x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Ali Column: Airport welcome vital for travellers

Suggestions for UAE airports on greeting visitors to the country.

I travelled from Dubai International Airport to Doha International Airport recently and was amazed by the comparison of the two.

In Dubai, you have the largest airline hub in our region. It's ranked the 11th busiest airport worldwide; an attractive destination for 15 million tourists per year and a transfer stop for 100 million travellers. During my trip, I couldn't stop wondering: What is the significance of an airport and what are the factors that make it a successful destination?

At first glance, the size seems to be most attractive, according to the motto "the bigger, the better". Yes, but I couldn't help but think of the other side of this: what good does it do our country if our airport is like a giant shopping mall constantly under construction but with poor customer service?

What really matters to visitors is their first encounter with the airport staff. An airport represents an international meeting point for all walks of life. It also acts as a "bridge" for transit travellers. Of course, the visitor wants to feel well served and not "lost in transition" to our culture, which in many cases is completely foreign to them. And this depends a great deal on the way they are greeted when they arrive.

I have heard many conversations between passport officers and visitors, and so far I have hardly come across warm greetings. Instead of responding to the guest with "welcome to our country", some only smile. This might seem surprising, considering that Emiratis are described as hospitable people, but it happens.

Since the first direct contact with a foreign culture is crucial, I wish the passport officers would not ruin this great chance to connect with the visitor and display the natural hospitality of our culture. This way, prejudices that visitors might have carried with them cannot be strengthened. Confusing them with our apparent unfriendliness will just make matters worse.

Everyone who works at the airport should be like a "Disney figure" - friendly and intelligent. Keep in mind that airport staff actually represent the first personal contact in a Muslim country for many people. My observation of the lack of customer service confirms that training and cultural awareness courses are necessary.

Another point worth making concerns the outfits of the airport employees. I'm referring here to Emirati employees who wear white kanduras.

After talking with visitors myself, I have come across the point that the airport staff makes an "intimidating" impression. Obviously, wearing our national garb at the airport causes more tensions than intended. The brand is confusing - as a visitor, one does not know how to differentiate between the airport outfit and the national garb, or between an Emirati or Pakistani behind the counter. Most visitors come from a non-Muslim society; they aren't familiar with our culture but might easily associate our national garb with the negative image of Muslims portrayed in the media.

The suggestions I have made might sound very different, but the friendlier we are to our guests, the more they will remember us in a good way. We can do that with our kind smiles and words, intelligence and tone of message.