By Gary Wright, Communications advisor, for ITIC Ltd
Dubai is an amazing city where I’ve spent much of my working life since 2012. When I arrived it was just emerging from the avalanche of financial woes following the crash, shaking itself off and then with its usual optimism and positivity, which I have come to respect, moving forward to greater growth and success.
COVID-19 is the latest survival test for Dubai’s tourism sector, and the Middle East… in fact the world. I’ve been lucky enough to be in Dubai during the past three months, most of it in enforced lockdown.
I’ll explain ‘lucky’ later but as the travel & tourism industry has been brought to its knees worldwide, Dubai will (and has already) set an example for the world to follow. I’ve seen examples already – I’d say it’s pretty exciting.
It all looked so different just six months ago in the Middle East where Dubai was a model for economic growth and travel & tourism a part of the city’s DNA.
In 2019 the emirate’s huge main airport (one of two, each end of the city) had become the biggest aviation hub in the world and it had forged unparalleled links with Europe, China, Africa and India. Forty per cent of all China’s exports go through Dubai and its tourism success was a model for the region.
Expo 2020 was to be its showpiece: a focus for the world with millions of dollars poured into the project, including 100 new hotels in time for the October 2020 opening and visitor forecasts predicting three million more visitors.
That’s all off now, moved lock, stock and barrel to October 2021 so that in the absence of a vaccine, new procedures can be implemented to welcome guests.
Over the past five years, other Middle Eastern countries began their own moves away from reliance upon oil and gas to focus on tourism. In October 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia revealed its 2030 plan aiming for 10 per cent of GDP from tourism within 10 years, up from 3 per cent, building on its enormous annual religious pilgrimage visitors. The Kingdom set a target of 100 million international and domestic annual visits by 2030, ensuring new foreign and domestic investment and a million jobs.
As other oil nations sought to incorporate more tourism to diversify their economies and create jobs, so those without oil also pursued tourists. In 2018, resource-scarce Jordan celebrated surpassing US$5 billion in tourist revenue, up 8 per cent on the previous year and it understandably expected to continue that success.
The Middle East, thanks to its geographic position and the gradual change in economic balance away from formerly wealthy Europe to the faster growing Chinese, Indian and African economies, the Middle East was well positioned for huge tourism growth.
In 2019 – and that seems a long, long time ago now – the Middle East’s tourism and travel concerns centred on sustainability and environmental protection, things like ensuring reliable water supplies and power, combatting global warming and food security as it underwent a tourism revolution.
But ironically it was China, which has been a huge contributor to the Middle East’s tourism and business growth, which in December 2019 recorded the first signs a virus that would spark a global pandemic and change the world, forever.
Coronavirus – specifically the COVID-19 strain – swept the globe within weeks. Nations closed their borders and locked down their populations while people died prematurely and international travel just stopped.
Tourism, fuelled by easy air travel and an interconnected global economy, had brought rewards for everyone.
The Financial Crash of 2008-9 was caused by many issues mainly deregulation of the financial sector. But the Pandemic of 2020 is worse, according to almost every analyst.
Six months after the first COVID-19 case an estimated 370,000 (as I write) have lost their lives with only a handful of, mainly isolated, small island countries not recording cases. That figure is surely an underestimate and scientists and health experts are still baffled over why so few have died in countries like South Korea, Thailand and Japan, while the United Kingdom (almost 40,000 dead in a population of just 67m) and to a lesser degree the United States (over 100,000 in a population of 350m) have been so hard hit.
Early optimism about a cure-all vaccine that would allow life to resume are now balanced by the knowledge that virus vaccines are notoriously difficult to manufacture. Even the most optimistic forecasters now believe the end of 2021 is the earliest that such a ‘cure’ could be available.
Everyone has had to change the way they live their life and will have to do so for at least another year, very probably much longer, but the economic damage felt internationally can not be allowed to continue.
Over the last couple of weeks frightened people in some countries are tentatively being encouraged back outside and as they emerge blinking into the sunlight, most wearing a mask (though not all, hands up UK, France, USA), they are going to have to get used to the new reality.
And that brings me back to the Middle East. While the pandemic has not claimed the sheer number of lives lost in Europe and the Americas, the financial implications for the future of travel and tourism are enormous and reflected across the globe.
Oh I hear you say: ‘What’s that? Travel & tourism? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on banking, food, manufacturing and more important areas of business to aid recovery?’
No. Tourism and travel employs one in 10 of the world’s working population and is estimated to be worth a staggering US$8.9 trillion – that’s 10.3 per cent of world GDP.
So it’s pretty important. Governments now know it’s pretty important too and though I’m sure lots of folk in developed countries would love them to keep handing over wads of cash so that people don’t have to go to work, it can not go on. There is a new reality and those at-risk folk will simply have to take responsibility for the risks they take and everybody else will have to be mindful of the infection danger they pose to other members of their society.
‘Social distancing’ is going to be the phrase of 2020 but it’s pretty difficult to achieve when it comes to travel. Crippled airlines won’t recover for years but they are working hard to make you the traveller safe. The hospitality sector meanwhile has been fretting for weeks about restaurant tables and keeping accommodation clean enough to inspire traveller confidence.
I’m here to tell you it’s already happening. And this is where I’ll give you my personal glimpse into the future from the most successful tourist destination in the world.
The restaurants in Dubai are spectacular. Nowhere in the world can you experience the range of cuisine (and arguably service) that the Emirate has forged in the past 20 years. Say what you like about Paris (it can’t do a curry), London (you’ll be lucky to see foie gras), New York (the Americans have an irritating, though delicious, habit of ‘making everything their own way), Tokyo (sushi is to die for, but you won’t find a traditional English Sunday roast) and Rome (simplistic Italian cooking is superb, but the range is limited), Dubai is special.
It began opening up properly just last week after an overnight curfew which crippled its social life and eating out became impossible (I’ll deal with the city’s excellent delivery services of everything from groceries, takeaways and even a bottle of fine wine at any time of the night or day or night).
From last Wednesday, you can eat out again. My first experience had been at one of the many food outlets in Dubai Mall two weeks ago. We were the sole couple there and while the service was good, the menu was limited.
However, following the latest lockdown announcement and the arrival of the first evening you were allowed out until 11pm, we struck out for the Belgian Beer Cafe at Barsha Heights. The menu was limited – no foie gras, no belly of pork, no mussels, the wine list was still to be reinstated – but we had superb sea bass, salmon, a couple of glasses of Leffe Brun, G&T finished with coffee and cognac.
Tables were spaced but not ridiculously so, there were maybe 20 people within our sight line all of whom removed their masks after ordering and there was enough buzz to make it ‘feel’ right.
Staff wore masks throughout, there was hand sanitiser available everywhere and the crockery, cutlery, glasses and cups were all plastic or disposable. Sure, that retracts from the experience, but hey, we were out, eating in a nice restaurant. It was great. I decided after eight weeks that this is an acceptable way to live and socialise in the new world.
Over the weekend we stepped out again. This time the Maria Bonita at Souk Madinat, a true tourist hotspot with souvenir shops alongside jewellery sellers always ready to bargain, the canals, even a theatre and of course restaurants.
They weren’t all open yet and Mexican food is not top of my list, but it turned out to be excellent and the most fun I’ve had dining out for many months. Who’d have thought I’d pay the thick end of $20 to enjoy guacamole with corn chips? Corona beer, cocktails, a real buzz about the place and while there was no cutlery on the table when we arrived (just a clean, disinfected table), the knife and fork brought with the meals were stainless steel. Crockery and serving dishes were the real thing and there was even an ancient enamelled spoon, handed over by our gloved and masked waiter to scrape the last of the guacamole onto the corn chips.
It felt normal. This restaurant proves to every restaurateur in the world, you can survive and thrive post-pandemic. This restaurant proves that people can and do behave responsibly. This restaurant proves that you can offer safe dining without the (ridiculous) Netherlands greenhouses in the garden, or plastic barriers between tables. The future is bright.
We travelled there by taxi – well Uber on the way there – with a thick plastic sheet between us and our masked driver. There was hand sanitiser next to our seat. Payment was contactless. It works.
Dubai, and the whole UAE, responded quickly to the pandemic threat, it set up field hospitals within days just in case, launched nationwide disinfection programmes and testing at a level no European country could imagine or match. Sadly 264 people have lost their lives (in a population of 9m) but Dubai is the crossroads for the world – a similar excuse the UK is trying to use – and shutting its doors and banning flights was necessary and, I’d argue, successful.
Now as the city and emirate begin gearing up to welcome visitors again (and check out its high-tech temperature and passenger protections at the airport), I honestly feel more optimistic about the future of travel than I did six weeks ago.
The reason I’m so interested in the tourism industry is because for the past eight weeks I’ve been involved in the ITIC-WTM online summit on June 10 discussing exactly how the future looks, how it will be financed and how it will mutate to offer holidays and international travel.
If you’ve got this far, it’s online, begins at 9.15am London time, and registration is free so you can take part from your laptop and connect with travel and tourism experts from around the world.
Not only will it look at the health implications and identify the key issues for the sector to recover, it will examine the financial opportunities available to the smallest hotel through to the biggest tour operators and airlines. Guests and speakers include government ministers, leaders from across the travel & tourism sector and financial experts.
Finance will be vital and while some businesses will fall by the wayside, some airlines will not survive and some hotel chains will be unable to adapt, many others will and new players will emerge in the market offering travel solutions in our new normal.
“We are living in unprecedented times for the industry, facing its toughest challenge ever – stay home means no travel and, no travel, means no tourism,” said Dr Taleb Rifai, former Secretary-General of UNWTO and chairman of ITIC’s advisory board. He’ll be at the conference.
“This conference is, therefore, very timely and ITIC and WTM London have joined hands to bring this Virtual Summit to you. We must start planning for tomorrow and we must introduce ways and means of bringing back a sense of normality to the world in which we live.
“This is an important summit not just because of the subject matters but more significantly, its timing.
“I am sure we are all going to come out of this summit a little more confident about the direction in which we are headed.”
And I think he’s probably right.
Discover more and register HERE https://itic.uk/investment-summit-home/
Wednesday June 10 9.15am (GMT+1) virtual conference, The Future of Tourism, Financial Strategies for Recovery. Free Registration
Gary Wright has been a journalist for more than 30 years and since 2012 worked in the Middle East and South Africa across the magazine, exhibition and conference sectors including construction, hospitality, mining, travel and facility management. Originally from the UK, he has homes in France and the UAE and flies on average around 35,000 miles a yearr. He has moved home a dozen times in the last decade and ‘spends far too much time in hotels’. Few people are as directly affected by the worldwide travel restrictions.