Expo 2020 Dubai was hailed a "beacon of hope" for international travel as plans to welcome the world to the UAE this year take shape.
The first Expo hosted in the Middle East is set to be the largest global gathering held during the coronavirus pandemic period after Tokyo Olympics organisers said overseas visitors would be barred.
Expo 2020 chiefs authorised more than 2,500 travel groups, airlines and cruise companies to sell tickets and include the world fair in their itinerary as they stay focused on their goal of 25 million visits during the six-month event.
The number of travel businesses involved is expected to grow to more than 3,500 by the end of the summer.
A cautious approach is being taken, however, in traditionally strong markets such as India because of coronavirus travel restrictions in case the bans remain in force when the event in Dubai opens in October.
A mobile app to help visitors plan their journey across the Dubai Expo site will be released this summer.
"We have observed the travel industry is actually seeing Expo as a beacon of hope for international travel because this is going to be the first global gathering in the pandemic era," Sumathi Ramanathan, vice president of market strategy and sales for Expo 2020 Dubai, told The National.
“The Tokyo Olympics is going ahead without [overseas] spectators, and therefore the first global gathering that will happen in the world where you will actually have visitors will be Expo 2020.”
The Expo has signed thousands of agreements so airlines, cruise companies, tour operators and agents, including Saudi Arabia’s Al Tayyar and Al Fursan travel groups, can officially resell tickets.
There is strong interest from leisure and business visitors, with international airlines also taking note. Details of partnerships will be made public later.
Ticket prices will be revealed in mid-July and made available on the Expo website.
Expo to offer tailored travel packages
Three sets of visitors have been identified. The Expo is working with tour operators to include the event on the travel itinerary of tourists planning a holiday in the Emirates.
Stopover packages are being drawn up for passengers in transit.
A more detailed "Expo enthusiasts" journey is being prepared for visitors who plan to spend three to five days at the site.
Packages will include air tickets, and the tour operator will bundle it with a hotel stay, transport and an Expo ticket.
Expo organisers are working with tourism authorities in the UAE to gain insights into which markets are recovering.
“Given the fluidity of international travel, we decided to stick to 25 million visits and do everything that we possibly can to drive visitation,” Ms Ramanathan said.
“I think the prediction of which market is going to recover is actually a challenge. But what is not a challenge is our ability to work with a whole range of partners and [ticket] resellers to ensure that we are prepared.
“Being agile and flexible, and ready to go into markets as soon as they open up is one of our biggest strengths."
All eyes on pandemic as Expo 2020 Dubai draws near
The priority markets are China, India, Russia, the US, UK, Germany and the Gulf.
Organisers have decided to hold off promotions in nations struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
“It's a watch-and-see approach,” Ms Ramanathan said.
“We need to be sensitive. We can't just go in right now and do heavy marketing in some markets which are not ready for travel.”
Dubai's decision to remain open to international visitors since July last year caught the industry's attention.
There has been significant interest from Spain and Italy because both countries hosted expos.
Trade enquires from Portugal, France in Europe, Jordan and Egypt in the Middle East, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria in Africa took organisers by surprise.
There is also demand from Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.
Itineraries are being designed for visitors based on an understanding of how nationalities travel.
Group itineraries have been put together for Russian visitors who tend to travel as a group.
Family packages are being designed for Indians, and plans will suit older visitors from Germany.
“One of our biggest strengths comes in terms of being able to customise and tailor the journeys,” Ms Ramanathan said.
The Expo app will allow people to plan which of the 192 country sites and more than 100 food outlets they will visit.
“You can come in and say, ‘Okay, I want to visit these five countries, I want to watch these six performances, I want to try out these three cuisines, and the app will curate an itinerary for you,” she said.
“We have various opportunities for visitors depending on your passion, your interests or your group size.”
The app will help with navigation and additional information on the site.
Itineraries will be prepared for businesses from health and wellness, academics and sustainability experts to identify programmes related to their field.
Covid-19 provides unique challenges
Expo chiefs have informed about 200 participant nations their staff can have free vaccinations. There is no plan for vaccines to be offered to tourists.
People can buy tickets directly from the website or the mobile app from mid-July.
Tickets will also be available from authorised re-sellers such as airlines or tour operators.
Keeping in mind Covid-19 travel restrictions, people will have the flexibility to change their plans.
“The most important thing is making Expo accessible for everyone,” Ms Ramanathan said.
“In today's challenging travel climate, we want to make it easy for everyone.”