China opens tourist floodgates to UAE

The number of Chinese tourists coming to the UAE is expected to more than double within the next 12 months.

Abu Dhabi - August 2, 2008: Chinese tourists visit Al Hosin Fort in downtown Abu Dhabi. Lauren Lancaster / The National  *** Local Caption ***  LL_02.08.08-ad fort003.jpgLL_02.08.08-ad fort003.jpg
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ABU DHABI // The number of Chinese tourists coming to the UAE is expected to more than double within the next 12 months as China relaxes its visa restrictions, opening up a major new source market for the recession-hit tourism industry. From September 15, travel agencies will be allowed to send tour groups to the UAE for the first time, Chinese tourism officials announced.

Another 10,000 extra Chinese nationals are expected to visit the Emirates, in particular Dubai, from next month, mostly through organised tour groups and for the purposes of business travel and attending exhibitions, the officials said. The China National Tourism Administration, the government body that regulates the number of Chinese nationals leaving the country, recently relaxed the restrictions on tourist travel to the UAE and eight other countries for the first time.

A spokesman at the Chinese embassy in Abu Dhabi said that previously individuals could apply for tourist visas to come to the UAE, but no official tour groups had been sent here. "Before, we had around 2,000 to 3,000 tourists a month; that is all," the embassy spokesman said. Tourism bodies in the UAE now hope to be able to capitalise on what, according to the UN World Travel Organisation, will be the world's biggest source market by 2020.

The new policy is expected to increase China's outbound travel by 50 per cent. Of the nine new destinations that Chinese tourists are now allowed to visit in groups, the UAE is proving to be the most popular, as there are already direct flights from Beijing to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways and Dubai on Emirates Airline. The eight other destinations on the list - Ecuador, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Mali, Cape Verde, Ghana, Papua New Guinea and Montenegro - will initially be receiving fewer tour groups because of the lack of direct flights and the difficulties in obtaining a visa.

Michelle Chen, the deputy general manager of Hunter International Tourism, one of China's largest travel agencies, which has an office in Dubai and another one opening in Abu Dhabi soon, said: "The UAE also has a popular and recognisable image among the people of China and is a popular destination, especially Dubai. "The UAE is a Muslim country, which for the Chinese is mysterious and exotic, as well as being very modern and open. Also, the luxury hotels are very famous, and the shopping during the big sales is very attractive to tourists."

Ms Chen said the initial number of 10,000 Chinese a month was expected to increase regularly with the targeted marketing that would be deployed in China. "The UAE was not an official tourism destination for China before," Ms Chen said. "Therefore, the groups coming here from China before were mostly in transit, or came for business and exhibition purposes." The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) was quick to capitalise on the Chinese announcement, and the capital's business tourism suppliers are heading to China next month for the largest promotion to date of Abu Dhabi as a travel destination.

The ADTA said it would meet more than 50 travel agents in Shanghai and attend the China Incentive, Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition in Beijing. Mubarak al Muhairi, the director general of the ADTA, called China "one of today's most important markets", and said it was crucial that Abu Dhabi be well represented at the exhibition to build awareness and increase the UAE's share of China's travel industry.

He said China's outbound business meetings and incentives industry was growing by more than 15 per cent a year and was valued at about US$14.6 billion (Dh53.7bn). "Chinese business delegations have been travelling to Dubai for some time now and a strong set of trading relationships now exist across multiple sectors," Mr Talwar said. "In this context, Abu Dhabi is very well positioned to attract Chinese business travellers and MICE traffic.

"In addition, the Chinese leisure traveller will be attracted by the range of leisure and cultural activities Abu Dhabi is developing."