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Travel show is no holiday for UAE tourism

Hoteliers in the UAE are having to endure the UK weather and harsher economic climate in the search for business.

"Business," says Svetlana Climina, who works for Al Mansoor Holidays in Abu Dhabi, "is good and growing". The new Atlantis hotel on The Palm, Dubai, is "completely full", say staff manning a stand at this week's huge World Travel Market tourism trade fair in London. Not everyone, however, is quite so unremittingly upbeat about the prospects of keeping tourist currency pouring into the UAE as the global recession continues to bite.

"A lot of people here are worried," said one member of the Emirates Palace team enduring a week of typically British weather in London's Docklands. "Tour operators are having to look at their clients and see how they can appeal to them to keep spending. They will have to tailor special offers to each customer. "It'll be OK for the big companies but the smaller ones who don't have such a big client base will suffer."

Belinda Backert, sales manager at Le Royal Meridien in Dubai, said hotels were developing strategies to cope. It would not be easy since the target markets - in the UK, Germany, Russia and elsewhere - were so different, but it was essential. The British tend to book early and late; the Germans always book early but the Russians are invariably last-minute. The beach hotels in Dubai will be almost full - if not as full as usual - over Christmas and New Year since most people will have booked long before the crisis broke. The full impact will not be seen until the next high season, late next year.

Tour operators in the UK say that rooms can still be found in Dubai for the festive season - but do not expect to find any bargains: a 10-night stay for two at the hotels that line Jumeirah Beach will cost at least £6,000 (Dh33,700), excluding food and drink. And that would be only the start. Some hotels charge about £400 (Dh2,250) per person for dinner on Christmas Eve. The good news was that, contrary to past practice, these dinners were less likely to be compulsory.

"Hotels are loosening the rules to take account of the credit crunch," said Christian Hellot, director of sales and distribution at the Sofitel on Jumeirah Beach. No one wants to dissuade tourists from coming to the UAE but, in the wake of the Michelle Palmer-Vince Acors affair, at least one hotel in Dubai has gone a step further in its attempts to educate guests than the standard guides found in most hotel rooms in the city. In October, the two Britons were sentenced to three months in jail and fined for drunkenness after being found guilty of having illicit relations on Jumeirah Beach. The sentences are suspended pending an appeal.

The Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai is issuing its guests with an etiquette "information card", pointing out that Dubai does not appreciate drunkenness or public displays of affection. "Drinking is not part of Muslim culture and alcohol is not served openly," it says. "Drunken behaviour, especially outside licensed premises in the hotel, is severely punished." But tour operators in the UK do not appear to be following the Madinat's example. They tell people who inquire about holidays in Dubai that "anything goes" - within reason - and do not seem to think it important to mention that Dubai is part of a Muslim country which has a different moral code to the West.

Most of the UAE tourist professionals at this week's fair at the ExCel exhibition centre, alongside London's Royal Victoria Dock, say there is no problem: only a couple of hundred of the one million Britons who visited Dubai last year got into trouble for misbehaving. But some thought the Palmer-Acors case was significant. Mr Hellot said he believed the authorities felt that standards had fallen too far. "They made a big deal out of that couple because they wanted to educate people," he said. "They were making an example of them. They wanted to warn tourists."

Warning tourists, however, was not the mission of what was probably the sole serving police officer at the fair. In his spotless white dishdash, Lt Col Nasser al Awar of the Dubai Police was part of the delegation sent to London by the emirate for the most important event in the travel industry's calendar. While the industry professionals talked profit margins and room rates, he quietly reassured anyone who wanted to do business with the emirate that this was a safe, relaxing destination, perfect for business or leisure.

On the table in front him, next to the sweets and pots of coffee, he had a stack of leaflets and CDs which explained that the police in Dubai were courteous and dedicated. He also had a supply of complimentary pens and badges, carrying the legend, "Dubai, The Absolute Safe City". Lt Col Awar, 38, who has been in the police for 21 years, insisted that his presence at the fair, whose top sponsor was the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, had nothing do with the recent Palmer-Acors case. "I am here to deliver a message to those who want to bring business travellers and tourists to Dubai," he said. "We take care of you. We are here to serve. We implement the law humanely."

But the main concern for all the delegates in London, during a week in which the ADTA said growth in the number of visitors to the capital was expected to slow, was the financial crisis. There was no doubt, said delegates from the UAE, that this would hit the travel industry, including the business sector. The only question was by how much, and how to minimise losses. Mr Hellot, 44, a veteran of the industry who spent 17 years in the US before arriving at the Sofitel in Dubai nine months ago, said he loves it and hopes to stay for six years. Dubai, he said, is a fantastic place for business and leisure travel, but there was no doubt that it was already being hit by the credit crunch.

"For sure, everyone is worried," he said. "We must diversify and appeal not only to Europe but to Russia and Asia." In the boom years, he said, hotels in Dubai would have been almost full at this time of year. "Hotels are just not as busy; 30 per cent of Dubai's beach tourism is from the UK, so we are affected if the UK catches a cold." He also thought that Abu Dhabi, which hopes to appeal to wealthy visitors who want culture as much as sunshine, would "ride out" the looming recession more easily than its neighbour.

There was no doubting the competition between the emirates at ExCel - one of the UK's prime exhibition spaces, bought in May by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company for Dh2.3 billion. At the fair, where every exhibitor was in direct competition for business, there was a definite, if cordial, rivalry. Looking at their stands, it was obvious that the two have wholly different strategies. While both emirates were stylish and understated - in contrast to the flamboyance of the Caribbean stands and the colourful chaos of the displays of some of the African nations - Abu Dhabi was aiming more at business travellers and tourists interested in art and history, while Dubai's exhibitors were mainly first-class beach hotels.

One member of the team manning the ADTA stand said the emirate would never have to deal with troublesome tourists because it was not appealing to the "mass tourism" being pursued by Dubai. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that visitors to the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, due to open on Saadiyat Island by 2012, will choose to round off their experience with a rowdy brunch and a spot of inappropriate behaviour on the beach.

sfreeman@thenational.ae

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