As a teenager, Vicky Venkatesh used to skip school and head off to his father’s flower and plant shop in Al Satwa, Dubai. One of the draws: the fresh Christmas trees that the shop started selling six years ago.
Now, having taken over operations of Fresh Flowers, Mr Venkatesh, 20, notes a rising demand for the aromatic fir.
"Last year we got 300 trees and sold out," he said last Thursday, five days before Christmas. "This year we got 720 and have only 70 left."
Stores like Mr Venkatesh’s cater to expatriates who miss touches of home during the holiday season.
Hotels, too, are among the buyers. Apart from the big retailers such as Spinneys and Ace Hardware, small flower shops in Al Satwa and Al Warsan across town field the major demand for Christmas fir in the Emirates.
“There are a number of expats here and they want a taste of freshness at their homes,” says Simone Jucker, an international trade consultant in Abu Dhabi. She started a pilot project last year by importing 450 trees from Lunenburg Balsam Fir Christmas Tree Co-op, a group of small to medium-sized Christmas tree farms in the eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
“This is not really a surprise market,” she says. “The UAE has been importing Christmas trees for 30 years.”
Fresh fir has marked the holiday season at Spinneys for more than 20 years. A week before Christmas this year it has sold more than 700 Nordmann firs from the United States. Prices range from Dh310 (US$84) for 5 feet trees to Dh450 for 9ft versions.
Other countries that send their firs here include the Netherlands, Norway, Lebanon and Sweden, according to suppliers.
This year, the Dubai-based Ashley White started ChristmasTreesDubai.com and imported 300 Balsam firs from Canada. They stand 6ft to 7ft tall and cost Dh649, including a stand and delivery within Dubai.
“Our supplier estimates that between 10,000 to 15,000 real trees are imported into the UAE for the festive season each year,” says Ashley White, a British national.
Besides demand from expatriates, “you only have to look in the malls and hotels to see how the UAE so tolerantly embraces the festive season”, she says.
Mr Venkatesh’s store started off by buying from local dealers six years ago, but now ships Fraser firs directly from a friend’s farm in Quebec. Fraser fir is renowned for its smell and dark blue-green colour, and it ships well.
The prices at Fresh Flowers range from Dh500 to Dh2,000 depending on height, which can range up to 15ft, and the density of the foliage.
Abu Dhabi is also getting into the Christmas tree competition.
Bolstered by strong demand last year, Ms Jucker, a vice chairwoman at the Canadian Business Council in Abu Dhabi, took orders until October 15, and imported 1,000 trees priced from Dh200 for tabletop ones to Dh1,200 for 12ft firs.
Cut in the second week of November and after a 26-day sea trip from Halifax, Canada, the Balsam firs landed in Jebel Ali port on December 3 and were sold through Oleander, a retail flower shop with outlets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
While the Balsam firs are popular in Canada, competition is on the rise worldwide from artificial trees.
Last year, Canadian fir exports fell to C$28.2 million (Dh104.2m) from about C$34m three years earlier, according to Statistics Canada. In Nova Scotia alone, the exports were down by about 8 per cent in 2011 from 2003, according to Matthew Wright, an industry coordinator for the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia and a farmer for 30 years.
Ms Jucker’s project is part of an initiative to help to increase sales by Nova Scotia tree farmers. There are plans to enter other countries in the Arabian Gulf and across Asia.
Back on the narrow streets of Al Satwa at Mr Venkatesh’s shop, customers snap up the few trees left in the small backyard.
“This is a very risky business because if the Dubai Customs find one insect in one tree, the whole container will be cancelled,” he says.
"But I am confident of the demand and next year will import 1,200 trees."