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Dubai is gearing up for the Expo, scheduled to start on October 1. Preparations have been underway since the emirate won the rights to hold the event back in November, 2013. It will be a first for the Middle East.
Few envisaged the circumstances within which the Expo would eventually take place. It will be the first pandemic-era global mega-event to be permit the physical entry of visitors, after the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics went ahead without spectators.
Holding Expo during a global pandemic will be no mean feat. Nevertheless, Dubai has been open for tourists since July 2020 and has managed a highly effective vaccination campaign. Restrictions were tightened when cases surged and eased later. The UAE has the highest vaccination rate in the world, with more than 90 per cent of the population having received at least one dose.
From Oct 2020, the UAE opened to host multiple global conferences and sports events, though at a smaller scale than Expo – with other major events on the horizon like the Indian T20 IPL championship matches, T20 Cricket World Cup and Formula 1, among others. Of course, having a well-connected airport will be critical in this regard: two thirds of the world’s population lives within an eight-hour flight from Dubai, and a third lives within four hours.
Expo 2020 is expected to have a greater number of visitors using international travel than any Expo before it. Even though passenger traffic at Dubai’s international airport plummeted from 86.4 million people in 2019 to 25.9 million in 2020, it was ranked the world’s busiest airport for international passengers, and passengers are expected to rise to over 28 million this year.
The travel industry reports a surge in ticket demand following the recent announcement of entry for all World Health Organisation-approved vaccinated persons into the UAE. Nearly one third of the world's borders remain closed, and with “pandemic fatigue” settling in, Expo 2020 might just be the outlet for vaccinated people itching for international travel.
Hosting such mega-events is typically found to be a drain on country or city budgets. For the recently concluded spectator-free Tokyo Olympics, the official budget by 2019 stood at $12.6 billion (a 2013 estimate predicted it would be $7.5bn), though the audit board places the amount as at least double. In the Expo’s case this year, where visitors are allowed entry, one must also have to account for additional spending given the Covid-19 countermeasures, including testing, adapting to social distancing policies, etc.
However, the economic case for hosting such events is based on a number of elements: the increase in economic activity, such as infrastructure investment and spillovers, job creation, event-related revenues, a rise in tourism and spending. This is supported by enhancement to key tourism infrastructure, for example the extension of the Dubai Metro to the Expo and roads to and from hotels near the Expo. All of this contributes to building the intangible “Dubai brand”, as well as other qualitative and social impacts including the strengthening of trade and business with global counterparts, and the “feel-good” factor – more important during a pandemic when trying to return to “normal”.
Expo 2020 has prioritised health and safety guidelines (including a mask mandate), and plans to dazzle the rest of the world with its AI-assisted queue and crowd controls and roving paramedics. A trial period earlier this year saw these practices being tested as residents previewed the area. While this should put visitors’ minds at ease, we expect that the Expo will benefit from UAE residents’ multiple visits (domestic) in addition to those from major regional and international source countries, such as India, Saudi Arabia, EU, UK and Russia.
Having hosted 2.5 million overnight visitors in the first half of 2021, and 5.51 million persons in 2020, Dubai has already gained sufficient experience to safely secure visitors and manage events during a pandemic. Expo 2020 is just scaling that experience up.
High immunisation rates and the easing of restrictions allowing for tourists’ entry, along with the ability to host global conferences, entertainment and sporting events have already boosted the confidence of consumers and businesses enabling a recovery from Covid-19. Consider the UAE’s non-oil sector PMI: at 54 in July, this was the highest reading since Jul 2019; it has already improved to an average reading of 52.2 in the first half of this year versus 50.2 in the second half of 2020, thanks to the pace of vaccination, policy stimulus to domestic demand and recovery in employment. Tourism numbers and hotel occupancy rates have been picking up, despite having restricted entry from India (during its Covid-19 wave), UK (since UAE was placed on UK’s Red and Amber lists requiring mandatory “quarantine on return”) and direct travel from Saudi Arabia still suspended. Higher frequency indicators like mobility, traffic and money supply growth also indicate a broad-based recovery.
Standing at a few weeks countdown to the launch of the Expo, the 192 pavilions, around 50,000 employed and the related infrastructure are ready to receive the world. A successfully run event will boost Dubai's and the UAE's image as a global frontrunner in safely hosting large-scale events during the pandemic era.