Of course, that all stopped in March with the sudden appearance of the COVID-19 virus. The global pandemic has had huge ramifications for many sectors, but it has been catastrophic for travel and tourism in the UAE. With the cessation of flights, the closure of hotels and restaurants and the large-scale redundancies that accompanied them, it has arguably been the biggest single event to ever impact the sector – and it’s clear that impact will still be felt for at least another 12 months.
As the restrictions begin to ease as we head into the autumn and the traditional high season for the UAE’s travel and tourism sector, there is an opportunity to demonstrate that the country is fully prepared to once again welcome the world and, in doing so, provide an important catalyst for the nation’s economy. Considering the numbers above, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the UAE – and indeed countries like Egypt and Jordan – will not enjoy a full recovery will without reigniting this vital industry.
The good news is the UAE government and several key stakeholders in the industry understand what is required for this to happen, and there have already been some very important steps taken to facilitate safe travel to, from and within the country.
In the first instance, through lockdowns, curfews and the permit system, the government moved quickly to limit the spread of the virus and control the infection rate – which has remained low. The infection rate here is currently around 0.6. in many European countries it’s more than 1.
This was followed by the removal of certain tourism-related fees in Abu Dhabi and the suspension of interest payments also helped provide an important stimulus for the industry. As a result, the UAE is one of the safest places in the world to visit and many facilities were able to continue operations and retain frontline staff despite the crisis.
What happens now, though, will determine the success of the next 12 months. Looking at the overall picture, there’s much to be encouraged about, but I think it is important to outline four key areas that the whole sector ought to collectively prioritise.
Testing is hugely important for the travel industry – not just here in the Gulf but worldwide. We have to be pushing very hard to have same investment in rapid-results testing as there is the development of a vaccine. Right now, you can’t board an Emirates flight without having taken a test, but the process, while efficient, is still quite lengthy.
If you could imagine a system where you can get tested and receive the results in 20-30 minutes as you go through an airport? This would provide a sense of comfort knowing everyone on your flight is safe as the results will be right up-to-date and remove lot of the anxiety of travel, including the need for quarantine.
That also applies to testing when you’re on holiday – as you’ll need to prove you’re safe to travel back to your home. The ready availability of rapid and unobtrusive testing could really open up the sector to more people.
The second part would be the widespread adoption of the safety protocols put forward by The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) in collaboration with the World Health Organisation. The likes of Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority and Yas Island in Abu Dhabi have all got the new “Safe Travels” accreditation, whereby all the destinations and the businesses within them commit to upholding this series of safety protocols. In addition, companies like Jumeirah have worked with Bureau Vertias to put standardised measured in place.
This should be worn as a badge of honour and provide confidence to guests and staff that the highest standard of safety and hygiene are applied – and that’s not just hotels, but entertainment centres, attractions and malls. It is important that as many stakeholders sign up to the programme and advertise their accreditation once received.
The travel insurance element is hugely important to the travel sector. Some countries, including the Irish government, has agreed to underwrite travel insurance policies in response to the industry raising concerns about their ability to repatriate tourists if they fall severely ill.
In the UAE, Emirates has taken the lead and, in late July, issued a statement about insurance, offering receive free global cover for Covid-19 related costs with any flight booked – which is valid for 31 days from your first flight. This is hugely beneficial when encouraging people to travel overseas.
Marketing and communication
It has been encouraging to see wo tourism boards, DTCM and Ras al Khaimah, and I’m on the advisory board of the latter, engaging global markets with incredibly powerful, modern and interesting promotional campaigns to tell people that their emirate is open and safe. Allied with the “Safe Travels” badge, hopefully these efforts will continue and encourage people around the world to seek out the UAE when they’re planning their next vacation.
It’s also important that communication at a government-to-government level leads to the UAE being added to “green-light” countries in key markets such as Europe. Considering the low infection rate and the ongoing safety measures in place, it is important that the UAE’s efforts are understood and recognised by countries around the world. This will be a huge step for the sector.
The fact that wearing masks and agreeing to temperature checks going into offices and malls is accepted by everyone in the country is something we can all be proud of. In some countries, like the United States, it has become a political issue, which is absolutely ridiculous – and we see the impact that has had on cases and the government’s ability to control the spread of the virus.
In order to ensure that the whole economy, and in particular the travel and tourism sector, can look forward with optimism relies on everyone continuing to respect the regulations, understand the risks and working hard to mitigate the possibilities of infection. This virus won’t disappear overnight so it’s vital we all remain vigilant.
With all these points already in action to a certain degree, I think we can look ahead to a positive Q4 and much improved 2021. In six months’ time, I’m confident the indicators on the graphs will be going in the right direction – they might not be vertical, but they’ll be certainly pointing upwards. There’s always the possibility of setbacks, of course, but my great hope will be that by the time of Expo 2021, the world can come together and look back and say, “yes, we have put this virus behind us and can now look forward.”
Gerald Lawless is the former president and group CEO of the Jumeirah Group and chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council.