Experts say past experience shows visitors' stays may be extended by the trouble in Egypt.
Chinese New Year boosts UAE tourism industry
Neil Parmar and Armina Ligaya
Hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers throughout the Emirates are reporting a surge in Chinese visitors ringing in the Year of the Rabbit.
Many have arrived to take advantage of hotel rates lower than pre-recession levels and discounted, tax-free luxury goods, particularly at the Dubai Shopping Festival.
Some might also be extending their stay in the UAE instead of continuing on to planned trips in troubled Egypt, experts say.
"If there are continued troubles there [in Egypt], that demand will be redirected to places like Dubai," says Peter Goddard, the managing director of TRI Hospitality Consulting in Dubai.
"Places like Dubai definitely benefited" from past turmoil in the Middle East, Mr Goddard adds.
Hotels are also filling up with Chinese groups, says Michelle Chen, the Dubai-based deputy general manager of Hunter International Tourism, one of China's largest travel agencies.
About 2,500 Chinese visitors have come to the UAE through the agency to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which began yesterday, or attend conferences, says Ms Chen. The numbers are expected to match, if not exceed, last year's figure.
Luxury retailers say the rise in Chinese visitors started last year and they are expecting a wave of shoppers.
"The Chinese clientele is coming to Dubai, which was not seen before," says Valerie Chapoulaud, a president of Louis Vuitton who oversees southern Europe and the Middle East.
Businesses are pulling out all the stops to attract more visitors than last new year and convince them to boost their spending, with special promotions that run for a couple of weeks into the Lunar New Year, even to the end of the month.
Many hotels are offering special meals and a la carte menus, while others have rolled out golf, spa and overnight packages for guests who visit over the next couple of weeks.
The retailer Bloomingdale's says it plans to double its number of Chinese-speaking staff to cater for a growing number of customers.
"China is a massive market," says Mr Goddard, and the Chinese New Year period is "going to be a huge opportunity for getting Chinese nationals to the Middle East. Anything that promotes the Chinese market would be good for the long term."
Global spending by tourists from China was up 17 per cent in 2009 from 2008 to US$43.7 billion (Dh160.5bn), according to the UN World Tourism Organization.
But company officials say their efforts are less about boosting revenue in the short term and more focused on building long-term loyalty among a growing legion of travellers.
"It's more about creating an experience during Chinese New Year," says Ryan Hoo, the assistant director of food and beverage at the Shangri-La Hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Overall, the UAE has seen a sharp increase in visitors from China since the autumn of 2009, when the country gained "approved destination" status from the Chinese government to have tourist groups come through the region.
Last year, China was among Abu Dhabi's top 20 international sources of tourism for the first time. More than 14,500 guests stayed in the emirate's hotels, which was up 29 per cent compared with 2009.
In Dubai, the number of Chinese tourists surged to 81,900 in the first half of last year, which was up 57 per cent compared with the first half of 2009.
The numbers could continue to rise this year, although Ms Chen warns there are not enough guides available for Chinese tour groups.
Hunter International Tourism, she says, had to stop booking tours to the UAE in January, despite interest from Chinese visitors.
"We don't have enough tour guides in the market," Ms Chen says.
The Dubai Shopping Festival runs until February 20.