Middle East escorted touring
By Peter Ellegard
For a region as diverse and complex as the Middle East, an escorted tour can offer peace of mind and help to create a more meaningful experience
Leading the way
I’m in an ultra-modern hospital in Qatar’s capital, Doha. Spread over four floors, it offers five-star care for very exclusive patients.
As I’m shown around its medical museum with my tour group, the displays of stuffed exhibits, skeletons and feathers – not to mention tracks painted on the floor – underline its true purpose.
This place is strictly for the birds. Specifically falcons, the ultimate status symbol of this region.
Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital is situated in the heart of bustling Souq Waqif, surrounded by shops full of raptors and hunting paraphernalia. One shop owner proudly shows us a prized bird as hooded falcons line long perches behind.
Our tour leader takes us on to explore Souq Waqif’s labyrinthine alleyways of traders selling spice, gold and more, and its camel market. We take a night dhow cruise past Doha’s shimmering skyscrapers, visit the space-age National Museum of Qatar and the Museum of Islamic Art, and enjoy thrilling desert dune-bashing excursions.
As we leave Qatar, I feel I have got under the skin of this fascinating destination, thanks to being part of a tour group.
New and exotic
The Middle East is made for escorted tours. The exotic cultures, traditions and food of the region’s countries can overwhelm, so having a knowledgeable tour leader throughout helps clients feel at ease, as does the camaraderie of being with a group, sharing experiences and bonding.
With travel restarting, the Middle East is already on holidaymakers’ radars. Key events such as the delayed Expo 2020 Dubai, which opened this October and runs until the end of March, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup, being hosted by Qatar in a year’s time, will help keep it top of mind.
G Adventures National Sales Manager Stu Darnley says that destinations such as Israel and Jordan previously favoured by more niche-focused travellers are now increasingly appealing to the mass market, with Jordan in the operator’s top 10 most popular destinations from the UK.
“While it may naturally appeal to the older traveller, the Middle East is actually a great option for younger travellers too and there’s a great opportunity for agents to educate customers on what’s on offer,” he adds.
Phil Ellis, Titan Travel’s Middle East Product Manager, says: “The Middle East is a fantastic destination to sell all year round, but we’re noticing demand for 2022 holidays really pick up recently.”
Egypt has remained popular, according to Abercrombie & Kent Managing Director Kerry Golds. But she highlights Saudi Arabia as the next big thing, with people keen to explore the once-closed kingdom.
Perennial favourite Dubai remains a popular option for tour groups, often in conjunction with neighbouring states and emirates or as a stopover.
Its glitzy and luxurious hotels, some on artificial islands, and upscale shopping-cum-entertainment malls combined with desert adventures that include 4x4 safaris and Bedouin camps, high-class restaurants and attractions such as the soaring Burj Khalifa make for an unforgettable experience.
JA Resorts’ collection of seven hotels in Dubai includes the emirate’s only mountain resort, the 53-room JA Hatta Fort Hotel, 90 minutes from central Dubai in the Hajar Mountains, as well as JA The Resort that features three five-star hotels set on an 800-metre private beach.
Top tip: Escape the sky-high towers to browse the fascinating souqs around Dubai Creek, once the heart of the city.
Still largely undiscovered by British holidaymakers, Oman offers a fascinating blend of the ancient and modern along with breathtaking natural wonders.
Muscat is the start and end point for tours and serves up deliciously sumptuous hotels, along with the charm of Old Muscat and its preserved forts, Muttrah Souq and the spectacular Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
Beyond the capital, tours take in elements including the 6,000-year-old tradition of building wooden dhows in the shipyards of Sur, a green turtle sanctuary, the vast Wahiba Sands desert for 4x4 adventures and desert camp experiences, lush desert wadis with natural springs and waterfalls.
At the historic one-time capital Nizwa, locals trade goats and cattle at the morning market. Then there’s Oman’s “Grand Canyon”, Wadi Nakhr, at Jebel Shams.
Book it: G Adventures offers an eight-day Highlights of Oman tour costs from £1,799pp for departures from February 2022, with group sizes up to a maximum of 16. Flights are not included.
History comes alive in Jordan through its Biblical locations, preserved Roman towns, Crusader castles and the amazing Nabatean city of Petra, carved out of the rocks and lost to the sands for hundreds of years.
Then there is the extraordinary scenery of Wadi Rum, with its strong connections to Lawrence of Arabia.
Titan’s Phil Ellis says: “Jordan has numerous angles for discovery and therefore attracts a wide spectrum of travellers with differing interests and reasons for discover this amazing and eclectic country.”
Ellis suggests visiting in spring, when the deserts and cities are ablaze with colour from wildflowers and fruit tree blossom.
“Experiencing the ancient site of Jerash with a carpet of vivid yellow flower is a spectacle that will remain within my memories forever,” he adds.
Book it: Titan Travel offers an eight-day culture and history-rich Jordan with Ancient Petra escorted tour is priced from £1,849pp and includes flights, VIP transfers, hotels, some meals and 10 excursions.
“A mysterious desert kingdom closed to much of the outside world until recently, Saudi Arabia is the next go-to destination for pioneering adventure travellers, with a slew of archaeological wonders, like Al Ula, an archaeological treasure poised to become the next Petra.”
So says Abercrombie & Kent Managing Director Kerry Golds, who believes the country will be in prime position “as travel ramps up to return with a vengeance in 2022” and travellers look to experience new destinations where few have visited before.
The country is also championed by Marc Leaderman, Product and Operations Director of Wild Frontiers, which offers an 11-day Inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tour. With a lead-in price of £4,595pp, it is commissionable to agents.
“Travelling in a small group of like-minded travellers is an excellent way to discover the best of Saudi Arabia,” he says.
Book it: An eight-day Saudi Arabia: Desert Kingdoms tour with Abercrombie & Kent costs from £7,355pp. It takes in Riyadh, Jeddah and Al Ula, for group sizes of 10-12. International flights are not included but domestic flights are, as is accommodation, transportation and entrance fees.
Key milestones and events in 2022 will put Egypt in the limelight and stoke interest in the country over the coming year.
After several delays, the Kenneth Branagh-directed remake of Death on the Nile is finally set to hit cinema screens in February after its original October 2020 release date was postponed due to Covid.
And next November will be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by the infamous British archaeologist Howard Carter, while 2022 also marks 200 years since the Rosetta Stone was deciphered and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics could be interpreted.
The new Grand Egyptian Museum is also expected to open in November 2022, located close to Giza’s Pyramids.
Top tip: Abercrombie & Kent is the only tour company granted access to the newly-excavated, 4,000-year-old Wahtye Tomb at Sakkara in Egypt, and through its DMC offers privileged private openings for its guests.