Travel industry struggles to balance access and security

Covid-19 cases have soared in the UAE’s tourism-dependent destinations such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And while they do, hotels and attractions struggle to strike a balance between access and safety.

Last week, the UAE’s Commerce Minister Thani Al-Zeyoudi announced that the country would not return to a full lockdown despite the ommwave. Instead, it will double its tests and vaccinations to keep its economy open.

But how? In the UAE, the response varies by location. In the world’s most vaccinated country, the capital Abu Dhabi, the capital has strict protocols. Dubai is more tolerant, but still restrictive by US standards.

“We’re trying to balance things out,” said Rashad Al Ghadban, a spokesperson for Farah Experiences, which owns Ferrari World and Warner Bros. theme parks. World 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 currently fewer tourists in Abu Dhabi, partly due to the season and partly due to the microwave. The visitors I met seemed to enjoy 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 get back to normal as soon as possible.

And nowhere is this more evident than in Abu Dhabi’s theme parks.

No lines at Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World

The pandemic has some benefits. In two of Abu Dhabi’s iconic theme parks – Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World – find no rows for example. Despite the hand sanitizer dispensers and the rules for social distancing and masks, these attractions don’t feel like hospitals.

That is in stark contrast to American theme parks, which have experienced large crowds despite the pandemic. Ghadban explained that this isn’t usually a busy time of year in 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 take a thrilling ride like Knight Flight, are empty.

Most of the theme park guests turned out 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 like a good time to visit – pandemic or not.

It is also quiet on the other side of the city.

Is anyone visiting Abu Dhabi during the pandemic?

In Abu Dhabi, most hotels are half empty. But it’s hard to say whether that’s because it’s January, which is usually a slow time of year, or because of the recent surge in ommicron cases.

Overlooking the mangroves of Abu Dhabi, visitors from France and Germany lie by a pool at the luxury Anantara hotel with Instagrammable views of the lush coastal wetland framed by the city’s skyline. Two security guards at the front of the property check arriving guests on green screens on their Alhosn app, the UAE’s mandatory green pass.

According to marketing director Shamika Shamil, this is usually a less busy time for the resort. After a busy holiday season, the occupancy rate dropped to about 40 percent. But spring break and the upcoming holiday season in the Middle East, plus an expected downturn in Covid-19, will soon bring in more guests, he predicts.

“We hope for a speedy 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 Covid-19 rules in Abu Dhabi hotels?

Facing an uncertain future, hotels in the UAE seem to be struggling with conflicting guidelines. On the one hand, they must remain hospitable to visitors. But they also need to keep visitors safe.

I passed several hotels in Abu Dhabi last week. About half of them asked to see my recent PCR test results through the UAE’s contact tracing app before letting me in. That is the current regulation.

One, 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-in hotel guest. That certainly felt like the good old days.

When I asked at the front desk about their Covid-19 safety protocols, one woman said they follow “all the rules”. I wondered what rules those were. They have changed so many times in the recent past that no one can remember them exactly.

Some hotels are taking tentative 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 massive ommicron wave — could be in the rearview mirror. Friday I visited Zaya Nurai Island, a private resort just off the coast of Abu Dhabi. If you can imagine white sand beaches, blue-green ocean waters and beautiful people lounging by the infinity pool, that is Zara Nurai Island.

“When things got really bad, we had a disinfectant arch at the harbor,” explains Yuliya Bulatova, the hotel’s marketing manager. When guests arrived, hotel workers sprayed their luggage with disinfectant.

“It used to be here,” she says, pointing to a paved path that leads to the $1,200-per-night villas. “But we just removed it.”

Residents take similar steps, silently and often under cover of darkness.

How are Abu Dhabi residents coping with the Covid-19 wave?

I had the chance to see how the locals handled the wave 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 busy and almost everyone seemed to be a local. The UAE’s masking requirements are a bit ambiguous. You must wear a mask when walking outside in high-density public areas, but there is an exception for people who exercise.

About 80 percent of people wore masks just before sunset. But as the sun began to set, and as I continued to walk to the edge of the developed area, the masks slowly came off. There were people having a picnic and a birthday party, and not a mask to be seen.

There is no telling when the outdoor rules will come into effect. Or the strict requirements for indoor masking disappear out the window. Or the PCR testing rules, which require visitors to be tested on arrival and six days after they arrive in the UAE?

But that much is clear: the UAE’s tourism industry can’t wait for these strict rules to be a thing of the past. Neither do visitors.

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