During a crisis of this magnitude, I can’t stop myself from reiterating that “This too shall pass”. Indeed, it will, as we have seen time and again, from 1998’s Asian financial crisis to 2008’s global financial crisis, and from SARS to Ebola.
The magnitude of the current pandemic vis-a-vis previous ones can be debated, but I shall leave that for another day, and continue the theme of optimism that we will indeed see light at the end of this particular tunnel.
While most naysayers predict a tough recovery for property markets, I believe there is no one size fits all solution for tackling real estate issues faced by different cities. The initiatives taken and incentives given must be keeping in mind the USPs of that city.
From a more localised point of view, I believe that if Dubai develops a niche outside of retail, F&B, entertainment and sunny beaches, you have a more legitimate reason to visit for the discerning travellers. The speed and ways at which Dubai has attacked the COVID-19 menace makes for a case study in itself.
Dubai wasn’t far behind China in creating a 3,000-bed field hospital at the World Travel Centre, and with two more field hospitals with an additional capacity of 2,500 patients built as contingency. It engaged in rampant testing with an aim to test every resident in the city for the virus, sanitising every street over a three-week lockdown, and many such initiatives we keep hearing about.
The way out
It is no hidden fact that Dubai is predominantly a tourism-driven economy and that the authorities will look to promote the city to international travellers as a coronavirus-free city at the earliest. But is this enough to encourage people to move outside their homes, let alone take a flight?
It is estimated that the global travel industry will experience a significant erosion due to compliance issues as well as what is bound to be persistent psychological scare on the part of travellers for some time to come.
If one were to assess the order of impact, it is likely to be more severe on discretionary travel, that is, on pleasure and tourism, than business travel. However, even businesses need to remain alert. With significant advancements in communication technology, businesses are adapting their processes to be more productive by supplanting physical interactions with virtual, where possible.
With this pandemic leaving a deep impact on people’s lives, everyone is going to become more conscious in terms of what we eat, how we maintain ourselves, spend on preventive cures as opposed to reactive cures. Dubai can capitalise on an ever-growing market of the health-conscious within flying distance of four to six hours. With health taking precedence over wealth, medical/cosmetic/wellness tourism can be the much-needed sweet spot we require to bring back the influx of visitors.
As per a 2016 medical tourism index, Dubai was ranked 16th as a preferred destination for medical tourism. A government report states there were 337,000 medical tourists visiting Dubai in 2018 and 500,000 this year. Given the current travel restrictions, this will be a Herculean task.
But once the skies open up, this industry is bound to attract visitors.
No doubt, this will require a boost from the government, giving subsidies and grants to some of the top names internationally to come and set up shop here. It will also need to find the captive audience and price itself catering to that segment of affluent people who can afford to travel for such luxuries.
Operators having multiple facilities can look at makeovers for some of them to provide internationally recognised holistic remedies and wellness programmes for Ayurveda, naturopathy, homeopathy and other concepts.
You will find a couple of resorts in Dubai, including The Retreat at the Palm — by Sofitel — positioning itself as just that. But to be known as a wellness destination, you will need more than a handful of such facilities.
Since 2017, the leadership has initiated a health and fitness month all through November, essentially targeted at the residents. Furthermore, Dubai has already set up a programme under the auspices of Dubai Health Authority with a vision to provide a seamless experience to visitors for medical treatments.
This includes ease of visa, insurance, appointments with doctors, etc. However, I feel this has to be taken to another level, encompassing a broader health, cosmetic and wellness aspect and positioning Dubai as the go-to-city.
The Dubai property market has always attracted a fair share of interest from investors, who may shy away from travelling in the near future. However, if we can bring them back to Dubai under a different pretext, I reckon their interest in the property sector will only be rejuvenated — along with their health.
— Niraj Masand is a Dubai-based real estate consultant.