Dubai (CNN) — There aren’t many countries currently welcoming almost all global tourists, but as its cooler months arrive and it moves into what would normally be peak season, Dubai is one of them.
The emirate’s sandy beaches, luxurious resorts and extensive theme parks are an inviting travel prospect, particularly for Northern Hemisphere travelers who, having been stuck at home during their summer, are now staring into the tunnel of a bleak winter of Covid-19.
But what can visitors to the UAE expect when they get there? Will they get a relaxing break from stresses at home, or is life in Dubai severely restricted?
The UAE has suffered its own Covid-19 surges, peaking in May and again in mid-September, but has a relatively low incidence rate compared to most urban centers.
It initiated a swift lockdown early on and, after adopting virus prevention measures, Dubai’s resorts have re-opened as swiftly — and safely — as guidelines and evolving regulations allowed.
And this means visitors must also embrace safety checks and protocols.
Having had to wear a mask on board their airplane, arrivals will need to do the same in every public place in Dubai or face a 3,000 dirham ($817) fine.
This includes taxis, currently allowing just two passengers unless it’s a minivan hailed via airport ground staff or the Careem app, and on Dubai Metro; sterilized and running as usual but with distancing mandatory.
Smells like sanitizer
As residents we’ve experienced the city’s precautionary measures first-hand. And while those masks can prove irritating in the UAE heat, it’s good to know you’re in a country with a relatively low infection rate, in part, because of them.
The mask rule extends to Dubai’s theme parks, such as IMG Worlds of Adventure, where rules apply on two-meter social distancing and keeping every other seat empty, except when ocrcupied by family members.
Visitors should get used to the smell of sanitizer. Dispensers are everywhere and everyone is expected to use them.
That goes for resorts where guests will find a revised experience, but one still wrapped in a warm welcome, even if the smiles are obscured by… you guessed it.
Thanks largely to early, comparatively strict, movement directives, sterilizing procedures and group gathering limits implemented by UAE authorities, Dubai is back to something approaching normality.
It feels safe, if sometimes surreal, but it doesn’t take long to absorb this “new normal” into vacation routines; that’s including buying masks, which are inexpensive and available in every pharmacy.
Hotels follow — and in some cases go beyond — mandated procedures that can appear odd or excessive at first, depending on what guests are used to.
Many resorts reawakened with attractive staycation and pool day deals to entice domestic guests. With many international travelers now able to make the trip, they too can expect temperature gun or thermal body scanner checks on arrival at hotels, restaurants, malls and even gyms, carried out by masked staff usually brandishing sanitizer in rubber-gloved hands.
Perspex panels shield resort check-in desk staff and, in some cases, luggage is spray-sanitized on entry. Others, like The Address Downtown, operate a walk-through sanitizer tunnel.
Poolside, guests can expect plastic-sealed towels while lifeguards police social distancing and deter overcrowding and the mingling of strangers.
Less visibly, but equally reassuring, guest rooms are subject to additional cleansing, with non-vital paper items removed.
Dining too has undergone an overhaul. Many restaurants have ditched physical menus for QR codes that access online versions — which is alright so long as customers have mobile data or there’s decent Wi-Fi.
Disposable or wipe-clean menus work just fine, where available.
Arguably Dubai’s most iconic hospitality address, Atlantis, The Palm has gone a step further, offering free “in resort” Covid-19 PCR tests for international bookings of five nights or more until December 18.
All passengers returning from Dubai to the UK, Europe and other mandated destinations are currently required to take a test no more than 96 hours before departure, presenting a printed pass certificate at check-in.
Timothy Kelly, Atlantis Dubai’s executive vice president and managing director, says the resort’s initiative is designed to reduce “travel inconveniences and encourage more international guests to visit… as we strive to implement innovative ways to serve them in a socially responsible way.”
He also says it “aligns itself with Emirates Airlines’ free medical cover for Covid-19-related expenses, designed to boost people’s confidence to travel during the pandemic.”
Having completed a $100 million refurbishment program and reported 90% average occupancy in 2019, next year is scheduled to see the opening of the new adjacent resort Atlantis, The Royal.
“Of course, this has been an extremely challenging time, but we must move forward and adapt our product offering and experiences to ensure our resident market wants to spend time in resort and that we’re making it easy, but more importantly safe, for our international market,” says Kelly.
There are tough times ahead, he acknowledges, but he insists the resorts can weather the storm.
“The next couple of quarters are going to be challenging, but there is nothing for it but to prepare, adapt and persevere.”
‘Comfortable, safe and looked after’
That message is echoed by Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, whose 19-acre garden beside Dubai’s celebrated Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence offers guests space.
Closed late March, it reopened June 30 with “social distancing officers” ensuring protocol compliance, such as guests being properly masked other than while eating, drinking or sun-lounging.
“During closure our ultimate priority and focus was on the planning and introduction of safety and precautionary measures for guests as well as associates,” says Pam Wilby, complex general manager of the resort, and also nearby Grosvenor House Dubai.
These include sanitizing stations at entrances, front desks, elevator banks and restaurants; two-meter distancing signage; contactless payments; high temperature chemicals for laundry; a staff sterilization tunnel and temperature checks; and in-room hygiene kits alongside rigorous deep-cleaning of all surfaces in rooms and public areas.
Accompanying that was more than 1,800 training hours, covering more than 20 Covid-related topics, enabling the hotel to really drill deep on “the seriousness of the pandemic and importance of new protocols to keep everyone safe.”
All this, of course, adds to hotel operating costs.
“However,” says Wilby, “times had changed and we reacted quickly and intuitively to implement prudent health and safety measures for guests and staff.”
And the resort has since welcomed back “loyal guests” who, she says, have been “very complimentary” about the procedures in place and “expressed feeling extremely comfortable, safe and looked after.”
“We couldn’t have asked for anything more,” adds Wilby.
Anthony Ross, CEO of Dubai hospitality group JA Resorts & Hotels, says the Covid crisis is bigger than anything he’s faced before.
All his Dubai properties, except two with long-stay guests, closed in March. The site of JA’s original expansive resort re-opened in May, initially only hosting guests at JA Palm Tree Court, then followed by neighboring JA Beach Hotel, one of the city’s first hotels.
A deal enabling redemption of room fees against food and drinks brought healthy domestic occupancy, but he says international traffic is still lagging across the group as it awaits more countries reviving outbound travel and minimizing travel restrictions, such as quarantining upon return.
Jump in bookings
Currently, Dubai International Airport arrivals must present a valid negative PCR test certificate. Passengers from some countries, or those displaying symptoms, are re-tested.
While airports remain quieter than pre-pandemic, arrival processes can take longer.
Visitors are required to register with the Covid-19 DXB app and maintain distance from unrelated passengers at immigration and luggage carousels, which can make queues appear longer.
For departing visitors, paid PCRs are widely available in Dubai and facilitated by some accommodation providers, such as several JA hotels.
“Dubai is ready and prepared to welcome guests from all over the world,” says Ross.
“So far, when flights from a certain country open up, we automatically see a peak in demand on our website from that country and some bookings.
“We are noticing increased views since July with a jump in bookings for February and April 2021, which is encouraging.”
To some extent the power of many safety procedures is visual; reassuring, if a little alien initially. But for hotels looking to restore guest confidence, it is essential they are seen to offer safe environments.
Ross says JA received a government-issued #DubaiAssured stamp following a health and safety verification process.
All properties have also implemented protocols of the World Travel & Tourism Council’s #SafeTravels program, verifying health and hygiene standards and protocols backed by the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
“We have a comprehensive program of protection and prevention which maps the guest journey from arrival to check-out, to ensure sanitization and social distancing,” adds Ross.
“Guests have been very pleased with our approach to safety and sanitization measures across all properties, and we’ve enjoyed great reviews and word of mouth recommendations on social media.
“The coming months provide a unique opportunity for low-risk travelers to explore an incredible destination with perfect weather — without the usual mass influx of tourists.”
On the face of it, vacationing here has changed, but as major hotels continue to monitor evolving travel and safety situations and, where possible, keep guests both present and prospective updated, the “Dubai experience” remains at its core essentially the same.
“My aspiration is for international travel to open up again so we can get back to doing what we do best… showing hospitality to guests and creating a space for people to build unforgettable memories,” adds JA’s Ross.
“My prediction is it will be a few more challenging months as we wait for governments of other countries to ease restrictions and restart flights.
“Once they do this… Dubai is completely ready to welcome them.”