Tourism in times of Covid: will Dubai's economy survive?
Illustration credit: Khadijah Ali (@mindful_.artist)

Dubai, a small city in the United Arab Emirates, has established its unique identity in the world as a global tourist hub, attracting more than 16 million tourists in 2019. Though it is not the capital city of U.A.E, Dubai is more popular and tourist­-friendly than any other city in the entire region; and with its huge expat population (88.52%), it is as diverse and inclusive as ever.

Oil was discovered in Dubai in the early 1960’s and this discovery marked the beginning of Dubai’s development. On 2nd December 1971, the United Arab Emirates was formed with 7 emirates having the city of Abu Dhabi as its capital.

Initially, most Gulf economies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE etc. were largely dependent on oil for revenue but many authorities predicted that these rich nations will soon run out of oil and would have nothing to fall back on. So in a bid to diversify the economy and reduce its dependency on oil, the UAE decided to develop Dubai and promote it as a tourism hub. Dubai established its first mall, airline and a free zone in the 1980’s.

Over the next few years, Dubai developed at lightning speed with the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa), numerous skyscrapers, malls, amusement parks and even an artificial water canal to attract tourists from all around the world.

The right leadership and vision brought Dubai to the centre of the world’s tourism industry and all was going well. All until the pandemic hit.

In February 2020, Emirates, Dubai’s very own airline, stopped all flights to China, except Beijing, because of the newly diagnosed Covid-19 virus spreading across the country. Dubai hosted almost 1 million Chinese tourists in 2019, making China its 3rd largest source market after India and Saudi Arabia.

The results are catastrophic. The tourism industry in Dubai would shrink as more and more airlines and airports announced shutdowns, bringing the global tourism industry to an indefinite standstill. The virus was a threat no one was prepared for.

The UAE announced its first case of Covid-19 on 29th January and as the more and more cases were detected, many restrictions were put in place. Schools, colleges, theatres, gyms were all closed. Movement of the public was limited, borders were closed and the whole country went into partial lockdown at night. Known as the ‘National Sanitization Program’, the city of Dubai imposed a 24- hour lockdown in early April with strict fines for violators.

With a reputation as the ‘city that never sleeps’, for the first time, Dubai was quiet, its streets were empty, its famous malls were closed, and the usual momentum of the city was suddenly missing.

Being the host of Expo 2020, Dubai had a target of hosting 20 million tourists in the year 2020 but as the pandemic takes over the world and Expo 2020 now postponed, UAE has decided to lead the fight against Covid-19 and serve as an example of how governments should deal with this situation effectively.

Leading the world in per capita testing for the virus, the UAE has now tested over 3 million people and is working towards becoming Coronavirus free very soon.

Currently, the city has lifted almost all the drastic restrictions put into place earlier to curb the spread of the virus, as a surge in recoveries and decline in new cases is seen. Compliance from the people has played a big role in helping Dubai reopen its economy.

Dubai is ‘reopening responsibly’ and life is slowly returning to the ‘new’ normal, where face masks and hand sanitisers are constant companions and social distancing is the new way of socialising.

But with this ‘new’ normal comes with the question of the future of Dubai’s lifeline, its tourism industry, and its beloved tourists. Even as travel restrictions ease in the coming weeks, the travel industry will, perhaps, never be the same again.

As WHO declared the pandemic, demand for travel became zero. Unemployment in the Dubai rose as hotels, resorts, theme parks, cruises all shut. Emirates airlines recently laid off hundreds of pilots and thousands of cabin crew and with the future remaining uncertain, it seems likely that unemployment is just going to rise. According to a research firm STR Global, 30% of jobs in Dubai’s hotel industry are likely to be lost in the coming months, until demand recovers.

Many of us are still scared to leave our homes even though we are allowed to. Along with out our health being on the line, those who have lost their jobs or faced financial losses will no longer be able to afford to travel or even spend as much as they used to pre-pandemic. So, it seems right to assume that most people will be unwilling to travel unless it is absolutely unavoidable and will surely not be going on any vacations.

Travel will cease to exist as a leisure activity.

People are fearful and anxious; they are uncertain about the future and not ready for the long-term effects of the pandemic. It will take some time for this mindset to change and until then, not only the travel industry, but a lot of industries will struggle to survive.

This pandemic has changed the world in more ways than one. Businesses are struggling to make ends meet, unemployment all over the world, has broken records, the stock market has plummeted at an unprecedented rate, many countries have already predicted that their economies will fall into a deep recession and fear amongst the public has grown more than ever before.

So how is Dubai going to attract tourists when the future looks so grim? Well, the answer is innovation. Innovation has always been at the root of anything that Dubai does and the same stands for this pandemic, but this time, it is going to have to do without its precious foreign talent and cheap migrant labour.

Dubai employs a huge number of expats and as they lost their jobs due to the pandemic, many of them have returned or are planning to return to their home countries. Oxford Economics has predicted that this uprooting can cause a 10% shrink to the UAE’s population. Its impact on Dubai will be huge as its economy thrives on its international residents and labour from countries like India, Pakistan and Philippines, who are willing to work for low wages in hopes for a better life.

A vibrant and dynamic city, known for its luxurious living and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, Dubai is now trying hard to integrate safety and social distancing. With all its tourist attractions, restaurants and malls switching to contactless technologies, thermal screenings and regular disinfection, there is an urging necessity to create a risk-free and positive environment so that citizens, residents and future tourists can still have the best experiences while staying safe and healthy.

Strict fines and punishments for violators of the precautionary measures have been implemented and the government is relying on its people to act responsibly.

Emirates recently announced that passenger flights are resuming to 30 cities and the government of Dubai has decided to conditionally open up to tourists from July 7, provided that all the health precautions are adhered to. As well as this, Dubai Tourism has released promotional content emphasising that Dubai will soon be ready to welcome people from all around the world- highlighting all the safety measures the city has implemented.

Dubai is leaving no stone unturned in becoming a safe haven for its people and for its future tourists, even as the future of travel remains uncertain and vacationing remain questionable.

Only time will tell if all of Dubai’s efforts to revive its tourism will yield any success.