If you think you can save money by holidaying in the UAE and booking into a hotel on your doorstep, think again. While spending the summer holidays close to home might appear a cheaper option than booking flights abroad, cash-strapped families are being hit in the pocket a second time. For if you pick up the phone to book a room or log on to a hotel's website, there is a chance the guest from abroad in the next room will have paid up to 50 per cent less.
A survey by The National found a number of the leading hotels in Dubai have rooms available at cheaper prices through American, British and Australian travel booking websites. It means guests from overseas could end up paying significantly less than someone booking from within the UAE. Hoteliers say their hands are tied, as foreign tour operators bulk-buy rooms at a discount then sell them on to websites.
But consumer experts say customers in the UAE can end up feeling shortchanged as a result. Richard Adams, consumer markets consultant for the business analysis firm Datamonitor Middle East and North Africa, said research showed there was a growing "trust void". "Hoteliers should be careful. Consumers become disillusioned when they realise that actively searching for the best deal, rather than being faithful to a brand, results in the greatest cost savings," he said.
"If you book a UAE hotel on a US or UK travel website, you can often save significant amounts of money so don't contact hotels directly. "Because hotel occupancy rates have dipped dramatically over the past three quarters, there are a lot of deals on the internet. Hoteliers are using variable pricing as a means to buttress occupancy rates and bring back foreign tourists." He said hoteliers had little choice as about half of UAE residents and 61 per cent worldwide had cut back on holiday spending.
But he warned: "No one likes to feel their loyalty has been abused. For certain types of hotels, rewarding the loyal customer will in the long run yield greatest profits." His warning came as it emerged that Dubai hotels had seen a five per cent increase in guest numbers in the first half of the year, according to the city's department of tourism and commerce marketing. The rise in guest numbers from 3.68 million in the same period last year to 3.85m this year was put down to aggressive discounting, summer promotions such as "kids go free" and added incentives such as meal deals and free tickets to attractions.
Some hotels have slashed their rates by up to 60 per cent since November, which means that while guest numbers have gone up, the revenue per room has slumped by 36 per cent. That has been good news for UAE families who, with finances squeezed by the credit crunch, now find foreign holidays too expensive. According to both Datamonitor and Bayt.com, a jobs and finance website in the region, about half of all residents have cut back on their holiday spending.
But while there are cheap deals to be found on home turf, a quick search on the web turned up even heftier discounts on foreign websites. The Kempinski hotel, for example, has reduced its daily room rates from Dh1,700 (US$463) last year to the tax-inclusive price of Dh1,560 on its website for a guest wishing to stay this weekend. The same room costs Dh1,026 ($280) on the Australian travel website Octopustravel.com.
The Palace hotel in the Old Town has widely varying rates. Its own website prices a double room at Dh1,319, but the same room is available for nearly 40 per cent less elsewhere on the internet. It will set you back Dh847 on the UK website Opodo.co.uk, Dh1,259 on Expedia.com in the US, Dh1,263 on Wotif.com in Australia, Dh1,079 on Booking.com and Dh823 on Octopustravel.com. Similarly, a Dh1,800 room advertised on the Habtoor Grand's own website was available for Dh938 on Superbreak.com, a British travel website.
A Palace spokeswoman said: "Our hotel does strive to ensure rate parity is followed throughout all our distribution channels. "In some cases, however, the available rates may vary as each partner may set the final public rates depending on their particular business conditions, market needs and season." Sometimes, she added, the final package might include different terms and conditions or even airline tickets.
"Nevertheless, we are continuously seeking measures to ensure uniformity across the board for our hotel rates." Some hotels, such as The Address, Grosvenor House and the Westin, had consistent pricing across all websites when The National checked rates for this weekend. That picture was matched in Abu Dhabi, where high demand on fewer rooms has seen rates rise by five per cent this year, making it the second most expensive business destination in the world, according to Hogg Robinson Group, a global business travel company.
Saurav Guha, revenue manager at the Habtoor Grand, said hotels were at the mercy of sites selling rooms at tour operators' discounted rates: "It is very difficult to monitor or restrict them. We have cheaper rates for tour operators and travel agencies who are block-buying customers, accounting for about 12,000 room nights a year, and some websites work through these major destination companies." He added that 15 to 18 per cent of guests booked through websites and admitted those who shopped around could sometimes get a discount: "They might get a better deal than through our website, it is true, but there are positives and negatives to booking through travel agencies, such as strict 21-day cancellation fees."
Hotels are not the only industry where UAE residents can end up paying more. Local outlets of some of the world's best-known store chains are marking up prices by up to 78 per cent, The National discovered earlier this year. email@example.com