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A California CEO Dream Team Breaks New Ground in the Middle East
A California CEO Dream Team Breaks New Ground in the Middle East

By Leona Reed

Visit California led its first diplomatic mission to the Middle East in late April to explore the market’s potential for California’s tourism industry. Seven California DMO CEOs joined Visit California President & CEO Caroline Beteta and Board Chair James Bermingham (Montage International) for six days filled with strategic meetings and promotional networking events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council region (consisting of six countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) is among the most complex of international markets. It also happens to be one of the fastest growing outbound tourism generating regions in the world, with travel quadrupling in the past 20 years. In terms of the market potential, Visit California expects to see a pronounced rebound in travel from the Middle East this year. This marked an ideal time to start looking at how California can regain lost air service, grow its market share and capitalize on the incredible affluence in the GCC nations. 

In 2019, 264,000 Middle Eastern travelers are forecasted to visit the Golden State. By 2022, growth in travel from the Middle East is projected to outpace several of the state’s top target markets—approaching 300,000 visitors. Wealthy Millennials are considered the average Middle Eastern traveler, with approximately 50% of visitors from the region being under the age of 34. During their lengthy luxury trips, they spend heavily on entertainment, retail and accommodations. 

The market is a natural fit for Visit California’s luxury portfolio, with an emphasis on families and Millennials, and aligns with the organization's nascent sustainable growth strategy, given the high-spending nature and travel habits of the Middle Eastern visitor.

Given its lucrative growth potential for the Golden State, this mission was designed to help attendees better understand the GCC’s nuances and consumer landscape in order to refine the organization's strategy and marketing approach. Business development was equally important to market education, particularly developing closer marketing alliances with the airlines. The delegation also went into the mission knowing there is a significant lack of awareness and understanding of the California product among trade and consumers.

By all measures, the mission was a resounding success. This CEO Dream Team was able to personally deliver the message that California is a welcoming, multi-cultural destination with a diverse hospitality industry catering to the respective needs of Arab and Muslim visitors. As a result, Visit California's “All Dreams Welcome” messaging was very well-received. 

Through 16 meetings and events, the delegation forged new business relationships and built upon existing relationships with airlines, travel trade, media, influencers and luxury brands. In addition, Visit California launched the “Kidifornia” campaign to consumers and digital influencers. (As a bonus, it was a delightful surprise to see many kids in the audience, which was a very first for such an industry event!)

Following are the key insights about this unique market, which will influence Visit California's approach moving forward and that may be useful in your own marketing to this audience.

Middle East Travel Preferences

  • Luxury is about being treated with a lot of deference. Exclusivity and pampering are key. This market is all about old luxury—it’s less about experience and more about luxury product, which starts with accommodations. That said, the market is expanding from 6-star and 5-star properties to 4- and 3-star product.
  • Safety is a critical travel decision-making factor, and California is perceived as a safe destination. The political landscape is definitely a deterrent and distance is the only market challenge.
  • There is great trust in travel agencies, especially for planning and booking long-haul family travels. Middle Eastern consumers still want face-to-face engagement with their travel advisors.
  • Consumers from the Middle East book quite late—21 days prior to the trip even for long-haul. They also change plans pre-departure and during the trip, whether it’s room configurations or daily excursions. 
  • They travel long-haul more frequently, but shorter stays are becoming increasingly popular—however, this pertains more to European destinations than the U.S. currently.

To cater to this audience, the following should be accommodated and considered:

  • Halal or clearly labeled cuisine is a must
  • Praying mats, Arabic speaking butlers and familiar bathroom amenities
  • Accommodations for smokers

GCC Nuances

Consumers in the six countries of the GCC differ in unique ways:

  • Kuwait nationals are more well-traveled than other Middle Eastern nationals.
  • Qatar nationals and United Arab Emirates nationals are more conservative travelers. 
  • Saudi nationals get education abroad and are more well-traveled.
  • Expats and Indians are more likely to move around the state.
  • Wealthy UAE nationals are not likely to drive from place to place—they need to be driven.

Audience Insights

  • Millennials are expected to increase consumption of luxury product from the current level of 10% up to 50% by 2025. They know California much better than older generations. They also care more about ethics—where things come from and if destinations are doing things the right way.
  • Indian wealth within UAE should not be overlooked. Indian weddings are a lucrative segment.
  • The older generation (+40) will travel to the same destination every year, but the younger generation is driven by social media and will travel to trending destinations.
  • Multigenerational travel is still strong. Mothers and children influence decision making, but the bread winner ultimately makes the decision. Women generally do the trip research.
  • Learning on vacation is very important; parents want experiences that will enrich their children’s lives.
  • Content is important and our marketing language needs to be appropriate for a younger audience.
  • Wellness as a travel motivator is growing, pre- and post-Ramadan.
  • Middle Eastern travelers are very brand driven.
  • Working with luxury hotel brands to drive people to travel throughout the state is key.
Man with surfboard walking on beach edge, ocean horizon in background.
Visit California storms state Capitol with Travel Matters message during Tourism Month

By Dan Smith

Visit California has used California Tourism Month to press its travel matters message with decision makers at the state Capitol.

The annual statewide economic impact numbers — $140.6 billion in visitor spending, 1.2 million jobs and $11.8 billion in state and local taxes — was trumpeted across the state and then carved up by legislative district.

Visit California storms state Capitol with Travel Matters message during Tourism Month

Each of 120 lawmakers was armed with their local data, and many shared it via social media to their influential district-based audiences. 

Visit California storms state Capitol with Travel Matters message during Tourism Month

At the urging of Assemblymember Kansen Chu, chairman of the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media Committee, President and CEO Caroline Beteta hosted a legislative briefing and reception at the Capitol on May 21. It featured one of California tourism’s most reliable ambassadors, Olympic gold medal winner Jonny Moseley. Caroline and Jonny first dropped in to the office of First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who attended high school with Moseley in Marin County.

Visit California storms state Capitol with Travel Matters message during Tourism Month

 Later, the briefing outlined Visit California’s global mission, described its successes and explained tourism’s importance to local economies across California and more than a million workers.

 Moseley and Beteta were joined on stage by Kevin Fat, Visit California commissioner and Sacramento restaurateur, Leona Reed, Visit California’s associate vice president for global marketing, and Maral Farsi, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Deputy Director for Economic Development.

Visit California storms state Capitol with Travel Matters message during Tourism Month

 Several legislators and staff members attended, as did Lenny Mendonca, Newsom’s director or economic development and a member of the Visit California board.

 But decision makers and visitors to the Capitol have been wowed by a 50-foot-long exhibit outside the Governor’s Office to visually tell the story of why travel matters to all Californians.

 The wall display includes an encore performance by the string art bear from Outlook Forum, a 12-foot-by-8-foot piece that invites all passers-by to share the #CALove by pulling some yarn across its body.

Visit California storms state Capitol with Travel Matters message during Tourism Month

 The installation has proven hugely popular, drawing positive comments from Capitol staff and others with business in the building. It is passed daily by hundreds of visitors – particularly school groups – and children and adults alike line up to pull some yarn and pose for photos.

 It went up on May 20 and will stay until May 31 – a two-week run that is double what other displays normally receive. Visit the Travel Matters website for more insights on how California tourism powers the Golden State's economy.


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