Passengers in Dubai Airport 20190809
Time to make those travel plans and catch a flight. There is a rise in bookings for India-bound destinations from the UAE - but vaccination status is still very much a factor. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: The sudden sharp rise in demand for UAE-India flights is not all happening in one direction. With Indian residents getting clarity on the return requirement, more of them are now taking the first flight available to their homes in India.

These include expats who had postponed plans to travel during summer, because they were unsure of the exact requirements for the return. But in recent days, the UAE aviation authorities have come out with several guidelines on who can catch a flight from India to a destination in the UAE. Last week, Emirates and other carriers said COVID-19 vaccination certificate was no longer a requirement for entry into Dubai. This is finally convincing residents to take a quick trip back home.

“We had a lot of calls from passengers asking if they would be able to return after taking Indian vaccines,” said a spokesperson for Dubai-based Utravel. “Since they said that unvaccinated people can come, traffic is good – we are getting a lot of requests. Flights are fully booked, and ticket prices are also high right now.”

It has had an immediate impact on travel fares - flights from New Delhi to Dubai can cost between Dh1,000 to Dh1,500, and on Mumbai-Dubai have exceeded Dh1,800. A trip from Kochi can cost a little over Dh1,100.

A spokesperson for Namaste Travel and Tourism said it will take another 15-20 days for passenger traffic to normalize and fares to return to the Dh400–Dh600 levels.

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Pull back on restrictions

UAE had announced on August 3 that it would allow resident visa holders currently in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Nigeria and Uganda to return from August 5. As per that announcement, only residency-visa holders who got vaccinated in the UAE, and have vaccination certificates issued by the UAE authorities will be allowed to travel from these countries.

The India-UAE aviation sector was “significantly constrained because of the bubble arrangements and restrictions in place,” said Kapil Kaul, CEO of India and Middle East at CAPA.

Instant drop in fliers

UAE in April suspended flights from India, Pakistan and a few other countries amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, particularly the ‘Delta’ variant. The ban hurt outbound traffic to India as well, with a key destination like Hyderabad seeing as little as just over 21,000 passengers during the lowest phase. Now, analysts are expecting the route to take off in a big way because of pent-up demand.

Rapid test requirements
To meet UAE’s travel requirement of a PCR test four hours prior to departure, India and Pakistan are setting up rapid test facilities at airports.

Genestrings Diagnostic Centre has a test facility at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. It will have about 50 rapid PCR machines based on ID NOW technology to begin with and is looking at doubling this as demand increases. Cost per test is Rs5,000 (Dh250) with reports in 45-60 minutes.

Sialkot airport in Pakistan has become the country’s first airport to have rapid PCR testing.

Emirates airline, in a tweet, said: “You need to take a Rapid PCR test 04hr prior to your flight departure time when traveling from Pakistan. At the moment, there is no rapid PCR testing facility at Pakistan airports (except Sialkot)”.

At the moment, Pakistan only conducts rapid antigen tests at its airports. The country’s aviation regulator has said it will provide space to UAE-approved laboratories at all major airports to conduct PCR tests.

A repeat of UK-Dubai

This was seen in the case of the Dubai-London sector last year, which very quickly became the world’s busiest air route after restrictions were removed. “You'll see the very same thing - it's like this quick burst,” said Leah Ryan, an analyst from Alton Aviation Consultancy.

Ryan added that the flow of traffic could be driven by the Indian diaspora in the region, who are visiting their friends or family, or going on holiday. “It's pent up demand and people want to bounce back.”

While Indian airlines relied mostly on domestic travel to drive passenger numbers, UAE’s airlines were hit hard by all the international restrictions. “Indian airlines are focused on the domestic as the market is big enough,” said Ryan. “Anything beyond that in terms of international traffic, that's cream.”

Edward Bells, Senior Director, Market Economics at Emirates NBD Research, is cautiously optimistic about the two-way movement between UAE and India. “This is a welcome boost for the domestic economy,” he said. “However, what we haven’t yet seen is an announcement of a full return of tourism flows from India that would provide a major support for the UAE and Dubai economy, particularly in the run up to Expo.

“At the start of the year before travel restrictions were put in place, India was by far the largest source of tourists for Dubai. So, a full reopening of borders between India and the UAE would certainly help the local hospitality sector. However, until vaccination rates in India pick up we wouldn’t expect to see a full return to restriction-free travel.”