As home to the world’s tallest building, one of the Middle East’s few ski resorts, and plenty of other tourist attractions, Dubai has no shortage of offerings for foreign visitors. The pandemic has exacted a severe toll on tourism throughout the Middle East, yet the unique amenities of the largest, best-known city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have positioned Dubai for a quick rebound. Meanwhile, the UAE’s ongoing, successful campaign to vaccinate its population against COVID-19 will make Dubai that much more enticing to a likely influx of tourists.
At first glance, tourism in Dubai looks as though it has a long road to recovery. The Emirati megacity welcomed 16.73 million foreign tourists in 2019; in 2020, however, that number fell to 5.51 million because of COVID-19, which forced countries to restrict international flights. As Dubai authorities implemented several lockdowns in the early months of the pandemic, tourism, which accounted for 11.5 percent of the city’s economy in 2019, bore the financial consequences.
Even now, Dubai’s own statistics outline how the industry continues to suffer: 1.26 million “international guests” visited the city between January and March 2021, compared to 3.84 million during the same period in 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an American government agency, dealt Dubai another blow by discouraging any tourism there. A warning posted to the CDC website reads, “Because of the current situation in the United Arab Emirates even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants and should avoid all travel to the United Arab Emirates.”
Despite these obstacles to tourism in Dubai, the sector will benefit from the UAE’s impressive rate of vaccinations and a concurrent effort by Dubai authorities to attract foreign visitors back to the city. Dubai’s official website for tourism even said as much in an April 5 statement: “With one of the world’s leading vaccination drives and rapid action to protect the wellbeing of its residents and visitors, Dubai is fully open and looks ahead to a rebounding tourism industry in 2021.”
“Dubai is fully open and looks ahead to a rebounding tourism industry in 2021.”
According to Our World in Data, the UAE had administered 128 doses of COVID vaccines per 100 residents as of May 27, the highest rate in the world. Dubai has capitalized on these numbers to court lockdown-weary travelers from countries across the globe. Tourists can take advantage of the city’s famous hotels, malls, and restaurants—an opportunity that many of Dubai’s visitors struggle to find at home. The city even launched a program to target “overseas professionals,” remote workers eager for a change of scenery.
Dubai’s bid to reestablish itself as a tourism destination has found an audience. “After being stuck at home eating in, I definitely jumped at the opportunity to dine out at a restaurant and feel ‘normal’ again,” an American who traveled to the city in December wrote in Travel and Leisure. A Danish tourist told CNN in February, “In Europe, everyone is locked at home, it’s cold and it’s gray.” She added, “Dubai is the only place you can travel to, so everyone is going there.”
As the rate of anti-COVID inoculations in the UAE and wealthy Western countries increases by the day, Dubai appears poised to receive an even greater number of tourists from Europe and the United States. The cash flow from the UAE’s substantial oil reserves allowed the country to import a range of Chinese and Western vaccines, laying the groundwork for Dubai’s campaign to rebuild a tourism-friendly economy immune to the ravages of COVID. The city may also stand to gain from a lack of regional competition in this sector for some time to come.
Arab countries that rely on tourists but lack the UAE’s resources hardly seem on the verge of a Dubai-style reopening. In Egypt, where tourism employed 9.5 percent of the workforce in 2018, the government in May announced plans to cancel concerts and close beaches and parks for a brief period to prevent further COVID outbreaks. Morocco, which earned US$8.89 billion from tourism in 2019, has blocked flights to 53 countries to curb the spread of COVID variants.
The images of Dubai malls flush with visitors contrast in stark terms with the deserted beaches and empty hotels of once-popular tourist destinations elsewhere in the Middle East.
The images of Dubai malls flush with visitors contrast in stark terms with the deserted beaches and empty hotels of once-popular tourist destinations elsewhere in the Middle East, whose workers are growing more desperate. Jean Beiruti, the head of the Tourism and Trade Unions Federation in Lebanon, pleaded in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Arab News, “We call on the authorities to ease measures in open places such as swimming pools, restaurants and outdoor cafes, and extend the opening times until after midnight instead of 9:30 PM.”
Some Arab countries seem determined to follow Dubai’s example even if they lack the protection provided by a steady supply of vaccines. In March, Tunisia described plans to relax its lockdown in the hopes of salvaging the tourist season. While it will take months to discern the economic benefits of that move, the medical consequences already seem clear: in early May, Tunisia faced a COVID outbreak that the prime minister called “the worst health crisis in its history.”
The relative quiet haunting the streets of Chefchaouen and the halls of the Egyptian Museum will dissipate as soon as the pandemic recedes. Even so, analysts have little idea when that time will come. Until then, Dubai looks set to dominate tourism in the region.
The redistribution of vaccines is already becoming a bedrock of Emirati diplomacy.
The redistribution of vaccines, the most obvious solution to this economic inequality, is already becoming a bedrock of Emirati diplomacy. The UAE has sent surplus doses to a handful of countries, including Egypt, which received 50,000. Though the size of this donation pales in comparison to the needs of a country with a population of 100 million, the UAE’s willingness to distribute vaccines to its neighbors represents a step in the right direction. Then again, few of the Arab world’s leaders can afford to pin their hopes on Emirati largess.
As Western countries inoculate more of their citizens against COVID, countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia may choose to welcome the vaccinated with open arms. For now, though, Western tourists will likely opt for Dubai, where, according to the city’s boastful advertisements, they have little to fear from a pandemic devastating the rest of the Arab world.