Year of the Tiger off to roaring start

The lunar New Year is a busy time for UAE hotels and tour operators as the number of visitors from China grows.

Chinese tourists are flocking to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with many hotels and tour operators seeing a sharp increase in visitors to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Tiger. Celebrations for Lunar, or Chinese, New Year last Sunday, have been a boon for the Emirates Palace, which has had a 600 per cent increase in guests from China this year, said Janet Abrahams, the hotel's executive director of sales and marketing.

The restaurants have been packed with patrons with the influx of these tourists, she added. "[On Wednesday] it wasn't possible to get a table, all around the facilities." Michelle Chen, the deputy general manager based in Dubai of Hunter International Tourism, one of China's largest travel agencies, said tour bookings this year were up 50 per cent in the emirate and 30 per cent in Abu Dhabi. Many travel agencies in China have been offering special tours to the UAE for the Chinese New Year, when many Chinese have extended holidays, such as a package that includes the Burj Al Arab, Atlantis The Palm and Emirates Palace, she said.

"The Chinese travel agents are doing promotions for the UAE," Ms Chen said. "Before it was Europe. Now Europe is not so good and other Asia countries are not stable. That's why they highlight the UAE." China's rapid economic growth in recent years has prompted local hoteliers and retailers to cater to the growing number of visitors. Hotels such as the Monarch Dubai have introduced Chinese menus at some of their eateries and the Louis Vuitton boutique in Dubai has said it is considering hiring Chinese-speaking sales associates.

It is a big and lucrative market with great potential: about 100 million Chinese a year are expected to travel overseas by 2020, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) forecasts. China has been ranked fifth globally for the amount spent on international travel with a total of more than US$36 billion (Dh132.23bn) in 2008, the UNWTO said. In September last year, the Chinese government allowed travel agencies to promote the UAE and send tour groups to the country for the first time.

This comes at a time when the Emirates has seen fewer tourists from western Europe, which has long been the country's main source market. Airlines are also cashing in, with China Eastern Airlines to launch three flights a week from the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Dubai, starting on Monday. Last year, Abu Dhabi recorded 11,284 Chinese hotel guests and that number is expected to increase by 10 per cent this year, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) said.

"Abu Dhabi has only a very tiny share of this sizeable market so there is a lot of potential in the medium-to-longer term for sustained growth," the ADTA said. The Dubai Department for Tourism and Commerce Marketing has opened three offices in China: in the cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Nicky Zhou, a 33-year-old teacher from Shanghai, said she came to the UAE for the new year and is staying at the Emirates Palace with 13 of her friends because they had extra holidays. She had heard a bit about the Formula One race last year and the Emirates Palace, but her interest in the UAE mainly come from word of mouth. "Some people had been here before and they said nice things about it," Ms Zhou said.

Emily Zhang, a 23-year-old student from Guangdong, came to the UAE with her sister and mother. They flew into Dubai and visited the Emirates Palace for dinner as part of a package tour. She had learnt about Dubai from the media, but she liked the UAE for its "buildings, the shopping malls, and the sea". The popularity of the Emirates has meant some challenges, as well. Ms Chen said her agency had run out of the 500 visas for Chinese tourists it was allotted and had to buy some from other agencies.

"Some travel agencies have had people stuck in China," she said. "By the time of travelling, there was no visa ready."