On one of the hottest days last month, the Ziarno family from Dubai packed their bags, picked up their friends and went on holiday. But instead of driving to the airport, they drove 30 minutes to the end of the Palm. "I have often said this to people: sometimes I wonder why we are always going on vacation? We live in a vacation destination," Melissa Ziarno, an Australian website desingner, said. "I would rather not have to spend so much money on an expensive airfare, and instead indulge in a nice dinner here."
Melissa is no stranger to staycationing - the growing trend for taking at least one of your annual holidays at home. In previous years, the Ziarnos have travelled to four destinations within the emirates such as Fujairah and Abu Dhabi. This year, however, as the summer heat approached, Melissa, who lives in Al Safa , went one step closer. After spotting the good-value, US$218 (Dh800) excluding taxes, per night online offer at the Atlantis hotel on the Palm Jumeirah, which includes tickets to the waterpark and is currently valid until Sept 19, she booked her family, mother-in-law and two friends of her children, aged eight and10, into the hotel for a weekend staycation.
The weekend lived up to her expectations. "You don't have to queue, there is no jetlag, no luggage," Melissa said. "We went to the Atlantis and I felt like I left the country and had a real break. "It was half hour down the road, but by the time we left we felt as if we could have been in the Maldives or something." In the end, even the hot weather, a cause of common complaint from residents who choose to flee to cooler climes, was not an issue for the Ziarnos. "On the day that we went to the water park it was one of the hottest days with temperatures up to 46°C, but we had no idea at the time, because they had sprinklers on the concrete to cool things down. In that water park, even in the middle of summer, it was fine. "
According to Melissa, the UAE is a good source of entertainment. "There's ice skating, water parks - there is just so much more to do here," she said. "We went to the Al Ain Zoo recently and that was fantastic. We've also been to Musandam where you can snorkel. You can even swim with dolphins here. There are not many places you can go to desert in the morning, beach in the afternoon and go skiing in the evening." Even if skiing means indoor snow and a trip to Ski Dubai.
While staycationing has been popular in Europe and particularly America for many years, with Americans and Brits exploring their own home-grown attractions, in the UAE the population traditionally hits an annual low over the summer as families escape the oppressive heat. There is a new impetus this summer, however, thanks to the global economic downturn. The fear of redundancy, coupled with attractive deals in hotels and resorts within the UAE are jointly acting as a spur for residents, both Emirati and expatriate, more aware of the family-holiday budget than ever.
Despite the fact that the Ziarnos decided to stay at a five-star resort - a staycation that some would consider an extravagance - Melissa was watching her budget. "Our costs were less because we live here - we took our own wine and beer and enjoyed them on the balcony of our suite rather than at the pool bar. We also brought some cereal for the kids from home as we find the [breakfast] buffet is never really appreciated by them - they pick one croissant and then they are full." The total cost of the Ziarno family's mini-break came to $728 (Dh2,670).
According to experts, hotels and residents, more and more people have decided to treat their country of residence, even if it's only temporary, as a holiday destination. Last year, Mai Mandil, a 24 year old Dubai resident took vacation from her job and ventured to Fujairah's Al Jal Resort and Spa. The Sudanese expatriate, who went with a small group of friends, said that not only was the break stress-free with no travel hassles, Fujairah felt like another country altogether.
"I went for a change. It gets really boring so it's nice to change the scenery and atmosphere. Even the weather's different. I also wanted to see more of the UAE," she said. Health fears, with more than 94,500 cases of swine flu reported by the World Health Organisation worldwide, are also widely expected to deter global travel this summer. Several travel companies report up to a 30 per cent drop in bookings for trips between mid-June and mid-August. "It is mainly about the swine flu and the quarantine clauses in various countries that they enter - that is a major concern for my clients," said John Kailath, tours manager for Omeir Holidays in Abu Dhabi.
Summer discounts are not uncommon as hotels across the UAE always try to boost occupancy during this period, but with the global economic slowdown adversely affecting booking levels, competitors are working harder than ever in 2009. "Hotels are dropping their rates more than last year," said Shahrzad Sadr, a spokesperson for the Al Ain Rotana Hotel. "Our booking levels from UAE residents have increased, especially when you compare exact figures in the first and second quarters from 2008 and 2009. This summer especially is also showing a high increase between this year and last year. The rates are better and so are the campaigns."
Luxury, at least for UAE residents, has become more affordable in 2009, as incentives such as free kids' club entrance at the Atlantis, are being used to attract staycationers. "We expect a much higher number of bookings this year from UAE residents, there are definitely more coming," Shahrzad added. "People are choosing to tour different emirates instead. Now we have a recession, people are scared to lose their job if they have not lost it already. They are more price sensitive, people care about what they are getting. They are looking for better offers, they want less money and more value."
There are a number of special offers to choose from: for example, until Sept 15, Rotana is offering deals starting from $680 (Dh2,500) per week, inclusive of breakfast, in hotel apartments in Dubai and at the Cove Rotana Resort in Ras al Khaimah. Other offers are also available including specially tailored packages that combine holidays in Dubai with Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah, including complimentary nights, dining vouchers worth $54 (Dh200), massage treatments and breakfast, for $490 (Dh1,800). There is also a summer rate at the Al Ain Rotana of $78 (Dh285) on a Saturday, or for a longer stay you could choose to stay for three nights in Al Ain and two nights at the Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi for $815 (Dh2,995).
In Abu Dhabi, the Shangri-La is offering a half-price rate for GCC residents of $116 (Dh425) per night. Hilton in the capital has a four nights for the price of three deal and an offer of 10 nights for the price of seven. At Emirates Palace, one night costs from $762 (Dh2,800) for GCC residents, and clients can have breakfast and a chauffeur-driven BMW to the hotel from any location in Dubai or Abu Dhabi; this compares with more than $817 (Dh3,000) at this time last year.
"We stayed at the Abu Dhabi Beach Rotana last year for a week long holiday," said Nahel Selo, a 21-year-old student from Sharjah. Along with his family from Syria, the group booked a break in the capital during the Eid celebrations. "We wanted to travel abroad, but we found it was too expensive. We decided to spend our break in Abu Dhabi instead." Travelling locally is a pleasure, he said, that saves on his tight budget as a university student. Last spring break, Nahel visited Fujairah with a group of friends and he is thinking of returning this year.
In Dubai, Raffles is offering a summer rate of $231 (Dh850), with a 25 per cent discount on food and drinks, down from last year's $408 (Dh1,500). The Kempinski Hotel, Mall of The Emirates, in Dubai said that this year room rates cost from $218 (Dh800), whereas last year rates were more than double, starting from $463 (Dh1,700). The Jumeirah Group, like the competition, is trying to attract families with its summer campaign. The hotel group, which counts the Burj al Arab as part of its portfolio, is offering complimentary accommodation and meals for children under the age of 15, a complimentary buffet breakfast, internet and movies and a daily gift certificate redeemable in its spas, sport and leisure facilities, restaurants and bars worth $54 (Dh200). Complimentary tickets to Wild Wadi Waterpark are also included in the offer.
According to the Atlantis, its $218 (Dh800) per night deal is proving popular with UAE residents. "We have got a lot of bookings," Brett Armitage, the senior vice president of sales at the Atlantis, said. "Probably about 20 per cent of our business at the moment is local business. "Because of the economic situation, people are not going as far afield as they would in previous years. There is also swine flu driving the trend. People are more cautious in terms of spending on international travel and certainly within the region, we are seeing an increase in demand.... The attractiveness of summer discounts is driving local interest."
Two double rooms at the Atlantis at US$261 (Dh960) each, including taxes: $523 (Dh1,920) Valet Service: $14 (Dh50) Room service dinner: $123 (Dh450) Ice creams: $14 (Dh50) Lunch for the family at Wild Wadi Waterpark: $54 (Dh200) TOTAL: $728