Dubai has been a late-booking boon for agents and operators who have clients able to travel and keen to grab a dose of winter sun. Elegant Resorts’ managing director Lisa Fitzell got on a plane herself to head to the emirate and see what clients can expect – and take a much-needed break of her own after a challenging year
It has been three years since my last trip to Dubai, so my friend and I decided back in September that we would plan a trip and head over there in December. We took a chance on booking it then as the air corridor had not yet opened, but I felt that based on feedback from suppliers it would be fine by December – luckily it was!
Of course, you need proof of a negative PCR test for entry to Dubai, which was easy to obtain; I went to Ghosh Medical in Liverpool and it cost £150. I booked in a week before and arrived at 9.30am for my test, and got my results back later that day. It is possible to get a free test on arrival in Dubai, but you would have to wait for your results in your hotel room and as we only had five nights for our trip, I didn’t want to risk waiting for the test and losing time enjoying Dubai.
As an operator, we offer rep service at Heathrow, so I arranged to meet ours there – I always love meeting them and getting the inside scoop on the airport and our customers, and they’re there of course to make it easy for clients too. At check-in, British Airways staff looked at our PCR tests before checking us in and our reps walked us through security and even waited for us while we shopped, then took us straight to the gate; it’s lovely having someone escort you, and I can see why our clients love it.
I checked the update on the premium services at the airport – the Fastrack option hasn’t been open all year since the crisis started, the BA Concorde lounge is closed, but BA’s business lounge is open, as is the Windsor Suite for VIPs; at Heathrow, only terminals 3 and 5 are currently operational.
We flew out on a B777 and back on the new A350, which features BA’s new Club Suite, which is fantastic. The cabin is fully enclosed and well designed so you can dine perfectly with the seat next to you. It is one of the best business class seats I have ever experienced.
We boarded in small groups and were socially distanced, and everybody wore masks for the whole flight. I felt the BA protocols were very good, meals in business class are served on cardboard trays now, and drinks are served throughout by small bottles (not poured, as they would have been previously), and there is no Duty Free, or retail sales.
I had booked the VIP ‘meet and greet’, as I knew from experience, this is the best way to arrive in Dubai. We were met off the plane and put onto a buggy and escorted straight through to the passport control, our PCR Covid tests where checked once again, and we were at baggage control within 10 minutes of landing.
Dubai airport was busy, there is social distancing in place and masks where worn at all times and sanitisation stations where located around the terminal, but with so many people it was difficult to keep distance between people, hence why the VIP arrival takes all that stress away.
I always love the feeling of being at Dubai airport – it really is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures all meeting in one place and coming out of the terminal, I was struck by just how busy it was compared to Heathrow. Everyone wore masks though and this is also mandatory in taxis. We met our driver and were transported to the Mandarin Oriental for our first night.
On arrival, the hotel had a one-way system in place for reception, we had our temperature tested and needed to sanitize on arrival and keep our masks on, as well as show our negative PCR tests once again. The hotel is so beautiful, the rooms are large and with a perfect open plan layout and staff so attentive – everything you would expect at a Mandarin Oriental!
It feels like another world in Dubai right now, it is busy, restaurants are all open, it’s bustling, there’s lots of atmosphere. It is now allowed for groups of 10 to dine together and live music is allowed back into hotels and restaurants.
It feels safe though, the government is taking the protocols seriously, social distancing is in place, there’s always a temperature check on arrival when you enter somewhere and you must wear a mask at all times unless eating or drinking or being at the beach or pool. Nightclubs and restaurants are also now open to 2am (a recent extension from 1am).
The hotels are testing their staff weekly with mandatory Covid tests. The police are patrolling and checking the hotels; we heard that one hotel was closed for a few days for not taking protocols seriously.
I would recommend advising clients to still be careful though of course – with it looking like such a near-normal return to business, it could be easy to think there is no Covid present there, but it is of course still around. If you are unlucky enough to get it, and test positive while in Dubai, you will need to isolate in a government facility (a number of hotels) for 14 days.
The weather at this time of year is just wonderful so it is so great to be outside in the sunshine every day, and the hotel was full of people socialising over brunch and catching up with friends.
On our first day, we went for a walk along the beach track from the Mandarin to the old harbour, and given I had been in lockdown since September, it felt slightly overwhelming at first to experience so many people enjoying life, walking and running, seeing kids playing football on the beach.
We moved the next day to One&Only Royal Mirage and stayed at the Residences, it is such a wonderful property, and has so much space, the gardens are vast and the beach cabanas are so spread out – as are as all the tables in the restaurants. The protocols are exceptional, the staff are constantly cleaning, sunbeds are sprayed before and after you sit down, all the towels are packed in plastic for hygiene and the staff walk around with sanitiser throughout the day.
I’d suggest this hotel as a total sanctuary – it seems guests are thinking the same, as the general manager told us many clients from the UK are coming out and extending their stay. One famous guest came out for a week and is still there 10 weeks later!
We decided to go for a walk to JBR one morning, and were amazed at the development in this area, the whole beachfront now has such a huge choice of restaurants and outdoor markets, you can also skydive, trampoline in the ocean, attend an outside gym class, and choose from a huge range of watersports. The atmosphere around this area is fantastic, it’s bustling with life and I noticed many new beach clubs have opened since my last visit, it really has become a hot spot for nightlife and entertainment.
Our last stop of the trip was One&Only The Palm, and we took the boat to reach the resort from the Royal Mirage which takes just eight minutes; we sanitised before getting on the boat and also when we got off.
One&Only The Palm is truly special, and I love it for its attention to detail, the service and the food of course – the overall standard of the resort is just world-class. The pool area is surrounded by cabanas and daybeds and the beach has lovely cabanas dotted around too, and all with plenty of space for guests.
Again I was amazed at the development of the Palm since I was last in Dubai, and the new marina – which will be the final stage of development for this area and which the One&Only overlooks – is nearly complete and soon be home to superyachts as well as passenger cruise ships.
There is a fantastic walking track all around the top of the Cresent in the Palm and with so many residents now it was very busy, full of families, runners, walkers, rollerbladers all enjoying amazing sunsets and the perfect weather to get outdoors. We visited Nobu at The Atlantis one night which was amazing and enjoyed a lovely night at 101, One&Only The Palm’s beach-club style bar and restaurant.
The hotels are running at high occupancy – bookings for Brits have exploded since the air corridor was announced on 12 November – and are almost full until February now.
But when I was in Dubai, news came about Germany going into lockdown so more cancellations came in, and this means it’s always worth trying for availability if you have clients wanting to book, as it is changing every day and I think will be pretty fluid for a while yet.
On the way back, the return experience was super smooth – there was temperature checking and thermal screening at Dubai airport, and with great efficiency, everything moves freely, so there was no waiting around in queues.
My friend and I had a wonderful four days – it was so good to just be able to enjoy some freedom, to dine out, appreciate good weather and have quality time catching up with my friend, as well as getting that insight from some of our key suppliers.
Everything felt so smooth and easy; Dubai knows how to handle volumes of people, and the protocols are pretty strict, so you feel safe.
I always love going back there and am in awe of how different it is every time I visit – the skyline continues to expand and the city continues to evolve.
It was a late start for Dubai to come onto the air corridor list for us, but I do feel they worked very hard to get the very best protocols in place to keep things safe – and they are doing a very good job at it.