Ideally positioned between China and popular European tourism and business destinations, and linked by dozens of direct flights to major Chinese cities, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has already benefited greatly from China’s outbound investment and travel boom. In 2013, Dubai saw Chinese arrivals increase 11 percent to nearly 276,000, and more than 81,000 mainland Chinese visited Abu Dhabi in the first nine months of 2014 — a 167 percent increase year-over-year.
According to the Hurun Report, Dubai is the third most popular global destination for Chinese travelers, and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority reports that China is now its fourth largest source of foreign tourists. (Trailing only the UK and India among non-Gulf countries.)
Since gaining approved travel destination status from the Chinese government in 2009, Dubai in particular has spent heavily in China promoting itself as an elite destination, linked by easy direct flights and offering tax-free luxury shopping at world-class venues like the Dubai Mall. More recently, Abu Dhabi has taken a more proactive approach, looking to cater to Chinese visitors at The Galleria (which boasts brands such as Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, and Céline) and offering ample conference space to Chinese companies.
Luxury hotels in the UAE have reported strong growth as well, with the total number of Chinese guest nights in Abu Dhabi increasing 115 percent in the first eight months of the year. Dubai hotels have also pulled out the stops to appeal to Chinese travelers, featuring Chinese buffets and lion dances and handing out red envelopes around Chinese New Year. By all accounts, these efforts are starting to work. This April, Nu Skin China flew 14,500 employees to Dubai and Abu Dhabi for a massive corporate trip that pulled in an estimated $80 million for the emirates, and Dubai reported a 26 percent rise in Chinese tourist visits in the first half of the year.
Despite the positive momentum, a great deal of work remains to be done before the UAE joins Paris, New York, and even Seoul as a top destination among Chinese globetrotters. Mandarin-speaking sales staff remains in strong demand and relatively short supply, and malls, hotels, and restaurants are struggling to catch up with the influx of Chinese guests (and their unique demands). In 2015, the UAE must do more in China to promote more than just luxury malls and shiny skyscrapers, crafting the right message to ensure Chinese tourists feel the need to return again — for more than just tax-free shopping.