tunisia from Paris for €300 for a week,” says Reda Faceh, VP development for northern and western Africa at AccorHotels. “Thanks to this mass-market strategy, the average room rate was very low. As you can imagine, our hotels could not survive with these prices.”
Faced with all this, Faceh and his colleagues have changed tack, swapping mid-range brands, such as Novotel and Ibis, for more upscale offerings. Because costs are so high, and room prices frustratingly low, building four and fivestar luxury hotels “makes more financial sense,” he says. With one Fairmont opening in Rabat, and a second planned near the Pyramids, Accor is clearly taking these adjustments seriously. “We have a full team to look at the specificities of our luxury hotels,” Recher adds. “This covers food and beverage, revenue management, marketing and sales.”
Hilton is moving in a remarkably similar direction, overseeing the renovation of two smart hotels in Cairo. One, in a leafy district of Cairo east of the Nile, is a Waldorf Astoria. Nor is the operator stopping there. From 2022, for example, Rabat will house a new Hilton, built with easy access to a shopping mall and Zaha Hadid-designed theatre.
Not all Hilton projects are so extravagant. Visitors to Ain Sokhna, a resort on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, will soon be able to sleep at a midrange Garden Inn Hilton. But the direction of travel is clear, Ghali says,“We are focusing on five-star hotels.”
Apart from making operators money, these shifts fit changing visitor demographics. New ‘open sky’ agreements are connecting low-cost airlines to North African airports, allowing European visitors to save on ticket costs and splurge on accommodation.
The Tunisian Government signed just such a deal with the EU in late 2017, while the Egyptians have talked of joining up for years.
Reda Faceh saw how transformative these treaties were when he worked for Accor in Morocco. “We had some high-end clients coming to Marrakesh from Britain, flying with low-cost carriers,” he remembers.
Given they were staying at the local Sofitel, a luxury Accor brand, Faceh imagined they had flown British Airways.
In fact, they had decided to rough it. “They told me they chose low-cost airlines because Marrakesh had become a short break destination,” Faceh explains. “They wanted to save money and spend longer in a better hotel.” Faceh believes Tunisia could go the same way, luring sophisticated tourists on the promise of cheap flights and stylish hotels. “Tunisia has a great place on the Mediterranean coast,” he emphasises, adding that open sky agreements could “completely change” tourism in the country. “It will allow us do more direct sales through the web, and switch from the mass market to an upscale offering, just as Morocco has done.”
As the Tunisian Open Sky agreement hints, North African operators rely on politicians to help refocus their operations.
If flight regulation is one area of cooperation, capital investment is another. Saudi and Emirati oil money still flows in, but local governments have begun funding new builds, too. For example, land for the Fairmont Pyramids was provided by the Egyptian ministry of housing. Further west, Tunisia recently passed a law that makes investment regulations simpler, part of what Faceh calls a “strong willingness to relaunch tourism” in the country.
At the same time, the importance of having government onside is starkly demonstrated elsewhere in the region. It might be home to fabulous Roman ruins and azure coastlines, but laws limiting foreign ownership make Algeria a “difficult” investment spot, Faceh says.
For Trevor Ward, the most tragic regional symbol of bad governance is Libya. “After the revolution, it could have been a new destination,” he admits, “but everything went sour.” Political anarchy has made it impossible for the country to “get itself into the tourist psyche”.
Ward has similar thoughts about some sub-Saharan countries. If the Arab uprisings let them temporarily push ahead of their North African neighbours, bureaucratic lethargy limits their potential. “Nigeria? It has a lot of things to fix before it can be a major tourism destination.” Chaotic infrastructure is top of the list, next to an illiberal visa regime. Reda Faceh comes to the same conclusions, explaining that before operators risk major investments in West African countries such as Benin or Senegal, they will demand “strong support” from government institutions.
In the meantime, North Africa needs stability if it is to remain top of the pile, never a given in that part of the world. Just as the 2010 revolutions exploded the old certainties about regional hospitality, another revolt, or simply more militant attacks, risk knocking Egypt and Tunisia back again. But for now, the essentials seem strong. Tourists are coming back to the region, even if the hotels they stay in are changing and past terrors are never quite forgotten.