Not only are the United Arab Emirates breaking their own records this year, they’re topping global charts and giving each other a run for their money, says Rob Gill.
Travelling to the United Arab Emirates used to be mainly about going to Dubai, then near neighbour Abu Dhabi started to become more of a serious player.
Move on a few years, and now it’s other emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Sharjah and Fujairah that are making more of a splash in the global tourism market as they expand their offerings to visitors in a bid to reach their own ambitious growth targets over the next few years.
Having said this, Dubai is still by far the leading destination in the UAE – with 8.1 million visitors arriving in the emirate during the first half of 2018, which was a small rise of 0.5% on the same period last year.
Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), also known as Dubai Tourism, says the destination remains on course to hit its target of reaching 20 million annual visitors by 2020 – the emirate welcomed 15.8 million international visitors in 2017.
Helal Saeed Almarri, DTCM director general, says: “Attracting 8.1 million visitors during the first half of 2018 stands us in good stead as we accelerate momentum towards our visionary aspiration of becoming the most visited city in the world.”
Dubai is also benefiting the most from the UAE’s continued policy of relaxing entry restrictions for visitors – the UAE has allowed Chinese and Russian nationals to receive visas on entry for the past two years.
This helped lead to a 9% increase in arrivals to Dubai from China (up to 453,000) for the first half of 2018, while Russian visitors rose by a whopping 74% to 405,000 for the same period.
A more recent move has seen all passengers using the UAE’s airports being given an exemption from entry fees for a 48-hour stay, which is designed to boost the number of stopover visitors. For those wanting a longer stay, this can be extended to 96 hours for $14. Children are also now exempt from visa fees in the UAE’s summer months.
To further encourage transit passengers to make a stopover in Dubai, the tourist office has launched MyDubai Experience at the emirate’s international airport. This innovation features a series of interactive screens allowing tourists to put together a personalised two-day itinerary in Dubai based on their interests.
While it’s hard to see any of the other emirates taking too much of the focus away from Dubai in the coming years, Abu Dhabi is certainly giving its neighbour a run for its money, thanks to the high-profile opening of the $1 billion Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi theme park on Yas Island in July.
This will be followed by the eventual unveiling of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi painting at the Louvre Abu Dhabi gallery.
The artwork, purchased for an eye-watering $450 million, had been due to be unveiled in September this year before being delayed at the last minute.
Even before these landmark launches, Abu Dhabi had been enjoying a record-breaking year for tourist arrivals – rising by 2% to two million during the first half of 2018, so the chances are high that a new annual record will be achieved by the end of December.
Undersecretary at the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, Saif Saeed Ghobash, adds: “We are on track to achieve our targets of consecutive record-breaking years. We will continue to focus hard on our key markets, with milestone events, such as the Etihad Airways Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Abu Dhabi Art.”
Looking beyond the main gateways of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah has moved quickly to establish itself as an international destination in its own right. The strategy is clearly paying off, with visitor figures up by 14% for the first half of 2018 to more than 500,000, putting it on course to achieve its target of one million arrivals this year.
Russia has established itself as the largest inbound market to Ras Al Khaimah, with a 49.8% increase in the first six months of the year. Germany and the UK are the emirate’s second and third-largest inbound markets.
Ras Al Khaimah is promoting adventure tourism – the Jebel Jais Flight, the world’s longest zip line, will open a second phase at the end of the year, while 2019 will see the opening of the Survival Training Academy and new hiking and mountain-biking trails.
Sport is another key area of development, with Ras Al Khaimah hosting golf’s European Challenge Tour Grand Final last week (October 31-November 3). A major expansion of the emirate’s largest shopping mall, Manar Mall, is also due to be completed in December.
All these developments should help Ras Al Khaimah move towards its target of three million annual visitors by 2025.
Fellow northern emirate Sharjah has an even more ambitious target of reaching 10 million international tourists by 2021 as it looks to target key Asian markets such as India, China, Indonesia and Malaysia. Part of this increase will be driven by an expansion of Sharjah airport, which will be able to handle 25 million passengers per year by 2023.
Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) wants to add more international festivals to its calendar in addition to existing events such as the Sharjah International Book Fair, Sharjah
Light Festival and the Formula 1 Powerboat World Championship.
Fujairah (ME401), the only emirate based on the Indian Ocean coastline, is also targeting the lucrative Chinese and Indian markets, with plans to open tourist offices in both countries over the next two years. The emirate welcomed 700,000 international tourists in 2017, up by 4% on the previous year, as it bids to reach the one million mark within four years.
Ajman (ME540), the smallest of the seven emirates, located directly to the north of Sharjah, has also been enjoying impressive growth during 2018 with arrivals rising by 14% for the first half of the year. The Department of Tourism Development hopes to reach 700,000 annual visitors by 2019, fuelled by increased hotel development.
With so much development to all parts of its tourism infrastructure, the UAE will continue to be one of the destinations to watch in the coming years.
Another key to the UAE’s success has been the abundant – and relatively cheap by global standards – air access, and this growth is also continuing.
By the end of 2018, Dubai International is expected to reach the one billion passenger milestone since the airport opened in 1960. During the first seven months of the year, the airport handled 51.9 million passengers – up by 1.6% on the same period in 2017.
The world’s busiest international airport expects to cater for a total of 90.3 million people this year – the top three international markets for traffic are India, Saudi Arabia and the UK.
This growth is primarily driven by Emirates’ continued expansion of services and capacity – new routes include Stansted and Edinburgh in the UK, and Santiago in Chile, plus an extra flight between Dubai and Auckland via Bali.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi International continues to undergo a multi-billion dollar redevelopment and expansion to increase the overall capacity of the airport by 30 million passengers per year. The project is currently expected to be completed in late 2019.
With such ambitious growth plans across the United Arab Emirates, hotel development is continuing apace.
As a whole, there are currently 208 hotel projects either in planning, development or under construction in the UAE, which will add just under 59,000 rooms, according to Lodging Econometrics.
Dubai continues to see the lion’s share of these planned hotels – the emirate’s 161 projects account for 77% of properties in the pipeline, which will add another 46,000 rooms to an existing stock that currently stands at about 111,000.
Dubai only ranks behind New York and Houston in terms of the number of new hotel projects in development and is the number-one destination globally for total planned new rooms.
While the other emirates cannot match that level of development, they are still seeing significant additions to their hotel portfolios.
Abu Dhabi’s notable new entrants this year include Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas, Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi Edition and Al Wathba Desert Resort.
Meanwhile Ras Al Khaimah is set to increase its roomstock, from 6,500 to more than 12,000 by 2022, as new hotels from international brands such as Marriott, Movenpick, Sheraton, Anantara, Intercontinental, Hampton by Hilton and Crowne Plaza are set to be unveiled in the coming years.
Even the smallest emirate, Ajman, has seen a 10% rise in rooms over the past year, and currently has 38 hotels offering a total of 3,700 rooms.