Dubai re-opens its door, armed with thermometers and optimism

Jon Gambrell

DUBAI (AP) – From French soccer jerseys to slick online campaigns, Dubai is trumpeting the fact that it re-opened for tourism – but what that means for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that relies on the dollars, pounds, rupees and yuan spent by travellers remains in question.

With travel uncertain and the coronavirus still striking nations Dubai relies on for tourists, this city-state wants to begin coaxing people back to its beaches and its cavernous shopping malls. By instilling the idea that Dubai is safe, authorities likely hope to fuel interest in the region ahead of its crucial winter months for tourism.

But all that depends on controlling a virus that the UAE as a whole continues to fight. Armed with thermometers, mandatory face masks and hand sanitiser, Dubai is wagering it is ready.

“I think that will give people confidence – when they’re ready to travel – to come to Dubai,” said Paul Bridger, the corporate director for operations at Dubai-based Rove Hotels. “It will take time to come back… We are expecting to be one of the first markets to be back because of the confidence that we can give to people that are travelling.”

That Dubai is a tourist destination at all is largely thanks to its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who used the state-owned long-haul carrier Emirates to put this one-time pearling post on the map.

Traffic speeds down the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. PHOTOS: AP
The front desk staffers help customers at the Rove City Centre Hotel in Dubai
ABOVE & BELOW: Dubai re-opened for tourists recently amid the coronavirus pandemic, hoping to reinvigorate a vital industry for this city-state before its crucial winter tourist season; and an Emirati walks past a camel statue decorated with a face mask

Attractions like the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab luxury hotel draw transit passengers out of Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel.

In 2019 alone, Dubai welcomed 16.7 million international guests, up from 15.9 million the year before, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. The top seven tourist-sending nations were India, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Oman, China, Russia and the United States (US). The city’s 741 hotels saw around 75 per cent occupancy for the year, with visitors staying on average three and a half days.

But even before the pandemic, lower global energy prices, a 30 per cent drop in the city’s real estate market value and trade war fears have led employers to shed staff.

The virus outbreak accelerated those losses, especially as Dubai has postponed its Expo 2020, or world’s fair, to next year over the pandemic.

That makes re-opening for tourism that much more important, even though Dubai’s top three tourist-feeding countries remain hard-hit by the virus, said Rabia Yasmeen, a consultant at the market-research firm Euromonitor International. Even retail sales are affected by tourism, with some 35 per cent of all revenue coming from tourists, she said.

“It’s good for them to go ahead and announce because there needs to be a call for the confidence to come back,” Yasmeen said. “Someone has to take that step first to show the world.”

And Dubai has, in typical headline-baiting fashion, taken those steps.

French football club Olympique Lyonnais, under a sponsorship with Emirates, wore “Dubai Is Open” jerseys at a recent match.

Dubai passport controllers have begun putting stickers on foreigners’ passports reading in English and Arabic: “A warm welcome to your second home.”

But there’s a risk, particularly in allowing more travel as the virus stalks other countries.

At Rove Hotels, a new budget chain run by state-linked firms Emaar and Meraas, thermometer-carrying staffers check the temperature of everyone coming inside. Cleaners fog disinfectants over rooms and wipe down tables and chairs. Even a camel statue and an oversized stuffed animal wore a mask.

The chain, like others in Dubai, also has sought outside certification over its cleaning routines on top of fulfilling government regulations.

There are still risks. In order to travel, tourists must take a COVID-19 test within 96 hours of their flight and show the airline a negative result.

Otherwise, they will be tested on arrival and required to isolate while awaiting the results, which travellers say typically takes a few hours. Travellers must also have health insurance covering COVID-19 or sign a declaration agreeing to cover the costs of treatment and isolation.

“A key question comes in: Is the traveller ready to come to Dubai?” Yasmeen asked. “That’s a big question mark.”