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Dubai welcomed almost 17 million visitors in 2019, with Chinese visitors making up 990,000 of that number. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Tourism companies in the UAE are gearing up to welcome back Chinese tour groups who were absent for three years since the pandemic struck. Travel companies are saying that the expected surge in visitor numbers, which reached nearly a million in Dubai in 2019, will begin in March this year. And after a brief slowdown during the summer months, the number of travellers from Asia’s leading economy is expected to spike exponentially after September 2023.

Beijing eased restrictions at borders, that have been all but shut since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, on January 8.

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Immediately after, a handful of business and leisure travellers, including those who wanted to meet their families, have booked tickets to the UAE, said Vishwajith Das of Oriental Hope Tourism and Travel. “We are yet to see a huge surge in bookings from China from large tour groups. We are confident activity will pick up in March this year,” said Das.

“Pre-pandemic, there is usually a flurry of tourist activity from China during the Chinese New Year. Celebrated from January 21 to 27, large tourist groups usually come to the UAE during this time,” stated Das. The initial uncertainty, exorbitant airfares and lack of affordable direct flights which connect both countries are reasons for the slow start to tourist activity. “There are limited forward bookings for China-UAE flights as well. But return economy airfares are priced at Dh6,000 and above. Travellers are waiting for fares to come down,” said another travel agent.

High fares deter travellers

A direct Air China flight departing from Beijing on January 19 and returning on January 27 costs Dh6,095. An Etihad Airways direct flight from Beijing to Abu Dhabi is priced at Dh4,165 for the same dates. Connecting flights are relatively cheaper. Egypt Air operates a flight from Guangzhou to Sharjah with a layover in Cairo. Airfares on this route are at Dh3,782. However, this flight has a wait time of 14 hours and 45 minutes in Egypt.

Airfares taper down from Dh4,165 and Dh6,095 to Dh2,844 to Dh3,681 in the first week of March (for a flight from Shanghai to Dubai). However, very few carriers are yet to provide a direct service.

Flag carriers Emirates and Etihad have announced plans to increase their operations between UAE and China in the coming months. That should ease connectivity and boost demand.

Large groups to buoy tour business

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. However, the past three years have been tough for companies operating in the Chinese market. “In 2019, we had two large groups of Chinese travellers coming into the UAE almost every day during the peak season, which is from September to March,” said Das. The group size of Chinese tourists ranges from 10 to 30 travellers. They stay for four to eight days, he said.

Das’s company has been operating in the UAE-China tourism market since 2015. “Business has been slow since 2020. We are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Chinese tourists,” he said.

A mix of business and leisure tourists is expected from China. “The business travellers market is pretty big as many Chinese investors and business persons want to expand their business into the UAE. This category brings in a steady stream of visitors,” another Abu Dhabi-based travel expert said.

“In the leisure sector, large Chinese tour groups who will arrive in March and after September will act as a saving grace for struggling travel companies,” added the source.

Rashid Abbas, Managing Director of Arooha Travels, said, “Chinese travellers have visa on arrival for 30 days, and that makes UAE a desirable destination for them. The leisure travel industry will pick up in demand. However, I predict it will take some time.”

There needs to be more demand for travel towards China from the UAE. “We do not see any leisure bookings for now. There are very few future bookings as well. We suspect traveller confidence should pick up in the coming months,” a travel agent told Gulf News.

Grand celebrations in UAE

The Chinese community in the UAE is gearing up to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Several entertainment activities have been planned for the festival in anticipation of visitors, including a concert with participation from 500 overseas Chinese performers at the Dubai Opera on January 8.

The Chinese Consul-General to the UAE, Li Xuhang, revealed that Expo City Dubai would host the “Happy Chinese New Year” Grand Parade on January 14, coinciding with the Chinese New Year on January 22.

Airfares from popular China destinations to UAE

Return economy airfares are for flights from January 19 to 26 on different carriers. A majority of the flights are for connecting fares.

> Shanghai to Dubai – Dh3,694

> Beijing to Dubai – Dh6,316

> Hong Kong to Dubai – Dh2,817

> Guangzhou to Dubai – Dh4,017

> Chengdu to Dubai – Dh3,723

> Shanghai to Abu Dhabi – Dh12,412

> Beijing to Abu Dhabi – Dh11,821

> Hong Kong to Abu Dhabi – Dh4,033