The number of Chinese tourists holidaying in the UAE is set to rocket by 20 per cent in the next three years, as more and more Chinese citizens travel abroad, with a growing wave of visitors choosing to visit the Emirates.
“We have seen a significant increase in Chinese travellers visiting the UAE in the last year,” says Sam Ayles, senior growth manager at the travel search site Skyscanner.ae, which launched in 2016.
“Dubai attracted an impressive 91 per cent of Chinese travellers in 2017, compared to Abu Dhabi that saw 8 per cent. Delving into our flights data we see that January is the most popular month to visit the Emirates and Chinese visitors are staying an average of nine days – no wonder with so many sporting events as well as the Dubai Shopping Festival.”
At least 2.5 million Chinese travellers are expected to visit the GCC each year by 2021, according to new research released ahead of this year’s Arabian Travel Market trade show in April. The report, published this month by Colliers International, predicts that most of these Chinese visitors will head to the UAE. In 2012, Chinese tourists accounted for just 1.7 per cent of total tourist arrivals in the country, and by 2016 they represented 4 per cent, with those numbers forecast to grow.
This significant boost in tourism from this valuable market – not just the world’s biggest in terms of numbers of travellers, but the biggest spenders, too, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) – will be one of the key themes at the annual travel event, held at the Dubai World Trade Centre from April 22-25. The UNWTO in its April report for 2016 says Chinese tourists globally spent 12 per cent more, an increase of $11 billion to $261bn, when travelling abroad in 2016 than the previous year, retaining the number one spot, ahead of the US and Germany.
“From luxury shopping to theme parks to arts and culture, the UAE is a one-stop destination,” says Filippo Sona, head of hotels at Colliers International Mena, of the Emirates’ appeal to the China market. He says that UAE government initiatives have been crucial, including the introduction of the 30-day "On-Arrival Visa" in 2016 and the opening of the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing and Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism representative offices in Chinese cities to promote UAE holidays to Chinese people in China. Other key drivers, he says, include the promotion of forums such as the MeetChina Forum (UAE) and the development of programmes on digital platforms including WeChat by Dubai Tourism to help Chinese receive consumer feedback from Chinese-speaking residents and visitors.
An increasing number of hotels are also benefiting from earning the "Welcome Chinese" certification, says Mr Sona. “It is an initiative taken by the Chinese tourism authorities to support the Chinese outbound travellers wherein hotels, airports, cities, and other international travel-related providers are certified based on the services rendered in welcoming Chinese guests,” he says. “These requirements include availability of kettle and tea-set, Jiangsu TV Channel and CCTV Channel to guests, newspapers in Chinese, Welcome Chinese kit, availability of UnionPay terminals and Mandarin speaking staff.”
Initiatives taken by the Abu Dhabi Government and hotels since 2014 – with more than 20 hotels earning gold, silver or bronze certifications – resulted in more than 40 per cent growth annually in Chinese guest arrivals between 2014 and 2017, according to Mr Sona.
Numbers are further boosted by more than 100 weekly flights to Dubai from 13 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Emirates also added routes to Yinchuan and Zhengzhou in 2016, in addition to regular flights to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. And last year, Etihad set up a code share agreement – where both airlines share the same flight – with China Southern Airlines, and they are set to launch a reciprocal loyalty programme this year.
Chinese travellers are also looking for new experiences while travelling, says Mr Sona. “While they are slowly moving away from older trends such as long-haul destinations, guided tours and shopping-inspired tourism, they prefer to discover smaller, unexplored destinations that includes nature, adventure and cultural tourism, which is offered by UAE/Mena region.”
He also says that while the prospect of luxury shopping and entertainment in the region still plays a role in attracting Chinese tourists, safety is currently another draw. “UAE and Oman are among the top five countries ranked for security and safety in the world, and this is a top priority for Chinese travellers.”
Browsing boutiques is still a key element in many Chinese tourists’ holiday plans; up to a quarter of luxury goods sold in Mall of the Emirates are bought by Chinese tourists, according the Majid Al Futtaim Group, which owns and runs 11 malls across the Middle East including Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates.
While shopping remains important, there is a shift away from the material to the experiential, says Chloe Reuter, founder of the pan-Asian luxury communications agency Reuter Communications, who will host panels about Chinese consumers at Arabian Travel Market.
“Chinese tourists are searching for lesser known cities and villages when travelling to countries and regions related to the Belt and Road Initiative,” she says. “When you look online in China, more and more affluent travellers are posting, searching and commenting on cultural experiences, destinations and trips. Today’s post-80s generation in China now desire authentic and culturally relevant experiences. Trips that take them off the beaten path. They want that once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Authentic cultural experiences are also a draw: “In conjunction with this rise of interest in cultural tourism from Chinese travellers – eager to one-up their friends with photos from far-flung destinations posted to their WeChat Moments newsfeed – Mena countries are making culture a central pillar of their tourism strategy,” adds Ms Reuter.
Major cultural projects in the GCC are set to put the region on the map for Chinese tourists, including Design Dubai and The Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
These incentives are all helping make the UAE more attractive to Chinese people, but hotels are also doing their bit. Global hotel chain InterContinental Hotels Group runs a China Ready programme called Zhou Dao designed to cater to the China market. Participating hotels greet Chinese guests with Chinese-speaking staff on reception, accept China UnionPay cards, and offer Cantonese and Mandarin TV channels, Chinese food and drink options and a Chinese welcome pack. Staff are also trained in Chinese etiquette, culture and hospitality. Hotels respect Chinese sensitivities such as not allocating Chinese guests rooms on the 4th floor – the number four is considered unlucky – or decorating with white flowers, which are used at funerals in China.
“After the new visa-on-arrival regulations were introduced last year, the number of Chinese tourist arrivals has increased substantially,” says Shaun Parsons, complex general manager at Le Meridien Dubai Hotel & Conference Centre. "The Chinese market predominately focuses on tour series and leisure guests who visit the region for sightseeing. Hence they prefer city hotels to beach properties, which works well for our hotel.” The hotel has recently started promoting in China through local destination management companies specialising in the Chinese market as well as through its global sales offices.
“Over the years, Le Meridien Dubai has become a favourite and trusted brand,” says Mr Parsons. “Since Chinese groups usually come with requests for twin rooms, we have specific twin-room allocations for Chinese business, and have added amenities such as the Chinese like, to make them feel more comfortable and at home with us.” The hotel offers a Chinese speciality restaurant, Chinese dishes at the breakfast buffet and an Asian section of its all-day restaurant.
Dukes Dubai has also seen an increase in Chinese guests and the hotel is actively working with travel partners as well as MICE groups to market to Chinese travellers. Debrah Dhugga, the managing director of Dukes Dubai and Dukes London, says attention to detail and a warm welcome are key: “First and foremost, Chinese guests are looking for friendly staff who they can interact with in their language, as well as clean rooms and immaculate service,” she says.
The hotel, which offers Chinese cuisine on its menu, is focused on enabling Chinese guests to get the most out of their trip: “Chinese travellers rely heavily on the internet for information, media and keeping in touch with home, so good quality Wi-Fi in the hotel is essential,” adds Ms Dhugga. “Chinese travellers are renowned for their love to shop, so we provide maps, transportation options to the various malls and shopping outlets across Dubai and other logistical information that may help them navigate their way around.”
Making guests feel at home is essential but genuine experiences are a new must for UAE businesses that want to attract Chinese travellers. In particular, a new generation of "Free Independent Travellers", or FITs, are looking to immerse themselves in authentic local culture and hospitality.
“Instead of gravitating to the nearest Chinese restaurant in these remote locations, today it’s about an immersion into the local sights, sounds, flavours and customs,” says Ms Reuter.
The best way to reach them is on social media, she says: “You won’t get anywhere unless you are engaging on Chinese social media platforms.” Key channels are microblogging site Weibo and messaging app WeChat, which has added a Dubai city guide to its service. Ms Reuter also advises working with social media influencers or key opinion leaders to raise awareness and drive engagement with Chinese travellers.
And, finally, businesses should make life as easy as possible for Chinese tourists, says Ms Reuter, with Chinese-speaking staff, obviously, but also accepting Chinese mobile and online paying systems including WeChat pay and Alipay, a payment platform with 520 million users.
Getting the full package right will only enable the UAE's hospitality industry and wider economy to further take advantage of this potentially huge market opportunity.