Covid-19 cases have soared in the United Arab Emirates’ tourism-dependent destinations like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And as they do, hotels and attractions are struggling to balance access with safety.
Last week, UAE trade minister Thani Al-Zeyoudi announced the country wouldn’t return to a full lockdown despite the omicron surge. Instead, it will double down on testing and vaccinations to keep its economy open.
But how? In the UAE, the response has varied by location. In the world’s most vaccinated country, the the capital city, Abu Dhabi, has rigorous protocols. Dubai is more permissive, but still restrictive by U.S. standards.
“We’re trying to balance things,” says Rashad Al Ghadban, a spokesman for Farah Experiences, which runs the Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World theme parks in Abu Dhabi. “We want to be safe — but we don’t want to look like a hospital.”
That may be easier said than done. There are fewer tourists in Abu Dhabi at the moment, in part because of the season and in part because of the omicron surge. The visitors I met seemed to be enjoying the warm weather and easy access to theme parks and hotel amenities. But behind the scenes, it’s clear that the tourism industry is eager to return to normal as soon as possible.
And nowhere is this more apparent than at Abu Dhabi’s theme parks.
No lines at Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World
There are some benefits to the pandemic. For example, in two of Abu Dhabi’s iconic theme parks — Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World — you won’t find any lines. Despite the hand-sanitizer dispensers and social-distancing and mask rules, these attractions don’t feel like hospitals.
That’s a sharp contrast to U.S. theme parks, which have experienced big crowds despite the pandemic. Ghadban explained that this isn’t usually a busy time of year at a place like Warner Bros. World, the world’s largest indoor theme park. The streets of Gotham City, where you can take pictures next to the Batmobile and go on a thrill ride like Knight Flight, are empty.
Most theme park guests appeared to be locals, although these parks attract a significant number of visitors from Europe and the United States when school is out. But January seems to be a good time to visit — pandemic or not.
Across town, it’s also quiet.
Is anyone visiting Abu Dhabi during the pandemic?
In Abu Dhabi, most hotels are half-empty. But it’s hard to tell if that’s because it’s January, which is typically a slow time of the year, or because of the recent uptick in omicron cases.
At the the luxury Anantara hotel overlooking Abu Dhabi’s mangroves, visitors from France and Germany recline by a pool with an Instagrammable view of the lush coastal wetland framed by the city’s skyline. Two security guards in the front of the property check arriving guests for green screens on their Alhosn app, the UAE’s mandatory green pass.
This is usually a less busy time for the resort, according to marketing director Shamika Shamil. After a busy holiday season, occupancy rates dropped to around 40 percent. But spring break and the upcoming holiday season in the Middle East, plus an expected downturn in Covid-19, will bring in more guests soon, he predicts.
“We’re hoping for a quick recovery,” he says.
While most hotels followed every Covid-19 rule, some were more flexible, as I was about to find out.
What are the rules for Covid-19 at Abu Dhabi’s hotels?
As they head into an uncertain future, hotels in the UAE seem to be struggling with conflicting directives. On the one hand, they need to remain welcoming to visitors. But they need to keep visitors safe, too.
I dropped by several hotels in Abu Dhabi last week. About half of them asked to see my recent PCR test results via the UAE’s contact-tracing app before letting me in. That’s the current regulation.
One of them, a large resort hotel near the presidential palace, was a standout. Officials there waved me through without inspecting my vaccine status on the Alhosn app, perhaps mistaking me for an already-checked hotel guest. That definitely felt like the good ol’ days.
When I asked at the front desk about their Covid-19 safety protocols, a woman said they follow “all the rules.” I wondered which rules those were. They’ve changed so frequently in the recent past that no one can remember them exactly.
Some hotels taking cautious but visible steps to normalize their guest experience.
Is Abu Dhabi about to relax its Covid rules?
There are signs that the worst of the pandemic — or at least the huge omicron surge — may be in the rear-view mirror. I visited Zaya Nurai Island, a private resort just off the coast of Abu Dhabi on Friday. If you can imagine white sand beaches, teal ocean water and beautiful people lounging by the infinity pool — that’s Zara Nurai Island.
“When things were really bad, we had a disinfectant arch at the dock,” explains Yuliya Bulatova, the hotel’s marketing executive. When guests arrived, hotel employees sprayed their luggage with disinfectant.
“It used to be here,” she says, pointing at a paved path leading toward the $1,200-per-night villas. “But we just removed it.”
Residents are taking similar steps, quietly and often under cover of darkness.
How are residents of Abu Dhabi handling the Covid-19 surge?
I had a chance to see how locals were dealing with the surge just before I left Abu Dhabi yesterday. I left my room at the Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island and walked along the waterfront just before sunset. It was surprisingly crowded, and almost everyone seemed to be a resident. UAE’s masking requirements are a little ambiguous. You must mask up when you’re walking outside in high-density public areas but there’s an exemption for people who are exercising.
About 80 percent of the people just before sunset were wearing masks. But as the sun began to set, and as I walked farther toward the edge of the developed area, the masks slowly came off. There were people picnicking and one birthday party, and not a mask in sight.
There’s no telling when the outdoor rules will sunset. Or the strict indoor masking requirements will go out the window. Or the PCR testing rules, which require visitors to get tested on arrival and six days after getting to the UAE?
But this much is clear: UAE’s tourism industry can’t wait until these strict rules are history. Neither can visitors.
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