Clad in oversized black abayas and armed with digital cameras, some of China's leading tour operators descended on the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi yesterday as part of a summit to boost Chinese tourism to the Emirates.
Some 76 of the country's biggest tour operators took a whistle-stop tour of the capital's top destinations, including Ferrari World and the Falcon Hospital, as part of a seven-day trip that will also take them to Dubai for three days.
"The UAE is receiving just a tiny fraction of outbound Chinese travellers, which numbered 70 million last year and China is expected to become the world's leading source market for tourism within the next few years," said Rob Nicholas, the managing director at NPI, the co-organiser of the summit alongside i2i Group, China.
Last year more than 210,000 Chinese tourists visited the UAE, according to the Dubai and Abu Dhabi tourism departments, an increase of more than 26 per cent on the year before. Mr Nicholas and the tour operators hope the increase will be even greater this year.
A June survey by Visa indicated Chinese tourists spend an average of US$700 (Dh2,571) per transaction in the UAE, making them the highest-spending visitor group in the country with a total of $225 million spent last year. "Chinese visitors here are just 0.3 per cent of China's total outbound market and just 3 per cent of Dubai's hotel guests last year - yet luxury retailers have been telling us for a long time that the Chinese are their best customers," Mr Nicholas said.
China's government added the UAE to its list of permitted holiday destinations in 2009. "Since then the number of Chinese visitors has increased exponentially and we are trying to speed it up," he added.
During their visit, the tour operators will stay at hotels such as Emirates Palace and Anantara Eastern Mangroves in the capital. "The hotels recognised the value of the Chinese tourists," Mr Nicholas said.
The delegates on the visit pointed to the growing interest in the UAE from Chinese travellers.
Wuyi Zheng is the general manager of the American Cultural Exchange Centre at the Shanghai New Comfort Travel Service Company. His office handles about 200,000 outbound Chinese travellers a year and of those about 1,500 come to the Middle East, he said.
Sun Anqing, the president of Shanghai Pan Asia International Travel Service, said the UAE's big tourist attractions were becoming better known. "We have seen lots publicity about Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa, in particular."
Li Jia, the vice chief executive of China Space Travel, said there were good prospects regarding the Emirates. "The UAE is a very small part of our business at the moment but that means there is the potential to grow substantially".
"[The summit] is also [a good opportunity] to promote Chinese products in Dubai and Abu Dhabi," said Sun AnQing, the chairman of Shanghai Intercontinental Travel Service Company.