As much of the world tightens lockdowns to stem coronavirus, Dubai has flung its doors open, branding itself as a sunny, quarantine-free escape — despite a sharp rise in cases.
While mask-wearing and social distancing are strictly enforced, life in the tourism-reliant emirate looks much like normal, with its restaurants, hotels and mega-malls open for business.
Images of sports stars and television personalities enjoying life at beach clubs and cocktail bars have flooded social media — sometimes to disapproval back home.
Emirates, which restored its network to about three quarters of pre-pandemic levels, is again operating A380 super-jumbos – the world’s largest commercial airliner — ferrying in visitors from Britain and Russia.
Russian tourist, Dmitriy Melnikov, said he came to Dubai because his choices were otherwise limited, with many destinations in partial or full lockdown.
“I am not scared,” the 30-year-old told AFP. “If you look at people here, everyone has a mask, and I think it’s cool.”
But the downside to becoming one of the world’s most open destinations has been a sharp rise in coronavirus cases.
Daily detected cases hover in the mid-3,000s across the United Arab Emirates, which has a population of under 10 million, with 745 deaths from Covid-19 since the pandemic began.
“There are significant risks in Dubai remaining so open,” said Scott Livermore, chief economist at Oxford Economics Middle East.
“A renewed outbreak of Covid-19 would set the recovery back quite some way.”
– ‘Willing to take the risk’ –
With a negative PCR test in their home countries — and possibly another upon arrival, depending on the place of departure — tourists can freely enter Dubai, where winter temperatures average a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).
The neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, which with large oil reserves is less dependent on tourism, has taken a much more conservative approach, generally requiring quarantine on arrival.
In the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood in Dubai, mask-clad tourists walk through alleyways, taking pictures of the recreation of life a century ago.
Hand sanitisers and floor stickers warning people to maintain their distance are everywhere, while most restaurants have replaced their menus with digital QR barcodes, that can be displayed on a smartphone.
“Before the coronavirus, tour groups were up to 100 or 250 visitors with each tour guide, but now things are different, only 20 visitors maximum for each tour guide,” said the district’s director Nasser Juma bin Sulaiman.
Andi Pitman, from the US state of Alabama, said it was her first trip abroad since the start of the pandemic.
“We are very excited to be here and a little nervous, but happy to be out again,” she told AFP, strolling through Al-Fahidi with her husband and two children.
“None of us have had the vaccine yet, but we have small kids that need to be out and need to see the world, so we’re willing to take the risk.”
Sophia Amouch, from France, said she was not too concerned about the rise in cases in the UAE.
“Everything is run better here,” the 25-year-old told AFP, adding that she felt “safer in Dubai, where everyone abides by all the measures.”
– ‘Growth strategy’ –
Tourism has long been an economic mainstay of Dubai, which welcomed more than 16 million visitors in 2019.
Before the pandemic, the aim was to reach 20 million by 2020. The economy — the most diversified in the Gulf — was decimated by the crisis.
The government was counting on the six-month Dubai Expo 2020 global trade fair — delayed by a year and now set to open in October — to attract millions of visitors and boost the economy.
Now it is seeking to find what benefits it can from the crisis.
“Dubai seems to be positioning itself as the destination of choice for those wanting to escape lockdown conditions and have a winter break, especially given ski resorts in Europe are largely closed,” said Livermore.
“This is a growth strategy in its own right, but the more successful Dubai can be in achieving this aim, the more benefits will spill over for when Expo opens.”
Ahead of the Expo, authorities are mounting a huge vaccination campaign, which has seen 14 percent of the population inoculated.
“Travel and tourism is very important to Dubai,” Livermore said. “The sector is crucial for generating a sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is essential the city remains open and connected, but critically keeps Covid-19 in check.”