With a “seven-star” luxury hotel, an indoor ski resort in the middle of the desert, and a massive amount of high-end shopping options, it’s not surprising that luxury-loving wealthy Chinese visitors have been flocking to Dubai in growing numbers each year. However, Dubai isn’t the only principality in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) working hard to attract Chinese tourist spending—its less ostentatious neighbor Abu Dhabi has recently been making major inroads in attracting Chinese visitors as well.
Ever since the UAE was granted “approved destination status” by the Chinese government in 2009, it has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of Chinese visitors that is still on the rise. In 2010, around 150,000 Chinese citizens visited the UAE, and the number increased to 300,000 by 2012. Several additional fortunate factors have been helping to keep up the growth momentum, including increasingly easier air access from China, concerted China marketing efforts by tourism authorities, and programs by luxury businesses to cater to Chinese visitors. With shorter vacation periods on average than tourists from other countries, Chinese visitors see direct, eight-hour flights from China to the UAE as a convenient option compared to making a long-haul trip to Europe.
For now, Dubai, the playground for the world’s ultra-rich, holds the lion’s share of Chinese visitors. With 275,675 in 2013, Dubai is now the third most-preferred international travel destination for China’s wealthy, according to the Hurun Report. The number marked an increase of 11 percent since last year, placing Chinese tourists are among the top 10 source countries for visitors to Dubai.
Like Chinese tourist-heavy areas throughout the world, the influx has had luxury retailers and hoteliers scrambling to hire Mandarin-speaking staff and provide special amenities for Chinese visitors. Chinese tourists reportedly spent $258 million in the UAE in 2012, with 85 percent going toward tourist activities like shopping, entertainment, and accommodation.
Meanwhile, Dubai is seeing increasing competition from smaller neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi, which has been working hard to gain ground on these numbers. Known for being less ostentatious than Dubai, Abu Dhabi is marking itself as a glitzy tourist destination in its own right with features such as a Ferrari theme park and luxury amenities. The UAE capital’s retailers, hoteliers, and tourism authority have all recently stepped up efforts to gain Chinese tourists’ attention in particular. Their plans have been paying off: in the first two months of 2014, 22,577 Chinese tourists checked into Abu Dhabi’s hotels, accounting for over 11 percent of all visitors and a massive 182 percent year-on-year growth rate for the time period. This number is almost equal to the 23,618 Chinese guests that arrived in the first seven months of 2013, showing how rapidly the numbers are rising.
The massive influx for January and February was likely due to Chinese New Year visitors, which Abu Dhabi’s businesses worked hard to court through special celebrations. Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi’s central business district, launched its new initiative to feature special events for Chinese tourists this year. For Chinese New Year, it featured live musical performances, art exhibitions, traditional crafts, food, and fireworks for the Chinese holiday. The Galleria luxury mall was decked out in red and gold, and featured a dragon show and fireworks, while hoteliers such as Rosewood Abu Dhabi gave guests a traditional red envelope and chocolates in gold foil, and held Chinese New Year celebrations.
“We developed strong ties with the Chinese market and are committed to furthering our collaboration by creating tailored offerings that specifically cater to Chinese travelers,” said Ali Eid AlMheiri, the executive director of Mubadala Real Estate & Infrastructure, on the business district’s new program.
In order to step up its game in attracting wealthy visitors, Abu Dhabi launched its annual Chinese Visitor Summit two years ago. “Local stakeholders are developing specific packages catering for peak Chinese travel times, such as Golden Week and Chinese New Year and are increasingly employing Mandarin and Cantonese speaking staff to take advantage of opportunities afforded by the growing air links from China,” said Mohammed Al Dhaheri, the director of strategy & policy at Abu Dhabi’s tourism authority, at last year’s summit. With a growing number of flights from hubs such as Hong Kong, Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai, Abu Dhabi has been benefiting from greater ease of access from China.
Many of these visitors are arriving for business or junket purposes. This week, Nu Skin China, the subsidiary of U.S. beauty firm Nu Skin, announced that it is shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to fly 14,500 Chinese employees to the UAE for a 10-day junket, which will include stays at luxury hotels, massive 8,000-person dinners, and, of course, a trip to that Ferrari theme park.
UAE businesses are also venturing into China in order to earn even more Chinese tourist money off their home turf. Dubai-based hotelier Jumeirah has been developing hotels in major Chinese cities, and recently signed a deal with a Chinese company to operate luxury-serviced residences in Guangzhou.