UAE hospitality 'ever-evolving' in the run-up to Expo 2020 Dubai
Dubai received 8.36 million international overnight visitors in the first-half of 2019.
As the UAE prepares to welcome millions of visitors from around the world for Expo 2020 Dubai, experts have noted that the country's hospitality sector will play a major role in ensuring the success of the global event, as well as securing a significant portion of travellers who will be keen to return to the emirates for a visit in the near future.
Slim Zaiane, general manager at Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates, said that the UAE's hospitality sector, Dubai in particular, is amongst the most exciting and ever-evolving in the world.
"We anticipate the hospitality sector to grow as we near Expo 2020, which is only going to benefit the industry as it brings a steady occupancy to hotel rooms to meet the anticipated demand and influx of 25 million tourists," he said. "The whole city is gearing up to accommodate the increase in visitor traffic to the UAE, with many infrastructure projects underway. There is a real drive behind the expansion and upgrading of airports and tourism infrastructure, including developments to Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC), Jebel Ali Port, and the Dubai Metro Red line, connecting the city center to the Expo 2020 site."
Similarly, Vincent McGrath, area general manager at Caesars Bluewaters Dubai, identified an evolution in the hospitality sector across the world, but believes that the level of change is particularly heightened in the UAE. "Usually, a sector often feels as though it is pushing government authorities to provide support in growth or innovation, but in the UAE the set-up is quite the opposite. We've seen the adoption of new policies to make our industry more rigorous, the opening of major new tourist destinations, and the exemption from value-added-tax (VAT) for tourists."
These are new ways of thinking and flexible initiatives which will significantly help the sector to grow, he noted. Most recently, the UAE Cabinet approved the issuance of a five-year multi-entry tourist visa for all nationalities visiting the country. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, noted that the visa will help to establish the UAE as a major global tourism destination. Due to be introduced within the next four months, the new visa falls in line with plans to prepare the country for the next 50 years of development.
According to reports, the UAE received about 21 million tourists in 2019, including 15 million during the first half of the year.
David Wilson, general manager at Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah, explained that the UAE has seen massive developments in the last few years that have all contributed to a spike in tourist options. "There's a plethora of new theme parks, international art galleries and museums, adventure activities, indoor music venues such as the Coca-Cola Arena, as well as shopping and dining destinations which continue to attract visitors, while ensuring that there is something for everyone in the UAE. Expo 2020 is a very exciting event for everyone in the UAE, especially the hospitality industry, as it will be a great time for us."
To meet the demand generated by the incoming visitors, Wilson said that the hospitality sector has developed accordingly, with increased options across all hotel categories and various price points to suit every traveller.
More than 2,500 hotels rooms were opened in Dubai in the first-half of 2019, with nearly half of them in the luxury segment, data by Colliers International showed. In addition, figures by the Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing revealed that the emirate received 8.36 million international overnight visitors in the first-half of 2019, a growth of three per cent in tourism volume. Dubai is aiming to complete 160,000 hotel rooms by October 2020 - in time to welcome 25 million visitors for Expo 2020. By 2022, the UAE's hospitality market is expected to reach $7.6 billion, growing at a five-year CAGR of 8.5 per cent between 2017 and 2022. The contribution of the tourism sector in the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) exceeded Dh161 billion.
Wilson noted that technology will be a key factor in making guest experiences more seamless, especially as hotels will be dealing with a surge of visitors during the Expo 2020 event. Hotels will have to look into embracing digital innovations that allow guests to do everything from remote check-in/check-out to controlling all aspects of their room through their smartphones. "We are highly focused on making a genuine connection with each and every guest so it is imperative that we are using new technology to further enhance the guest experience and the personalised service for which we are known."
Like Wilson, Victor Chalfoun, general manager at Waldorf Astoria Dubai International Financial Centre, noted that the emergence and proliferation of technology has enabled the hospitality industry in the UAE to implement innovative solutions in day-to-day operations. "One such example is a 'Digital Key' through which guests can use their mobile phone as a key to access the rooms. However, at its core, hospitality is a business of people serving people and our focus will always be on delivering exceptional experiences to guests and customers."
Digital disruption cannot be overlooked
Digital disruption has become the single greatest change in the hospitality industry in the last decade, which cannot be overlooked, says McGrath.
"As Dubai expands its tourism industry, we see a greater need to enhance our services - adapt or get left behind rings very true in this space," he said. "We continue to respond to that and are able to align ourselves with the evolving world. There is a rise in the use of technology across operations in the industry, and I believe that we can create the perfect balance where we give our guests the platforms they want in order to maximise their stays, whilst keeping personalised service at the heart of everything we do."
Handheld mobile devices are already playing a vital role in the industry, establishing a quick, digital communication between the property and its guests. Other ways to facilitate a daily connection with guests at the touch of a button involves the use of digital guest directories.
"Our in-room digital tablets allow our guests to explore hotel services, receive sightseeing tips, restaurant recommendations, arrange spa treatments, or book their next stay directly from their rooms. While I hope, and believe, that the human connection will always be important in our industry, we know too that many guests prefer to use touch screens and make bookings digitally," said McGrath. "We see a constant stream of innovation from the UAE and a sense that there is always something more we can do, create, offer, and build. It's inspiring to everyone working here."
"The UAE government's dedication and proactive efforts to attract growing numbers of visitors is unlike any other country, in my opinion," he added. "There is a famous quote from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who said, "We, in the UAE, have no such word as 'impossible'; it does not exist in our lexicon". This rings very true to us in the hospitality sector; it feels as though there is no limit to what can be achieved."
Dubai has everything that a traveller seeks
For a traveller looking to book a holiday for himself and his family, Dubai has everything that one could possibly ask for in a destination, says Zaiane.
"Dubai has everything you could wish for from a destination, which is why it was named as the first Middle East and seventh most visited global city in the world, as reported by Euromonitor International's Top 100 City Destinations Ranking for 2019. There are easy and direct transport links to the city from international locations, and once tourists arrive, there is something for everyone. It caters to the masses not only by offering luxury hotels, first-class dining, and supreme shopping malls, but by also offering family friendly entertainment venues, theme parks, beaches, cultural activities, museums, old souks, and world famous tourist attractions including the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Frame. With this much choice, tourists can make their visit to Dubai different every time," he said.
When it comes to events and experiences, Zaiane pointed out that Dubai is a leading example of a city that offers the best choice in the region, and the world. "We have family theme parks like IMG Worlds of Adventure, Dubai Parks and Resorts, and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, indoor experiential gaming zones like Hub Zero, and year-round concerts performed by leading regional and international artists that all contribute to Dubai's positioning as a hub for world-class entertainment."
In addition, events such as the annual Dubai Shopping Festival, and the highly anticipated Global Village continue to bring joy to tourists over the busy holiday period.
"While Dubai continues to create and innovate centres for amusement, hotels are now increasingly offering complete experiences so that guests have all they need at their doorstep," added Zaiane. "In the next few years, we'll see even more of an increased demand for luxury as guests are always looking for a fully immersive experience, especially when staying in a hotel. We're always on the lookout to make sure the technology we offer is the most advanced to ensure a superb and modern customer service."
Hospitality sector celebrates vision of the UAE leadership
A key factor in the success story of the UAE's hospitality and tourism industries has been the vision of its leadership, says Arne Silvis, general manager at Al Maha, a Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa.
"The visionary leaders of this country have made every effort to ensure that the UAE is more accessible, affordable, and offers a variety of choices to encourage repeat visits," he said. "Moreover, the government and tourism authorities are extremely dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of visitors during their stay in the region."
Dubai International Airport, he added, is listed among five of the busiest airports globally, which is a remarkable achievement. "Offering both affordable and premium hospitality options, world class shopping experiences, and accessibility are some of the most obvious reasons for the growing influx of visitors to the UAE."
The growth in visitor numbers will continue as the country gears up for the Expo 2020 Dubai.
"We are looking forward to being a part of this special experience. The hospitality industry has evolved for the better as we look to cater to visitors from across the globe, with different preferences. The sector has grown aggressively in terms of room keys, and rightly so, as we are expecting a record number of travellers. What has impressed me the most is to see a balanced development between different types of hotels. While the focus is on business hotels, there has also been a fair rise in leisure hotels and resorts. A similar rationale is also applied between affordable and premium properties offering visitors plenty to choose from," Silvis said.
Looking to the future, Silvis noted that here has been a marked shift towards digitalisation. "The current crop of tech-savvy travellers seek seamless, personalised, and secure platforms to browse and book their stays. As far as the operations of the property are concerned, we rely on machines to keep us updated about guest preferences. Machines, AI, and robots will be an integral part of the industry, but it is personalised service and the warmth extended to guests, that distinguishes a truly memorable and enjoyable hotel stay experience."