Green Mubazarrah
There's much that the UAE can use to its advantage in getting residents to head for its many attractions. An evening shot of the Green Mubazarrah, at the foothills of Jabel Hafeet mountains, Ras Al Khaimah. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

“Country roads take me home, to the place I belong…”

Thus crooned John Denver in one of his biggest hits, capturing the human longing to return to the familiar. It is no secret that in our eagerness to explore the unknown in a new destination, we often miss out on seeing our home in a different way, only to contemplate our loss much later. But the pandemic has changed that.

The travel industry runs on bucket lists of hope, adventure, and immersive experiences. With long-distance air travel reeling under a crisis of its own, the answer to fulfilling these lists can be found in our own backyards. All we need to do is look for the unfamiliar amidst the familiar.

Go for the neighborhood

How fast a country’s travel industry will recover from the ongoing crisis hinges on how soon the idea of neighborhood tourism can take off among its resident populace.

Let us take the case of the UAE. The country’s unique geographical position has for long played to its advantage. According to the Airports Council International (ACI), Dubai International Airport is the fourth busiest in the world, and serviced over 86 million passengers in 2019.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed how heavily dependent we are on international visitors.

Need to broadbase domestic

Although the UAE has a well-connected road infrastructure, domestic leisure tourism is yet to pick pace beyond the visible demand for Dubai’s glitzy offerings. Abu Dhabi, is a treasure trove of priceless heritage and cultural offerings, while Al Ain promises the curious visitor a peek into an oasis interspersed with farmlands and hillscapes. For the dreamer, the silent hills and blue-rimmed beaches of Ras Al Khaimah and Khorfakkan in Fujairah offer rare moments of reflection, while there are various avenues to explore Middle East heritage in Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Sharjah.

Something for everyone

From deserts to waterfront experiences, hills and farms to cosmopolitan urban experiences and beach destinations, it’s easy to see how the UAE has something for every leisure traveler in a post-Covid world.

With the airline industry expected to recover fully only by late third quarter or beyond, the UAE’s travel sector needs to look inward and publicize itself in a way that will inspire residents to look at the country’s offerings in a different manner. The move by hotel properties in recent weeks to offer exclusive packages for staycations is a good way to get the ball rolling.

A “complete” destination

In its entirety, the UAE fits the bill as the perfect getaway for budget-conscious domestic travelers looking for short-duration holidays. Hotels and serviced properties should do their part by establishing safety and hygiene protocols that can act as an assurance for the domestic traveler.

This forced downtime is also in many ways a much-needed cooling period for the UAE’s hospitality sector. In recent years, the rapid rate at which new properties have sprung up has led to a devaluation. This has presented a problem of skewed supply inventory, thus discouraging existing and new players from investing as freely as they would have liked to.

In preparing for a comeback, the hospitality industry should use this period to re-assess its cost structures, plan for long-term sustainably and find an optimal operating model to match the demands of the new world traveler, across segments. This is also a good time for asset owners and operators to revisit strategies for mutual benefit.

Nurturing an ecosystem around domestic tourism will help the industry be better prepared in the event of further shocks. The UAE’s charm remains.

So too must its appetite to promote itself as a complete destination.

- Adeeb Ahamed is Managing Director of Twenty14 Holdings, which owns the Steigenberger Business Bay in Dubai, Oman Sheraton in Muscat, and Great Scotland Yard Hotel London.