x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Emiratis return after flocking to London for early summer holidays

The Arab Spring and new bans on the burqa in France have made the UK a more popular destination for UAE nationals.

Abdullah Al Jasmi, 23, (left) Rashed Al Hashemi, 24, and Hussain Al Hammadi, 23, enjoy their pre-Ramadan holiday at a shisha cafe in London's Edgware Road.
Abdullah Al Jasmi, 23, (left) Rashed Al Hashemi, 24, and Hussain Al Hammadi, 23, enjoy their pre-Ramadan holiday at a shisha cafe in London's Edgware Road.

LONDON // It's been dubbed the Ramadan Rush. This year, Emiratis have flocked to London in droves for an early summer holidays before returning home to their families to celebrate Ramadan.

The Arab Spring and a newly enforced "burqa ban" in France may also have caused Gulf visitors to choose to spend longer in London this year, according to industry experts and anecdotal evidence from tourists.

Maram Al Shamsi, 23, from Abu Dhabi, normally begins her summer break in Lebanon or Jordan, but due to the unrest in the region this year flew straight to Europe with her younger sister Maha, 20. They spent three weeks in the UK capital before flying home via Turkey before Ramadan.

"We usually go for shopping, I love those massive sales," she said.

Shopping is one of the major draws for Gulf visitors, with many of London's biggest department stores setting out to draw in customers with services such as Arabic-speaking personal shoppers. Harrods, one of the old favourites, said it has seen a huge rise in revenue from Arab customers as they pack in pre-Ramadan shopping.

"We are currently experiencing a phenomenal uplift in sales from Middle Eastern customers as they enjoy the final weeks of their summer vacations in London before Ramadan begins," said a spokesman for the store.

Selfridges, an imposing 540,000 square foot department store in Oxford Street, one of London's main shopping destinations, said it had also seen a "huge upsurge" in Middle Eastern visitors. International visitors are up 40 per cent on last year, it added.

Away from the glamour of the West End Rashed, Al Hashemi, 24, was relaxing at Al Tanoor café in Edgware Road - London's "little Arabia" - soaking up the sunshine and shisha with friends before returning home for Ramadan.

"If we want to stay here we'd have to fast for 18 hours a day," he said. "At home it's only 12 hours. It's also time for gathering with the family and here we would not get that."

His friend, Abdullah Al Jasmi, 23, also from Dubai, said Emiratis may be choosing London over this year over Paris, traditionally another popular destination for Gulf visitors, because of the country's ban on full-face veils. Introduced in April, the so-called "burqa-ban" sees fines of $150 for those breaking the law, which the French government has made clear will be applied to foreign tourists.

"The reasons people go away is to relax and feel comfortable, so if they feel there's going to be some disturbance to this then they are going to stop going," he said.

Jace Tyrell, director of the New West End Company, said it is clear that the restrictions in Paris are having an effect with London seen as "welcoming, friendly and accommodating" in comparison.

"People feel at home in areas around Edgware Road," said Mr Al Hashemi. "The Arab people all live around here, the food is all halal, there's shisha and if someone doesn't speak any English it doesn't matter."

For the boys too, shopping is a major attraction, and the group made the compulsory visit to Harrods as well as taking the Big Bus Tour and visiting attractions such as the London Eye, but they were keen to point out that not all UAE visitors lived up to the stereotypes.

"We saved to come here and had to take time off work," said Mr Al Hashemi, who works on Yas Island off Abu Dhabi for Adnoc. "We don't all have limitless money."

Emiratis visiting the capital spend roughly triple the amount of the average tourist, spending about £1,626 each, according to the Visit London tourism agency. That figure compares to £2,030 spent by Saudis and an overall average visitor spend of £594.

Another draw for Gulf visitors is the weather, which may be perplexing for Londoners who have been complaining about the incessant rain and average temperatures of 15 degrees Celcius during July.

"We love the rain!" said Saif Abdullah, 23, from Dubai. "We run away out of the heat and humidity of the UAE. Here we can sit outside and go jogging in Hyde Park."

But for Mr Abdullah, it is the feeling of community with other Gulf visitors that he likes the most about summers in the city.

"It's become a routine that everyone comes in summertime," he said. "We all gather from the UAE and the GCC. We don't tend to see our friends from other countries in the Gulf when we are at home but there's always a gathering in London."

newsdesk@thenational.ae