Dubai Airports chief views 2021 with 'cautious optimism'

Mandatory Covid-19 inoculations would be a 'huge economic negative' and unnecessary where PCR tests are in place, Paul Griffiths says

Tourists arrive at Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates on July 8, 2020, as the country reopened its doors to international visitors in the hope of reviving its tourism industry after a nearly four-month closure. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP)

The chief executive of Dubai Airports said he views 2021 with “cautious optimism” as countries distribute Covid-19 vaccines and economies rebound.

“We are geared up and ready to expect a surge in demand once the vaccines start to [be distributed] in any meaningful scale,” Paul Griffiths told Bloomberg TV on Monday.

“Four billion people around the world have been in lockdown over the last eight to nine months; that is half of the population, and one of the most aspirational things that everyone wants to get back to is freedom of movement.”

Dubai International Airport was the world’s busiest international travel hub before the Covid-19 crisis.

Global pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca have achieved major breakthroughs in developing a coronavirus vaccine in recent weeks.

The first vaccine given in the US on Monday, where the pandemic had killed more than 306,460 people.

The UK began to give people the vaccine last week.

Mr Griffiths said the inoculation would not be required to fly into Dubai as it would be “a huge economic negative ... I can’t see that being a requirement”.

“We have got so many sensible measures, including PCR testing on arrival, to make sure travel is safe enough for everyone to consider taking a journey. So, in my view, that would be ... unnecessary.”

The aviation industry has opposed the vaccination requirement for passengers amid fears that it could hit air travel in a similar way to quarantine measures.

Mr Griffiths’s optimism for an industry recovery was also buoyed by the success of the UK-Dubai air travel bubble set up about a month ago.

“We are very confident that we are going to get back to about 30 per cent of our normal throughput during the month of December, which is probably going to be about double what we experienced through the previous months,” he said.

The emirate is set for an “incredibly busy” holiday season because of the agreement between the two governments, he said. About 65 per cent of the airlines that were flying at the start of the year have resumed flights to Dubai.

The airport is preparing for an austere 2021 but is prepared to sustain liquidity around a traffic base that is less than 30 per cent of pre-Covid levels, he said.

“We are now in a position where we can weather the storm going forward,” Mr Griffiths said.

“What is not certain is what the speed and shape of that recovery will be, but we stand ready to be able to take advantage [of it] when it comes.”

The coronavirus pandemic has dented the revenue of airports and airlines around the world as countries shut borders to prevent the virus spread.

The UAE has been gradually opening up to tourists over the past few months after putting in place the necessary safety measures.

Neighbouring Abu Dhabi plans to lift most coronavirus restrictions within two weeks and the emirate will resume "all economic, tourism, cultural and entertainment activities" within that period.

Earlier this week, the UAE announced plans to double the Dh41.2 billion ($11.2bn) spent each year on domestic tourism by 2030 and also encourage staycations.

Aviation and tourism are central to the UAE and are a pillar of the country's economic diversification strategy.