After the UAE cancelled tourist visas in March, Dubai’s plans for a post Covid-19 future are slowly unfolding. Its ambitious goal is to welcome tourists back by July. Since April 24, restaurants and retail outlets have been permitted to reopen under strict safety guidelines and Emirates President, Sir Tim Clark has said that the airline is ready to resume service with just 48 hours’ notice.
A crossroad between East and West, Dubai attracted 16.7 million visitors last year, while state-owned Emirates airline – the world’s fourth largest carrier in terms of miles flown – transported close to 58 million passengers.
Helal Al Marri, Director General of DTCM (Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing), says: “July would be the time we start to see the air open up.” However, in an interview with Bloomberg TV this week, he warned that the process could be delayed until September. “Many international airports remain closed and really it’s about the bilateral discussions underway to have a co-ordinated approach to reopening.”
Each country’s quarantine period, Covid-19 testing facilities and social distancing laws will impact travellers’ ability to cross borders. Unless an effective vaccine becomes available, airline bosses fear that future travel plans may be foiled.
The close proximity of airplane seating will make social distancing tricky, and it remains to be seen how international airport protocols will be set – but Dubai and its state airline are braced for business returning.
Currently only operating one-way repatriation flights to five destinations, including London Heathrow, Emirates is providing a modified in-flight service that reduces the risk of infection. Meals are served in prepacked boxes and magazines are no longer supplied. Where possible, vacant seats are placed between groups of passengers, cabin baggage isn’t permitted, and carry-on items are limited to laptops, handbags or briefcases and essential items for infants.
On the ground, Dubai’s Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management has completed its three-week around-the-clock sterilisation drive, spraying the streets of Dubai with 75,000 litres of disinfectant a day while residents remained on lockdown. Hotels, attractions and malls joined in the efforts, sanitising premises in line with UAE requirements.
Omar Khoory, Managing Director, of Nakheel Malls, says: “We’re leaving no stone unturned in getting ready to welcome back our visitors. Customer safety – and confidence – is crucial, and we’re going the extra mile, following government guidance, with supplementary measures in place for added security.”
Nakheel Malls’ vigilant reopening strategy has included Covid-19 tests for all customer service desk staff, a 30 per cent increase in security staff, customer temperature screening at mall entrances and strict pre- and post-opening disinfection regimes, with ‘high touch point sterilisation’ – the cleaning of surfaces commonly touched, such as door handles – every 30 minutes.
Shahab Shayan, Senior Manager of DTCM’s UK & Ireland International Operations, says: “Our approach has been two-pronged: to manage the current situation we find ourselves in and to plan for the future when we welcome visitors back to Dubai.”
By then, travel trends will have changed, impacted by the pandemic. Analysts predict that holidaymakers will be drawn to open spaces, while extended families separated by periods of isolation will book holidays together, packing kids, parents and grandparents into one trip.
“Families have always been an important segment of the market here,” says Shayan, “We have a huge variety of accommodation for extended family groups from private villas to hotels with four-bedroom suites. Those looking for peace and quiet can escape to Bab Al Shams in the desert or Hatta, nestled in the Hajar Mountains, where they can book their own Airstream trailer or a lodge overlooking the turquoise waters of Hatta Dam.”
Intensified sanitation measures will result in higher running costs for hotels, but the UAE government is supporting the industry by reducing other costs, such as municipality fees, which have been halved. Meanwhile, hotel managers are devising ways to offer better value amid economic uncertainty. Special deals will be available for those ready and able to enjoy Dubai’s five-star hotels set alongside pristine beaches and dunes.
But, for now, like most countries, the UAE is being measured by its Covid-19 statistics – 12,481 confirmed cases, 2,429 recoveries and 105 deaths; not by its miles of uninterrupted sand.