Soccer stars, actors and television personalities from Cristiano Ronaldo to Maya Jama were among those who enjoyed the holiday period in Dubai, working and playing in the Gulf tourist hotspot as Europe suffers under a strict coronavirus lockdown.
As 2021 began with barely a pop elsewhere, the airport in the United Arab Emirates’ trade hub has been rammed as British, French and Russian tourists flooded into what has recently become the world’s most open city, where visitors can enjoy restaurants, bars and even socially distanced raves.
After a tough lockdown, the city started opening up its economy gradually in May. With the UAE rolling out a fast vaccination programme, bookings for the city’s hotels are buoyant and a moribund property market is resurgent.
“Dubai has taken away impediments — people see somewhere relatively safe and so they are prepared to travel,” said Simon Casson, president of hotel operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa at the Four Seasons group. “There are few hotels in the world today that are enjoying the levels of demand that Four Seasons Dubai is.”
Since November, occupancy and rates at its two Dubai hotels had been increasing, reaching more than 90 per cent at the beach location in December, from lows in single digits during the summer, he said. In the first week of December, occupancy across Dubai reached 66 per cent, according to data provider STR.
Dubai, harder hit than the UAE’s richer capital Abu Dhabi, has adopted easier entry requirements to boost tourism. Dubai requires some visitors to present negative Covid-19 tests at check-in and to take another on arrival, though Britons and Germans, like other Gulf nationals, only need to take a PCR test at Dubai airport.
A more infectious new virus variant is present in the UAE and cases have surged since the new year. The authorities have so far only reminded people to adhere to social-distancing protocols.
The two-month revival in tourism, which together with the real estate sector accounts for about a third of the economy, is one part of a story about the emirate’s resurgence since many of the foreigners it relies on left due to the pandemic. As much as 10 per cent of the 10m population, the vast majority of whom are expatriates, fled the country, western officials estimate.
Since then the UAE, which has had about 700 reported deaths from coronavirus, has led the way with its vaccination drive. Dubai this month rolled out its BioNTech/Pfizer vaccination programme, which aims to inoculate 70 per cent of the population in 2021, building on the UAE campaign using China’s Sinopharm jab. The UAE is now second only to Israel in the global vaccination race, at 9 doses per 100 people, and plans to surpass its newfound ally.
“It’s the only place I know where you can really live your normal life — they’ve got it all figured out — there are masks everywhere,” said John, a banker from New York, who has just moved his family to Dubai.
While years of property oversupply continue to weigh on a market down 40 per cent from its 2014 peak, some districts are now starting to rebound.
Ben Kirkland, a commodities trader who agreed to buy a four-bedroom townhouse on the man-made Palm Jumeirah before the virus struck, thought he had made a terrible mistake when he got stranded abroad during the pandemic.
But he and his wife went ahead with the purchase and the value has since risen as much as 20 per cent. “It ended up being a good decision, buying as close as possible to the bottom of the market.”
Outside tourism and property, many sectors are still suffering. In November, managers reported a fall in activity and the weakest growth in new business for five months, with a “solid reduction” in output, according to the IHS Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index, which surveys business sentiment. While jobs continue to be lost, the rate of shedding has eased to its lowest level since the pandemic struck.
To spur the recovery, the government has introduced a raft of reforms to improve quality of life and attract foreign direct investment, including removing the requirement for an Emirati to hold 51 per cent of a business.
While concerns remain about the emirate’s overall debt burden, Hasnain Malik, a Dubai-based analyst with emerging market research house Tellimer, said these would be eased by low global interest rates, renewed tourism activity and implicit support from Abu Dhabi, which bailed it out previously.
“Debt is an Achilles heel, not a deal-breaker,” he said. “If this holds up, exposure could turn into a driver as investors seek exposure to highly geared tourism economies.”
For now, the party continues. The city’s new year celebrations were capped by the traditional sound, light and fireworks show around Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, albeit with yellow “#staysafe” stickers marking out physical distancing.
The show’s climax featured a slogan coined by Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and the UAE’s de facto leader, assuring the public about the country’s ability to deal with coronavirus: “Do not be concerned.”