Can Chinese travelers transform the Middle Eastern tourism landscape?

    Dubai's ongoing Chinese tourism push could attract more luxury brands as well as affluent tourists. Image: Unsplash
      Published   in Travel

    What happened

    In recent years, Dubai has tailored its strategies to cater to the affluent Chinese traveler and become fully "China Ready". This effort included marketing campaigns on WeChat, training programs, and collaborations with Chinese tour operators. The 2016 decision to offer visas-on-arrival for Chinese nationals further boosted tourism, and by 2019, nearly a million Chinese tourists had visited Dubai, marking a significant increase over three years.

    While the pandemic brought these numbers down, recent data suggests a rebound. From being the 17th largest source market in January, China has climbed into the top 10 by April, and then by July, it stood as the eighth-largest, witnessing a huge 311% surge in visitors to the city.

    As the world moves on from the pandemic, Dubai is seeing a surge in the number of Chinese tourist arrivals. But as this big-spending, millions-strong demographic increasingly turns its attention not just to Dubai but the Middle East as a whole, the question arises: Could this influx reshape the region's tourism market?

    Nearly one million Chinese tourists visited Dubai in 2019. Image: Unsplash
    Nearly one million Chinese tourists visited Dubai in 2019. Image: Unsplash

    The Jing Take

    What's behind this resurgence? Peggy Li, CEO of sps:affinity, a Dubai-based consultancy, believes the city's allure for Chinese tourists is evolving. While Dubai's luxury shopping and iconic landmarks once drew crowds, the modern Chinese traveler seeks more diverse experiences. Li suggests that Dubai could position itself as the Middle East's commercial hub, attracting corporate travelers from China.

    Shopping remains a significant attraction. A 2023 report by luxury consulting firm Agility highlighted that over 20 percent of Chinese millionaires plan to visit the Middle East within a year, primarily for luxury shopping. However, Li points out that China's own tax-free zones, like Hainan Island, are becoming strong competitors to Dubai's shopping allure.

    Li also emphasizes the importance of cultural training. She notes a lack of Chinese-speaking staff in Dubai's prominent hotels, which could deter potential tourists. The city needs to ensure repeat visits, moving beyond the 'checklist tourism' where travelers visit just once to check off major attractions.

    Despite these challenges, data from ForwardKeys indicates a strong recovery of Chinese tourism in Dubai. the upcoing Golden Week travel period sees Dubai as a top destination for Chinese tourists, with a growth rate surpassing 2019 levels. Furthermore, forward bookings for Q4 have already matched pre-pandemic figures.

    Dubai's strategic position as a travel hub has also been enhanced post-pandemic. When considering the popularity of Chinese travel to Europe, Dubai has grown as the primary international hub, increasing its market share.

    For Dubai to truly capitalize on this trend, Li believes it needs a fresh approach. The city should diversify its offerings, tapping into emerging trends like glamping and sports tourism, and present a more holistic image on Chinese social media platforms.

    Offering more than shopping is even more of a must for Dubai as other regional destinations vie for more Chinese tourist arrivals. Not to be outdone in "China-Readiness," the Tourism Authority of Abu Dhabi recently announced popular Chinese actress Liu Yifei as its brand ambassador, releasing a promotional video in which Liu takes viewers on a tour of Abu Dhabi's iconic landmarks, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Presidential Palace.

    In the video, Liu transforms into a real-life Barbie at each destination, showcasing various travel experiences, including leisure, shopping, cuisine, and culture. Now the question is: will Abu Dhabi's China efforts pay off this winter?

    The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.

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