Dubai Plans To Rebuild Tourism With Social Distancing Sunbathing

The focus will be on disinfectant, not decadence 

Socially-distant sunbathing, ‘hands-free’ hospitality, and luxury hotels at rock-bottom prices: this could be the ‘new normal’ for Dubai holidaymakers, industry insiders have told Telegraph Travel. The emirate, renowned for its five-star hotels and designer shopping malls, has long set the standard for luxury holidays – but as Dubai rebuilds its tourism industry post Covid-19, its focus will be on disinfectant, not decadence. 

For Emaar Hospitality, which operates 19 hotels in Dubai, the race is on to rethink the five-star experience. “All those luxurious elements we’ve come to expect – like an attentive waiter topping up your glass at dinner, or a hand-folded towel waiting on your bed – have to be reconsidered,” Chief Operating Officer Chris Newman told Telegraph Travel. “We are working closely with healthcare consultants to minimise ‘touch points’ throughout the hotels. Check-in and check-out will be contactless, pool areas will be designed for distancing, restaurants will be limited to a 30% capacity – and as for buffets? You can forget about them for the foreseeable future.” 

Meanwhile, the push to get Dubai’s tourism industry back on its feet has already led to heavily-discounted holiday deals. “We’re seeing hotels offering up to 60% off,” says Lesley Rollo, Managing Director of booking agent Travelbag. “In the past, you might have seen reductions of 40% – but it would be a quick sale, for the hot summer period. But now, that 60% discount is valid from October half term until the end of next year, all through the high season – I’ve never seen anything like it. It will open up luxury travel for so many people.”

Dubai’s five-star hotels are cutting their rates 

But while Dubai’s big tourism players can offer big booking incentives, its smaller enterprises face a more uncertain future. “Under the current travel restrictions, the business can hold out until the end of the year, but I hope we won’t have to wait that long,” says Arva Saleem Ahmed, founder of Dubai food tour specialist Frying Pan Adventures. “A focus on fewer crowded experiences would work in our favour, because our tours were always in small groups – but we will have to make sure we address sanitisation, distancing, and all the other protocols which we never had to consider at this heightened level before.”

Last month, Emirates – Dubai’s state-owned airline – became “the world’s first” to carry out pre-flight coronavirus tests for all passengers and crew – and announced it would implement “enhanced disinfection” between flights. It was a heartening move for residents and visitors alike (“If there’s any plane I’d travel on right now, it would be an Emirates one,” says Newman), but even with discounted hotels and heightened hygiene, will tourists really start booking tickets? 

Shopping in Dubai’s malls could become a very different experience 

Some locals think not. “Bars and restaurants can only operate at 30% capacity at the moment, so nightlife will be off the table for a while,” says Tom Ramsey, a Briton who has lived in the UAE for 16 years. “The malls are now open, but we weren’t able to try on clothes – or return them – so I’m sure retail-focused tourism will take a hit too.” 

But Dubai’s tourism industry might respond to such concerns, insiders say, by letting its beach resorts lead the way to recovery – rather than its once-popular city breaks. “We may now see Dubai [focus on] more hotel-based activities, rather than ‘out and about’ activities,” said a spokesperson from Emirates Holidays. “Beach resorts, with their ample facilities and culinary experiences, are an ideal solution. We also suspect health and wellbeing travel may also be on the rise, along with multi-generational holidays.” It’s a far cry from those hedonistic long weekends that many visitors have enjoyed over the years.

Countless questions remain: When might water-parks reopen for business? How would social distancing be implemented on beaches? “Body-temperature checks are everywhere,” continues Ramsey, “but I’m not sure how that will work for holidaymakers – especially when it’s 45°C and you’re sweating.”

Dubai’s authorities were quick to act when the coronavirus outbreak hit the Gulf region, immediately cancelling tourist visas and imposing some of the world’s strictest lockdown restrictions – but has it paid off? Officials are optimistic: Helal Al Marri, Director General of DTCM (Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing) has said the city may open up to visitors as early as July, but warned it could be as late as September. 

Business owners are also hopeful – but cautious. “Even when people start travelling again, there will be a new sense of normal,” says Ahmed. “In that respect, change is the only real certainty.”

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