Emirates set for a year of spending lavishly

The Year of the Dragon is expected to breathe fire into the UAE's tourism industry.

Businesses are going into high gear for the Chinese New Year next week. Above, an entrepreneur at Dragon Mart paints a handmade Chinese fan, considered as a good luck charm and expression of generosity. Pawan Singh / The National
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Chinese tourists will be arriving in the UAE in droves over the coming days to celebrate the lunar new year next week. Coming from the world's second-biggest economy, they will provide an immense and welcome boost for both the hotel and retail sectors, Rebecca Bundhun reports.

The Year of the Dragon is expected to breathe fire into the UAE's tourism industry.

It seems only appropriate that the Chinese astrological sign is associated with good fortune and prosperity, and that should be good news for the hotel sector as tourists from the world's second-biggest economy flock here to celebrate lunar new year next week.

"The Chinese market has shown considerable growth in terms of revenue and occupancy for the Emirates Palace," says Bugra Berberoglu, the general manager of the luxury hotel.

"We've already seen a 90 per cent increase in Chinese bookings during the two-week celebration period compared to last year, with more bookings expected throughout the festive period."

China's vast population, along with its growing appetite for travel and luxury, are all factors behind the increase in the number of Chinese visitors to the Emirates in the past 12 months.

A report by the UN World Tourism Organization says the number of Chinese travelling abroad is expected to reach 100 million annually by 2020. Chinese travellers are already spending about US$55 billion (Dh202.02bn) a year.

Hardly surprising then that Abu Dhabi and Dubai have made significant efforts to cash in on this new market.

"The strong ties between the UAE and China, daily direct flights with Etihad Airways, and the efforts of ADTA [Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority] to increase awareness of Abu Dhabi in the Chinese market have been key to opening this important [sector] for us," Mr Berberoglu says.

Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai's biggest hotel, is also reporting strong figures, with a 30 per cent increase in room bookings this year compared with the lunar new year period last year. The Year of the Dragon starts on Monday.

"We've got Chinese arriving from about the 21st through to the 26th, and we're targeting to have about 400 rooms a night from China," says Brett Armitage, the senior vice president of sales at the Atlantis resort.

Fireworks, Chinese New Year-themed events, and a tradition of giving guests red envelopes, or Lai See, with lucky money are among the celebrations the hotel has laid on for the occasion.

"The appeal of coming to Dubai is very much the shopping," Mr Armitage says.

This is partly because of the luxury goods tax in China, although there are other benefits to shopping in Dubai's glitzy malls.

"There's a cachet to international travel, and there's definitely a cachet to going back home with your Louis Vuitton handbag that you've bought in Dubai as opposed to one just bought in Shanghai," Mr Armitage says.

Atlantis has quickly recognised the potential for growth in tourism from the Asian powerhouse, just like many other high-end hotels in the Emirates.

"We've really had a great run with the Chinese market, which we started developing last year," Mr Armitage says. "I was over in China and last year we opened our office in Shanghai.

"Outbound travel from China is a relatively new thing, so what we typically see coming to Dubai is travellers who have already been to neighbouring Asian countries," he says. "The travellers that are coming to Dubai have probably already done three or four different trips and are looking for a different experience."

But it is not only the UAE that is benefiting from China's booming economy. Tourists from China are also flocking to other high-end destinations such as the Maldives and Switzerland.

"Asian markets are buoyant," says Gaurav Sinha, the managing director of Insignia, a brand communications firm specialising in luxury and travel. "Travellers from these markets enjoy Dubai's culture, weather, shopping and leisure attractions as well as it being a family-friendly destination."

The Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped luxury hotel in Dubai, is taking the Chinese New Year celebrations seriously. About 80 per cent of its guests during the holiday last year came from China.

At sunset on Monday, the hotel's exterior will be illuminated in red with a golden dragon in its centre, which will be visible from miles away.

"Without a doubt, Chinese New Year is a strong period for Burj Al Arab with our Chinese guests," says Heinrich Morio, the hotel's general manager. "We are expecting high occupancy levels during this period for in-house guests as well as dining guests."

Last year, the Chinese represented 26 per cent of the hotel's business.

"We do expect further growth, and China will remain a key market for us. We have seen a steady rise since September 2009, which was when the UAE received the approved-destination status by the Beijing government."

With the Chinese known to be big spenders, the lunar new year festivities coincide with the Dubai Shopping Festival, and this is expected to provide a boost to retailers.

"I believe that tourists from countries where currencies are not affected, like those that are linked to the dollar, like the Chinese yuan, they will continue to come," says Ishwar Chugani, the executive director for Giordano Middle East. "We see a lot of Asian tourists, especially from China."

For the hotels, the fact that many Chinese visitors speak only Mandarin or Cantonese can be a challenge.

"We repurpose our Chinese staff," Mr Armitage says. "I've got a Chinese sales guy in my sales team who normally wouldn't be involved in operations, but he'll spend more time out in operations."