Abu Dhabi and Dubai hospitality and tourism recovery to accelerate in 2021 on vaccine push

Exclusive: Abu Dhabi expects hotel occupancy rates to hit 80% this year, from 70% in 2020, and will look at easing travel restrictions for international visitors, DCT chief says

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The UAE hospitality and tourism industry's recovery is expected to accelerate in 2021 driven by its Covid-19 vaccine push and easing travel restrictions in some markets, government officials and hoteliers said.

Abu Dhabi expects its hotel occupancy rates to increase to at least 80 per cent this year, from 70 per cent in 2020, Saood Abdulaziz Mohamed Al Hosani, undersecretary of the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, told The National.

Saood Al Hosani, Acting Undersecretary of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi). Wam

"While we forecast a substantial recovery for Abu Dhabi’s tourism sector in 2021 ... our focus remains on delivering high-quality, exciting experiences with health, safety and well-being as our number one priority," he said. "Abu Dhabi is well prepared to welcome increasing numbers of new arrivals in a safe environment."

The UAE, a regional tourism and business hub, can bank on its speedy Covid-19 vaccination campaign, the hosting of the Dubai Expo world fair in October, open borders and visa reforms, which will boost the number of visitors to the country, officials and hoteliers said.

Abu Dhabi plans to expand its Green List (countries, regions and territories that you can travel from if planning a trip to the emirate) and anticipates a growing number of countries to be added to it in the "near future", the DCT official said.

The DCT's Green List, which currently comprises of 14 countries, is constantly being reviewed based on Covid-19 developments globally. It is designed to allow travellers from select destinations to enter the capital without the need to quarantine.

"Given the extraordinary efforts that have been made to ensure public safety, we will be looking at easing travel restrictions for international tourists allowing for even more visitors to safely enjoy their holiday in Abu Dhabi," Mr Al Hosani said.

The UAE's high rate of vaccinations administered per capita will have a "positive impact" on its travel agreements with countries, which would depend on certain health and safety criteria, he said.

"The necessary preventative measures will also remain in place for the well-being of our community, while we enable more incoming travel without compromising our safety standards," Mr Al Hosani said.

We will be looking at easing travel restrictions for international tourists allowing for even more visitors to safely enjoy their holiday in Abu Dhabi

The DCT official also expects the return of in-person business conferences and events as the department works with stakeholders to ensure public health remains a priority, he said.

Industry analysts expect the recovery of business travel to lag behind leisure trips as companies trim budgets and video-conferencing technology becomes the norm.

Neighbouring Dubai, which opened its borders to international visitors in July 2020, is optimistic about the industry's outlook this year.

"As we build on the strong rebound in 2020 and as confidence continues to grow within the industry and among travellers and with vaccinations being rolled out around the world, we expect to see momentum accelerating throughout 2021," Issam Kazim, chief executive of Dubai Tourism, told The National. 

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 22 APRIL 2018 - Issam Kazim, CEO, DCTCM (Dubai Tourism) at the 25th Arabian Travel Market, Dubai. Leslie Pableo for the National for Sarah Townsend story

Growth drivers include the Dubai Expo, the UAE's 50-year celebrations, and a surge in domestic tourists, he said.

The emirate is in a "strong position" to capture target markets as they re-open their borders due to its strategy of diverse markets and agility, he said. However, he also said that the pace of the global industry recovery depends on Covid-19 developments and travel restrictions easing.

Dubai's focus this year is to tap into the conferences business, boost leisure events and start a new global marketing campaign in May to showcase the emirate as a summer destination for families, he said.

Tourists take an Abra ride through Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah resort. Dubai hotels recorded occupancy rates of 60.5 per cent in March, up from 58.2 per cent in February, according to STR. Courtesy: Dubai Tourism. 

Dubai hosted more than 810,000 international guests in the first two months of 2021 compared to 3.27 million visitors in January and February of 2020, according to Dubai Tourism. In 2020, the emirate had 5.51 million visitors or a third of the number of visitors in 2019.

The UAE recorded the world's second-highest hotel occupancy rates after China in 2020 and hoteliers expect properties to be just as busy this year.

"The UAE in 2021 is going to finish the year with some of the strongest numbers in the world," Guy Hutchinson, chief executive and president of Rotana, told The National. "It's inevitable."

Rotana CEO and president Guy Hutchinson is bullish about the recovery of the region's hospitality industry, led by Dubai and the UAE. Image: Rotana.

Rotana's Dubai properties reached an occupancy rate of 70 per cent, given the restrictions on capacity, while its Abu Dhabi hotel occupancy rates were in the "high 80s" during the first quarter of 2021, he said.

In the summer, based on current bookings, occupancy will "tail off a bit" but remain strong in the "late 60s" mark, he said, noting that "visibility remains complex".

The UAE in 2021 is going to finish the year with some of the strongest numbers in the world

Once the key source markets of Saudi Arabia, the UK and Germany re-open, the rebound in leisure travel to the UAE will be "immediate and the numbers will be beyond expectation", he said.

Marcus Bernhardt, chief executive of Steigenberger Hotels and Deutsche Hospitality, said the UAE's hospitality and tourism industry is "all set to rise" this year.

Hotels must adapt to travellers' changing mindset during the pandemic, when they're likely to opt for accommodation that is safer, less crowded and offers flexibility in bookings or cancellations.

"Travel in this 'new normal' looks and feels different," he said.

Aloki Batra, chief executive of Five Hospitality, said the Israel market is a "huge opportunity" following the normalisation of relations with the UAE, given the spending power and interest from both Israeli residents and large Israeli diaspora.