COVID-19: Insights on Travel Impact, The Middle East and Africa #11

April 7, 2020

With over 1.3 million confirmed cases and over 69,000 deaths from COVID-19 globally as of 6th April, we continue to see significant impact across all industries around the world, including the travel industry. 

With our access to real-time traveller audiences and unmatched visibility into global travel demand, we’re in a unique position to share the current travel trends at the forefront of marketers’ minds. In this blog series, we’ll take a look at the data in order to aid travel marketers in their assessment of this worldwide event. They can use these trends to inform their marketing strategies during this period and be prepared for the recovery once the situation stabilises. 

Whilst no-one can anticipate the full impact of these exceptional circumstances, our data can provide some insight into how travellers are responding to the current situation, the more long-term impact that COVID-19 will have on destinations, and when the first signs of recovery start to appear. 

These insights are based on data collected on 6th April, 2020. We will be providing new data insights on a weekly basis in order to provide a regular view of trends and patterns in consumer behaviour. Sojern’s insights are based on over 350 million traveller profiles and billions of travel intent signals however it does not capture one hundred percent of the travel market.

Global Flight Bookings to the Middle East and Africa Still Declining  

The last few days have seen even tighter measures being implemented globally to curb the impact of COVID-19. The UAE National Disinfection Programme has been extended for the next two weeks, which includes the implementation of  permits required to leave the house only for essential purposes. With the restriction of movement, it is no surprise that the impact on travel in the region continues to be significant. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) have experienced a further drop of 7% on year-over-year flight bookings, bringing the total to 94%. Flight bookings to Turkey are down 92% year-over-year, 3% less than last week, and Egypt remains steady at 85% below last year. 

In the past week, Saudi Arabia has also imposed 24 hour lockdowns in the holy cities including Makkah and Medina. As of 6th April the curfew also applies to the capital of Riyadh as well as the cities of Jeddah, Dammam, Dhahran, Tabuk, Hofuf, Taif, Al Qatif and Khobar. Our data shows that flight bookings to Saudi Arabia continued to show year-over-year increases until early March, but have since dropped considerably, declining 99% year-over-year leading into April.  


Global Flight Bookings to MEA – Year-Over-Year Change

Regional Travel Intent in the Middle East and Africa Shows Uplift in Q3’2020

Looking at regional travel searches made in the last 28 days within the Middle East and Africa (MEA), we see a similar pattern to last week with steady regional growth across some countries. Although significantly lower than last year, travel searches to key destinations across the region begin to pick up for departure dates in Q3’2020. The most consistent growth is seen for travel searches to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Searches to Turkey and the UAE are also improving, but experience a slight drop in search volume in Q4’2020.

For countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, we have not included data points towards the end of the year due to low data volumes.


Regional Flight Searches to key MEA Markets – Year-Over-Year Change

International Travel Intent to the Middle East and Africa Continues to Show Signs of Improvement

With the outbreak continuing to impact the travel industry on a daily basis, it will be some time before the industry begins to recover. Although international travel intent to the region has not returned to anywhere near ‘normal’, and in most cases is still down year-over-year, we are beginning to see patterns in the data looking more positive. This week most countries in the region have maintained a steady upward trend in inbound travel searches from Q3’2020 onwards, as reflected in regional searches. Countries including Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have continued to show a gradual increase in flight searches, peaking in February 2021.  

Whilst the majority of countries in the region are seeing an uptick in searches for travel towards the end of 2020 and start of 2021, some are even beginning to show year-over-year growth in searches. The data shows travel intent to Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt growing year-over-year in Q1’2021, with interest in travel to Egypt growing by 122%. It is important to remember that the percentages may appear ‘inflated’ the further we look into the future, due to there being a lower volume of searches for departure dates so far in advance. Therefore, these numbers, although significant in terms of increases, are very early signs of travel intent. 


International Flight Searches to Key MEA Markets – Year-Over-Year Change

Swiss Travellers Follow France in ‘Dreaming’ of Travel to the UAE in January 2021

As the data showed last week, French travellers continue to show an interest in planning trips to the UAE in early 2021, with year-over-year searches now up by 88%. Switzerland reflects the same pattern with a 40% year-over-year increase for travel searches in February 2021. As with the international and regional searches to MEA, travel intent data for the UAE from key global destinations is generally showing an upward trend from Q3’2020. 

Whilst actual travel bookings are a stronger sign of consumer confidence, many consumers will search out of general interest, to check for availability and pricing and for travel inspiration to their favourite destinations. The departure date of January 2021 is extremely far out and we usually only see a small volume of early searches looking at regional travel this far in advance. However, there are potentially very early positive signals of recoverys with travellers ‘dreaming’ and planning their next trip. 


Flight Searches to the UAE from Key International Markets – Year-Over-Year Change

Domestic, Regional, and International Searches to South Africa Compared

South Africa is just over one week into one of the most stringent lockdowns seen across the globe yet. It was announced a few days ago that infections in the country are likely to peak at the beginning of June, and it is believed that restrictions could be in place until the end of June or as late as August. Our data shows that searches in the last 28 days from domestic, international, and regional destinations were all up year-over-year for travel in March, with flights from a domestic origin seeing the biggest year-over-year increase of 103%. As the restrictions on travel have now been implemented, there has been a notable decrease in consideration to travel to South Africa from all origins. We see travel from domestic and international origins remaining lower year-over-year through to the end of Q2’2020. However, regional travel intent mirrors the same drop in April, but shows optimism in June with year-over-year searches up by 86%. 


Flight Searches to South Africa with Departure Dates Within Expected Lockdown Period – Year-Over-Year Change Split by Origin 

Domestic Origin

International Origin

Regional Origin

We will continue to share more insights as we monitor the situation. While global flight searches and bookings are inevitably declining rapidly due to travel restrictions and lockdowns, our data shows a very subtle and gradual upward trend in both regional and international travel to parts of the Middle East from Q3’2020 onwards. Some countries such as Egypt are showing more confident indications of a return in consumer confidence with flight bookings surging by 350% in December this year. This catastrophic outbreak has absolutely taken its toll on the travel industry across the globe and it is positive to see steady signs of travel intent, despite figures remaining down year-over-year. These forward looking insights will hopefully help travel marketers shape their strategies when the industry starts to recover from this outbreak. 

For the rest of the COVID-19 insights series click here

About Suzy Ley

Suzy is Sojern's Marketing Manager, EMEA and APAC and works in the London office. With a background in Fashion, Technology and Interiors PR, as well as Marketing in the security industry, travel is her true passion and has led her to her previous role at Singapore Airlines, and current role at Sojern. She loves all things creative and can't resist taking part in an escape room.  

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