As UAE residents return to hotels and the domestic market slowly picks up amid the pandemic, an interesting predicament has arisen for hotel operators and guests alike.
Is heading off on a staycation a simple exercise in supporting the local tourism industry and, more personally, a mental health boost after weeks confined indoors?
Or is it tone-deaf in an environment where disposable income is dwindling for many, and in which we know it's best to stay home when possible and practice social distancing at all times?
After a busy few days in some hotels in the UAE last weekend, The National spoke to hotel operators and guests about where the social distancing onus lies.
The UAE has recorded an increase in Covid-19 cases over the past week, and while this is partly down to an increase in testing, it's also due to relaxed opinions on the stay home initiative, says Amna Al Dahhak, a spokeswoman for the UAE Government.
“This increase is also a result of recklessness by individuals not adhering to social-distancing rules,” she said during Monday night's coronavirus briefing.
'The hotel is packed'
If you're a user of social media, you've probably seen Five Jumeirah Village's staycation offers being advertised. They're that cheap.
For Dh1,000 you can stay in one of the hotel's superior rooms for a whole week. For Dh4,500, you can bunk up in a sky villa with a private pool.
And its nightly prices have been slashed, too. The hotel has been offering nights in its sky villas for as low as Dh750.
But those deals and the relative privacy of each apartment have been met by suggestions that some people were heading there to socialise with friends.
Dubai resident Kriks Krikorian stayed at Five Jumeirah Village at the weekend recently, after noticing the social media advertising for the staycation deal.
He says the hotel was "packed full" and suggested that "parties were on".
It took almost two hours to check in, and at one point "a restaurant was turned into a check-in area", he says. "I was shocked, the parties were on until 5am, I swear, I felt I was in a world without coronavirus."
However, Five says it has put measures in place to prevent this from happening.
Acknowledging reports of parties on the premises, Aloki Batra, chief executive of Five Hospitality, says: "In light of the current situation, we have limited the number of guests permitted to check in per apartment. For example, our two-bedroom apartments are limited to a maximum of four people and our four-bedrooms, eight people.
"Guests are also required to sign an agreement on check-in that states they will practice social-distancing measures, ensure only guests who are checked in are present in the room, and abstain from parties or gatherings inside the room."
Batra says the hotel had proven popular throughout the lockdown.
All 269 of its one and two-bedroom apartments with private swimming pool or Jacuzzi have been booked for the past five weeks, largely because of its special offers.
"We recognised early on that a lot of people were stuck in Dubai after the UAE closed its borders so we launched a long-term room offer for both properties."
Batra says the hotel, whose clientele he describes as "millennials from the UK, GCC and Russia", had also welcomed "several influencers stuck in Dubai after the UAE borders were closed".
The hotel was complying with government regulations by conducting body temperature checks on all guests and staff, antibody tests for staff, having an on-call hotel nurse and electric sprayers with disinfectants in public areas.
The hotel's seven-night-stay offer has now been extended until the end of the month, to accommodate demand.
Staycation deals sell out within 12 hours
Fairmont Ajman reopened on April 30, after being shut for a month. It did, however, stress that it would alter its operations: sunbeds will remain two metres apart, and it will only run at 30 per cent capacity – not including overall guests. Ajman Tourism has imposed the capacity limit for restaurants and public spaces, but not overall guest numbers.
And as the hotel reopened, it did so with a cut-price deal of Dh300 per night. That's less than half the usual price for a Friday or Saturday night; ordinarily, on a weekday it costs Dh350, and about Dh760 at the weekend.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, guests came in their droves.
A Dubai resident, who did not want to be named, visited Fairmont Ajman recently, over a weekend, and was surprised at the lack of social-distancing between groups, and the fact masks were not always being worn.
Another guest says the hotel was "very busy" and at one point there was a lifeguard in the pool trying to separate groups that were near the bar.
Several comments on TripAdvisor refer to long wait times to check in, guests not wearing masks, a buffet breakfast still being served, large crowds and overall uncleanliness. However, others tout its handling of the new health and safety guidelines as impressive – and buffets are not strictly outlawed in the emirate.
Kosta Kourotsidis, Fairmont Ajman's general manager, says the hotel has addressed negative TripAdvisor comments with each guest.
He says the hotel's reopening had become "the talk of town in Dubai, and consequently attracted a large number of staycation guests".
"Our special staycation deal was indeed sold out in less than 12 hours, which clearly shows the growing staycation demand among UAE residents."
During May, there were also "very few rooms left", and the hotel expected that trend to continue into June.
This was a clear example that domestic tourism had already returned to the UAE, Kourotsidis says.
While the hotel was primarily receiving guests from Dubai, it had also seen an "overwhelming amount of reservation requests" from overseas guests who were "keen to book their stay as soon as inbound passenger flights are back on track".
"We are encouraging the domestic market to vacation and staycation in the UAE this year to support the industry."
After Dubai resident Bogdan Petrescu's recent weekend stay at the Ajman Saray, he says he feels "safer in a supermarket than in a luxury hotel". He says the resort appeared to have been unable to manage a young clientele who seemed to be there to take advantage of the Northern Emirates's lighter restrictions and "party".
"I will be honest, I did not feel safe at all during my stay. I can rely only on luck in order not to have been contaminated," he says.
A statement from the hotel said it was "operating in line with the directive provided by the local authorities and is following the social-distancing protocols, which includes efforts on the beach and in our restaurants".
'This is how it should be done'
Other resorts agree that domestic tourism is now picking up, and so are adapting to the "new normal" in their operations.
The InterContinental Fujairah Resort has been praised for strictly enforcing its new measures – no valet parking, pre-booked breakfast and dinner times, two guests per lift and having only one pool open, among other things.
The hotel is currently offering three nights for the price of two, or a "limitless" package, which includes an ocean-facing room and complimentary dining from Dh695 per night.
General manager Vijai Singh says there has been "some uptake in demand from domestic guests".
"With Eid holidays approaching, the outlook is encouraging."
The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert, has also drawn praise. The hotel had been offering private villas for as low as Dh1,200 per night.
Dubai resident Alex Edwards, who stayed there recently, says it was a "great experience".
"They explained with a notice why there was no valet parking available, there were clear signs when masks should be worn, apologies for no breakfast buffet as it was all a la carte, there was social-distancing within the restaurant and reservations were required to limit the amount of time. All in all, it was how it should be done."
So then, does the responsibility lie with the hotel operators, or the guests, to ensure everyone keeps safe in this age of the coronavirus? And how can you ensure you're safe if you're desperate for a staycation in lieu of international travel?
Hilton spokesman William Costley believes this is a "shared responsibility".
After the Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa drew criticism on social media for a busy weekend with long queues for food, he says they were "constantly reviewing" how to improve guests' experiences as well as encouraging them to follow government advice.
Hilton had seen a "strong pick-up" in the past couple of weeks, especially at its RAK and Dubai properties, Costley says. In RAK, people had been seeking out premium villas for privacy.
"This is a shared responsibility and we ask that people act in accordance with local government guidelines and exercise common sense when it comes to managing social distancing," he says.
What are the rules for hotels in the UAE right now?
Each emirate has different rules, as it currently stands.
Raki Phillips, chief executive of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, says there are several regulations hotels must now adhere to.
These include: placing markers between indoor public areas to communicate two-metre social distancing, separate entrances for guests and staff, masks worn by staff, no valet parking and a 30 per cent cap on dining venues. Licensed venues are allowed to serve alcohol. There is no cap on total hotel occupancy.
The regulations are the same in Ajman, according to the tourism department's 10-page hotel operating guidelines released on April 29. Ajman recommends hotels don't have buffets unless they are "a must". Hotel gyms are open, as well as pools and beaches.
In Dubai, hotel beaches are now open, but pools, spas, gyms and fitness facilities remain closed. Bars remain closed, and buffets are not allowed.