Tourists near the fountain area of the Dubai Mall. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: After nearly three years of pandemic-related curbs, the first batches of Chinese tour groups have started arriving in the UAE, travel agents said. While the number of travellers from China is yet to go back to pre-pandemic levels, individual tourists and small groups of approximately 10 persons have already started touring the country, they added.

Husain Iqbal, Senior Divisional Travel GSA at Sharaf Travels, expects a large influx of travellers after March.

“The numbers are not big, but it’s a good start. But the main thrust of business coming in from hotels will be seen after the second week of March,” said Iqbal. “China is a big source market for UAE. However, even without the numbers from the country, the UAE is doing exceptionally with inbound tourism this season,” he added.

Pilot programme

The UAE is among 20 countries in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s pilot programme, allowing tour agencies and online travel companies to organise overseas travels for Chinese citizens. “China will allow group tours and flight and hotel services to 20 countries, including Thailand, Russia, UAE, and New Zealand, starting February 6,” the ministry said.

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Zhang Yiming, the Chinese Ambassador to the UAE, said: “China has decided to resume outbound group tours of Chinese citizens on a pilot basis in 20 countries, including the UAE. It is believed that the grand occasion of Chinese tourists flocking to the UAE for sightseeing and shopping before the epidemic will soon reappear.”

According to the Chinese online travel platform, 700 outbound group tours covering 15 destination countries and regions have been launched since the borders opened last month.

Dubai welcomed almost 17 million visitors in 2019, with Chinese visitors making up 990,000 of that number ― an increase of nearly 15 per cent over the previous year. With the arrival of the Chinese tourist groups, industry leaders are hopeful UAE, predominantly Dubai’s tourism numbers, will surpass its 2019 levels of 38.4 million.

Individual tourists have arrived

Familiarisation trips consisting of groups of a maximum of 10 visitors have already begun to tour the country. A majority of the travellers are first-time visitors. Biswajit Das, travel sales consultant and agent at Oriental Hope Tourism and Travels, says: “Many individual travellers from China have also begun to come into the UAE. They are first-time tourists and have plans to stay here for 15-20 days.”

Das added: “In this category, we have an average of three to four travellers per week. The bigger groups, which usually consist of about 60 to 70 passengers, are yet to arrive.” Meanwhile, forward bookings begin from April onwards, said Iqbal.

Hotels are also eagerly awaiting leisure tourists. Praveen Shetty, Chairman and Managing Director of Fortune Group, said: “Pre-pandemic, at least two tour groups from China stayed at our four-star properties every month. The group size is about 60 to 70 travellers per group, amounting to approximately 120-140 per month per hotel.”

He said: “Chinese travellers are one of our best-performing markets after India. However, at the moment, we are in the initial stages. We’re hopeful demand will pick up next month and remain sustainable. To better serve this market, we also plan to hire Mandarin-speaking staff and implement AliPay as a payment option for ease of transactions.”

China to UAE airfares stabilize

UAE national carriers and several major airlines have lifted seat capacities to China, bringing down airfares from the exorbitant amounts of Dh7,000 and above in January. Direct flights were unavailable until last month.

Here is a breakdown of economy airfares for travel from February 21 to March 5:

Guangzhou to Dubai: Dh3,284 to Dh4.228

Shanghai to Dubai: Dh3,089 to Dh3,723

Shaghai to Abu Dhabi: Dh3,622

Guangzhou to Abu Dhabi: Dh4,142