x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Number of tourists surges after UAE gets seal of approval

People from all over China discover they can afford to visit the Emirates after it gained "approved destination status".

Dubai is proving an increasingly popular and affordable destination for Chinese tourists. Pawan Singh / The National
Dubai is proving an increasingly popular and affordable destination for Chinese tourists. Pawan Singh / The National

Five years ago, Eric Li, the Middle East and Africa manager for a Beijing travel company, would send just a few hundred Chinese tourists annually to the UAE. Now he helps organise trips to the Emirates for more than 5,000 a year.

"Before, they didn't know where Dubai and the UAE was. But now the people know where the UAE is, and they want to go," said Mr Li, who works for Beijing Jin Jiang International Travel Company. "It's countrywide. They're coming from all over China, from every province we've sent groups."

There are plenty of figures to back up Mr Li's assertion that the Emirates is increasingly popular with Chinese tourists.

Last year, about 152,000 Chinese visitors stayed in Dubai's hotels, and the emirate's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) recently predicted the figure for this year would be more than 50 per cent higher.

As delegates at a recent DTCM forum in Beijing were told, Dubai is a "hot" destination, and not just in terms of the weather.

Numbers have taken off since September 2009 when the UAE gained "approved destination status" from the Chinese authorities, making it easier for tour companies to advertise the country as a destination, and easing procedures for securing visas.

Another major attraction of the UAE, says Ivy Gao, a senior representative at the DTCM's Beijing office, are the direct flights from China, with five airlines connecting the Chinese capital and Dubai.

That the flying time is a modest eight hours makes the UAE ideal for the Chinese, who typically are unable to take the two-week holidays enjoyed by many Western travellers. They get a week or so off at the Chinese New Year around the beginning of February, and about a week in October. A five-day, four-night stay in the Emirates fits in better with this than a long-haul visit to Europe.

Trips are also affordable, says Mr Li.

Typically, a five-day, four-night trip, including flights, hotel, visa, Dubai city tour and a guide costs between 7,000 yuan (Dh3,953) and 13,000 yuan. Chinese travellers are typically "middle-level" white-collar workers such as nurses, doctors, lecturers and businessmen, Mr Li says.

"The people … they want to see how it is changing, what the Arab world is like," he says.

Usually, Chinese visitors come to the Emirates in groups of between 20 and 30 with a guide, which is important as most of the travellers speak neither English nor Arabic.

Day trips to Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are often included, as is a visit to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Many visitors like to spend at least one night in the Burj Al Arab.

"Sometimes they spend a lot of time in their hotels. They just relax, such as at the Jumeirah series of hotels," Mr Li says.

The many shopping malls also make the UAE a particular draw for Chinese tourists, says Zhang Hangqin, an associate professor in the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

"[Chinese tourists] buy for their relatives, for their friends. It's a way of showing they've been there," she says. "Also, anything that represents a very different culture from [their own] becomes a place to visit. Australia was the first Western destination. It was very popular. Dubai also is very different from Chinese cultures."

A few years ago, says Ms Gao, Thailand and Singapore were popular with Chinese tourists. Some have "got tired" of these destinations, with Dubai a beneficiary.

The increasing popularity of the UAE among Chinese tourists is part of a wider trend for citizens from the world's most populous nation to travel abroad. Last year, according to China's national tourism administration (NTA), 57.4 million Chinese took trips abroad, a jump of 20.4 per cent on 2009. The NTA expects the figure to be about 84 million by 2015.

"My hotel has seen a threefold increase [in guests from China] in the months of May and June," says Habib Khan, the general manager of the Arabian Courtyard Hotel and Spa in Dubai. "The Chinese will come because of the low prices. Dubai has become so affordable."

Hoteliers say there was a surge in Chinese visitors in February during the Chinese New Year, when the Dubai Shopping Festival was also taking place.

"China is an important market," says Syed Zulfiqar Mehdi, the director of sales and marketing at the Samaya hotel, a luxury property in Deira.

The DTCM, which opened offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, is engaged in an intensive effort to attract many travellers from "second-tier" cities, as they are referred to in China. These places such as Xi'an, Jinan and Harbin have several million residents each, people whose disposable incomes have risen dramatically on the back of years of double-digit economic growth.

"The tourists in second-tier cities are richer, they can afford this destination, but they are short of knowledge about Dubai. The UAE is quite a new destination for them," Ms Gao says.

"They think they cannot afford it, but we tell them they can. They're surprised, and then they're eager to go."

In a dozen second-tier cities this year, DTCM is running seminars where travel agents receive training about Dubai and what it has to offer to help them better market the Emirates as a destination. The organisation ran similar events in 10 second-tier cities last year. These seminars also help UAE hotels and airlines strike promotional agreements with agents, reducing the cost of package trips.

The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), which like the DTCM has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, has also held "destination workshops" for travel agents where the capital's many attractions are highlighted. Two years ago ADTA won an award for its marketing efforts from Travel Weekly China magazine.

The organisation said the emirate offered an "authentic" and "exotic" experience that appealed to Chinese cultural tourists, and with more Chinese travelling abroad, the numbers visiting the UAE capital were likely to increase.

"The market prospects are very impressive," the organisation said.

Prof Zhang also believes the UAE's share of China's ever-increasing tally of foreign tourists is likely to grow.

"As long as it's stable and safe, definitely [growth will continue]," she says. "It represents luxury and a good variety of different activities. With these I am confident there will be a lot of Chinese people going there."

business@thenational.ae