x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lebanon's loss is a holiday travel gift for UAE

Hotels in the UAE are having a busy December, with many reporting their rooms are filled through the end of the year, but one analyst says reduced rates might be part of the reason.

With many countries issuing travel warnings to Lebanon, above, tourists have instead turned to the UAE, where hotels are reporting strong occupancy levels. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
With many countries issuing travel warnings to Lebanon, above, tourists have instead turned to the UAE, where hotels are reporting strong occupancy levels. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

Hotels in the UAE are having a busy December, with many reporting their rooms are filled through the end of the year.

Hoteliers say the country's strong economy, security and variety of leisure activities are enticing guests from a widening range of countries to lengthen their stays.

Analysts note that reduced rates may also be contributing to full bookings.

As full hotels in the Emirates begin to turn customers away, the contrast could not be starker in Lebanon, which has long been a local favourite as a holiday destination but is now suffering from violence spilling over from Syria.

"In Abu Dhabi, we anticipate occupancy levels to remain relatively stable compared to December last year. However, room rates are likely to show a decline of around 10 per cent, in line with the overall performance seen across this year," said Rashid Aboobacker, the senior consultant at TRI Hospitality Consulting.

Last December, the occupancy rate for the capital's hotels was 69.3 per cent and the average room rate was US$153.20 (Dh562.75). A 10 per cent drop would bring the average room rate to $137.88.

The landmark Emirates Palace hotel is, like many others, catering to people from cold places such as the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia.

This month is "one of the best Decembers we have had in a long, long time", said Alexander Schneider, the hotel manager at the Emirates Palace. "What is new for us is that people are coming and staying for Christmas and through New Year."

In Dubai, hotels are typically busy in December, and Mr Aboobacker said that he expected "performance levels to be better than last year taking into consideration the overall demand growth experienced by the market".

Last year, four and five-star hotels surveyed by his company reported 83.7 per cent occupancy rates with an average room rate of $308.40, which were lower than the peak periods of February to March and October to November.

Dubai's JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, the world's tallest hotel, has an occupancy rate above 60 per cent for Christmas and is fully booked for the New Year.

"Almost half of the guests are from the [Arabian] Gulf region and the rest from Europe, Russia, South America and India among others," said Rupprecht Queitsch, the hotel's general manager.

The hotel, which opened last month, has 804 rooms with prices from Dh1,800 to Dh3,000 a night.

The Hilton Worldwide chain is reporting its highest level of demand for Christmas and New Year in the UAE since 2009.

"Our average occupancy of our UAE hotels has improved over 8 per cent versus 2011 during the Christmas week as well as New Year's Eve week, which is traditionally more popular," said Heather Shaw, the spokeswoman for Hilton in the Middle East and Africa. "We have seen the average night stay increase from 3.5 to over four nights since last year during the same period."

The Hilton group runs 10 hotels in the Emirates, with two in Abu Dhabi, three each in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, and one each in Fujairah and Al Ain.

Stuart Deeson, the general manager of the Park Hyatt in Abu Dhabi said the hotel would also experience high occupancy this holiday season.

Meanwhile Fairmont properties, including Fairmont Dubai and Abu Dhabi's Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, are sold out over several dates during the holiday period, particularly New Year's Eve, says Raki Phillips, the area director for sales and marketing.

"The UAE has witnessed a 10 per cent growth in passenger arrivals [this year over last year], and this resonates across the year," he said.

Meanwhile, hoteliers in Lebanon are taking a different tack to attract tourists. They have collectively agreed to adopt regular rates, rather than high-season rates, to entice visitors to Beirut as the UAE reiterated its warnings against travelling there.

In July, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait warned their citizens not to visit Lebanon after a number of kidnappings amid Syria's worsening civil war.

A few steps away from Beirut's landmark Clock Tower, one hotel was struggling to get its occupancy rates up, even after scrapping high season rates for Christmas and New Year.

Etoile Suites, which historically catered to guests from the GCC, is offering rates of US$150 a night plus tax, half the price of better times.

"We are not using the old room rates anymore," said Haitham Yazbeck, the hotel's operations manager.

"In the past, occupancy rates would reach 100 per cent weeks before the holidays. We wouldn't have to exert as much effort as we do today, and we are still not close to reaching that target."

The hotel has been relying on corporate clients who fly in staff and clients from abroad.

At Le Grey, a luxury boutique hotel just minutes away from the Rafik Hariri Memorial in Beirut, occupancy is at 75 per cent. The hotel is charging a regular rate of $355 a night, compared with previous years' high-season rate of $505.

Le Grey was not alone in its troubles. Citing data from Ernst & Young, Beirut's Daily Star newspaper yesterday reported that occupancy rates at five-star hotels across Lebanon had dropped 56 per cent in the first 10 months of the year, with a particular decline since August.

"The political situation, the recent bombing in Achrafiya, what is happening in nearby Syria, and how the region is on fire … that has all impacted the situation in Lebanon," said Rita Saad, the marketing manager at Le Gray. "But we try to show that the news on security and danger is exaggerated."

Once known as the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut had not lost any of its charm yet, she said.

"It has a combination of westernised and modern people, with the oriental and welcoming show of hospitality, which is a trait that has origins from the region," Ms Saad said.




* with additional reporting by Lianne Gutcher