Abu Dhabi’s tourism sector is poised for a gradual re-opening and officials are preparing to attract an international traveller that is much more health-conscious post-Covid-19 to the emirate with a mix of competitive deals and flexible packages.
The Department of Culture and Tourism is working to support hotels and resorts through a very difficult period as well as helping them prepare to re-open once the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) gives the greenlight, said Ali Al Shaiba, the department’s executive director of tourism and marketing.
“We have the protocols in place … they are just on standby mode... So maybe within a week, within two weeks, I have no idea but we are discussing it with the government. It's on the table of NCEMA and whenever we receive back from them, the next day we will announce” that hotels can re-open, he said.
It will take longer for tourist attractions like museums and theme parks to follow given their higher levels of physical interaction, he said.
“However, we are working also on the measures that would allow the whole sector to recover gradually by building post-Covid-19 protocols and procedures that meet the highest worldwide standards,” he said.
“We are confident that we will be amongst the first to recover and get back to business stronger than before.”
Hotel staff have been tested for the coronavirus and the department has begun a cleanliness and hygiene certification programme which provides detailed rules including physical distancing requirements and which facilities can be open. For example, buffets will not be allowed when resorts and hotels first re-open, Mr Al Shaiba said.
This is part of the emirate’s efforts to make visitors feel comfortable in terms of their health and safety, which will be one of three key considerations for anyone booking travel in the future, he said.
The second is cost and the third major factor is a “hassle free” experience, according to the department’s analysis.
To make sure Abu Dhabi is ready to receive tourists again and “in the right way”, the department has set up a command centre "filled with a best class analysts and digital experts monitoring and analysing more than 30 different markets”.
The government, as well as international partners such as Google, booking.com, Expedia and other tourism companies, are providing the data on which weekly reports are based.
Abu Dhabi heritage
The information includes the state of Covid-19 related restrictions in a country and the economic situation as well as the extent of the health crisis there.
Only China and Singapore are at “stage three” with signs that travel is beginning to rebound and are at the point at which they are ready to be marketed to, Mr Al Shaiba said.
Officials are in discussions with airlines, hotels and tour operators to create competitive packages for when it is time to go to market. Any package will have to include flexible terms so bookings can be refunded, he said, given that there will continue to be uncertainty around travel. Full packages beyond just hotel stay and air ticket will also be looked at.
In the wake of the pandemic the tourism and travel sector in Abu Dhabi has been hit very hard with zero inbound visitors as borders closed around the world and air travel almost ground to a halt.
Mr Al Shaiba said as soon as the pandemic began a government task force was assembled to engage with the sector and find out what was needed to successfully mitigate its impact. The government responded “exceptionally” quickly, he said, with measures such as the waiving of taxes and fees, rent rebates, facilitating access to bank support and the provision of billions of dirhams in subsidies for water and power bills.
He said the leadership in Abu Dhabi is willing to do “whatever it takes” to help navigate the crisis and the government is showing “the stakeholders and the businesses that we care about everyone here in Abu Dhabi, not only individuals but all businesses”.
This is why Mr Al Shaiba, who is in daily contact with those working in tourism, remains optimistic about a recovery even though it will take longer for destinations to bounce back even as air travel demand returns.
“Destinations have more components like hotels, tour guides, tour operators, travel agents, destination management companies, assets, museums, theme parks, that might take much more than just [what] an airline [might need] to travel [again],” Mr Al Shaiba said.
For Abu Dhabi, this year will be a "domestic and regional play" with staycations and visits from neighbouring countries the more likely opportunities.
"I would say 2021 will be gradually open to international visitors but 2020 I would stay optimistic, I would say domestic and maybe regional [markets] will be open,” he said.
Whatever the timeline, tourism "will not be the same again”.
"Future travellers’ behaviour will change drastically. The choice of destination will heavily depend on your standards and requirements,” Mr Al Shaiba said.
Abu Dhabi’s reputation for quality health care will play an important part in its ability to attract international visitors quickly as “the first thing you will consider is a destination that could accommodate you if you face any health issues".
Abu Dhabi islands
The other big shift will be around technology with travellers wanting everything to be accessible through their personal device including menus, room keys and payments, Mr Al Shaiba said. The department is going to pilot these technologies.
“So, we are looking... how to make the journey of the traveller much easier from the booking to the planning to the arrival into Abu Dhabi. To not have contact anyone through the journey from the airport, to transportation, and so on,” he said. That “will change everything” including taking part in activities around the emirate when they are here.
Planning for the future of travel and tourism started last year, before the pandemic, Mr Al Shaiba said, and now because of the rapid shifts happening they are accelerating their timeline to implement them.
However, events and exhibitions, an important factor behind a record number of visitors to Abu Dhabi last year, are more complicated to get going again.
The corporate segment may be a little easier to manage in terms of protocols and managing numbers but festivals and concerts will be more difficult to control, Mr Al Shaiba said.
The plan is to host concerts at some point “but in a way that we assure the health and safety of the consumers and also assure that the atmosphere and the environment and the experience won't be changed”.
Major sporting events such as the Special Olympics, the football Asian Cup and the UFC were held successfully in Abu Dhabi last year. Globally, some competitions are now beginning to trickle back even if it is without spectators.
"I believe Abu Dhabi has the capability to kick start sporting events in the same direction within 2020. And who knows, you know, you might hear a surprise from us very soon,” Mr Al Shaiba said.