The year began on a high note for the UAE’s tourism sector, with Dubai being named the world’s most popular destination at the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Best of the Best Destination Awards 2023. This was the second consecutive time the online travel platform recognised Dubai’s tremendous tourism appeal based on aggregated reviews of millions of travellers between November 2021 and October 2022.
Just as Tripadvisor unveiled the ranking, the United Nations World Trade Organization (UNWTO) released data showing that the Middle East had enjoyed the strongest relative increase in international tourist numbers globally in 2022, with arrivals reaching 83 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers.
Previously, a September 2022 report by UNWTO stated that the Middle East had demonstrated the fastest recovery between January to July 2022, with arrivals growing almost four times year-on-year, reaching 79 per cent of 2019 levels. And within the region, the UAE was the only country to exceed pre-pandemic tourism levels in the first seven months of 2022.
This surge in tourist numbers can be attributed to several factors such as visa reforms announced last year which made travelling to the UAE much easier. The new visa rules allow visitors to stay in the country for 60 days instead of 30 days. The new multiple-entry five-year tourist visa has also encouraged repeat visits to the country.
Tourist entries were further enhanced by UAE’s airlines, which not only resumed service to routes suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic but added new destinations and frequencies.
Passenger traffic triples at Abu Dhabi International Airport
The UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi has emerged as prominent gateway to the country. According to the Moodie Davitt Report, 15.54 million visitors travelled through Abu Dhabi International Airport in 2022. The number is triple the number the airport served in 2021 (5.26 million), marking a recovery of 73.6 per cent of pre-pandemic
Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism also reported an occupancy rate of 70 per cent, with 4.1 million visitors staying in the emirate’s hotels last year. Hotel revenues climbed by 23 per cent from the previous year to Dhs5.4bn in 2022.
“2022 was a remarkable year for Abu Dhabi in passenger traffic terms. Looking ahead, we are working towards readiness to accommodate even greater passenger traffic in 2023, which we anticipate, as higher numbers of international visitors come to the UAE for key events,” said Jamal Salem Al Dhaheri, Abu Dhabi Airports managing director and CEO, in a statement.
Millions attend Dubai events
Dubai welcomed 14.36 million international overnight visitors in 2022, surpassing global and regional barometers of recovery, driven by events such as Expo 2020 Dubai, Gulfood, the World Government Summit, Gitex Global and the Arabian Travel Market. Data published by UNWTO in January showed that tourist travel to the city reached 86 per cent, exceeding global recovery levels of 63 per cent and Middle East recovery levels of 83 per cent in 2022.
“Art and culture travel has also emerged as a significant trend in Dubai. The city’s diverse heritage and contemporary arts scene offer a unique blend of traditional and modern art experiences, including the Art Dubai and World Art Dubai events, attracting global and regional audiences,” says Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DCTCM).
Aviation and hospitality initiatives boom in RAK
Among the Northern Emirates, Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) posted impressive results for 2022. With over 1.13 million overnight arrivals in 2022, the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) recorded the highest-ever annual visitor numbers to the emirate. International visitors rose by 40 per cent, with Kazakhstan, Russia, the UK, Germany and the Czech Republic serving as key source markets.
In 2022, RAKTDA undertook a host of initiatives to drive tourist numbers. The authority held over 90 roadshows, trade fairs and media events across 24 markets and more than 50 events within the emirate, such as the Arab Aviation Summit and DP World Tour.
RAKTDA is now aiming to attract three million visitors annually by 2030. “We’ll do this by expanding global access and seamless connectivity to the emirate via strategic airline partnerships such as Qatar Airways,” says Raki Phillips, CEO of RAKTDA.
Phillips is referring to the announcement made by the airline at Arab Aviation Summit held in March to operate direct flights to the emirate from November this year. RAKTDA also entered into an agreement with FTI Group, a major German tour operator, paving the way for twice-weekly direct flights from Munich to Ras Al Khaimah, also beginning in Q4 2023.
Bahrain’s Gulf Air also offers two weekly flights to RAK, making access to the emirate easier for tourists.
Concurrently, RAK is gearing up for a massive boom in its hospitality portfolio with 19 properties (6,533 keys) in the pipeline for the next few years, including the multi-billion-dollar integrated resort development with Wynn Resorts in early 2027 – the largest-of-its-kind foreign direct investment in Ras al Khaimah.
“Another key to sustaining our growth is positioning ourselves as a destination of the future, driven by sustainability, accessibility and diversification. We have already committed Dhs500m for the development of over 20 purpose-driven tourism projects that will enhance our natural environment.
We are also investing in cultural conservation, with four tentative UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and diversifying our portfolio with sustainable accommodation on Jebel Jais to provide a mountain retreat experience with guided treks, mindful pursuits and creative experiences,” adds Phillips.
Northern Emirates on an upward trajectory
Data released by the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) showed that the emirate’s hospitality sector registered 626,000 guests for H1 2022, marking an increase of 12 per cent compared to the same period in 2021.
The emirate remained the preferred destination for European tourists, with 1.4 million hotel guests, of which 165,000 were from Russia.
The total number of German hotel guests showed a 31 per cent increase compared to the previous year. SCTDA revealed that hotel earnings amounted to more than Dhs200m in H1 2022, showing a 50 per cent increase in the same period in 2021.
Passenger traffic at Sharjah Airport saw a jump of 84.73 per cent with 13 million travellers in 2022, achieving the pre-pandemic levels (13.6 million passengers in 2019) as opposed to seven million passengers in 2021.
Ajman also showed upward movement in tourist numbers. Compared to 2021, the hospitality sector witnessed a 9 per cent overall revenue growth, a 26 per cent increase in foreign visitors, and a 14 per cent increase in the average room rates in 2022.
“The tourism sector continues its recovery, and what has been accomplished so far is a result of the full collaboration with our stakeholders to achieve the common strategic goals,” said Mahmood Khaleel Alhashmi, director general of Ajman Department of Tourism Development (ADTD), at the department’s annual meeting in January.
Further up the coast, Umm Al Quwain is also keen on capturing a share of the country’s tourism market and emerging as the focal point of UAE’s ecotourism efforts through its Sustainable Blue Economy Strategy 2031.
Under the strategy, eight transformative projects will be delivered across diverse industries, including the Umm Al Quwain Mangroves Reserve development, which will allow visitors to explore natural sceneries and the coastline of the emirate.
Tourism to the UAE’s eastern coast also performed well, according to real estate consultancy CBRE. Fujairah reported a 26.7 per cent growth in revenue per available room during the second quarter of 2022.
“Additionally, Fujairah had higher growth in occupancy levels than the rest of the UAE and one of the strongest growths in terms of average daily rates,” stated the CBRE report. In the future, the emirate aims to attract 100,000 visitors when it opens its Qidfa development project.
The tourism sector has become a key driver of the UAE’s diversification efforts and a major contributor to its GDP. As momentum continues to accelerate across the country, the Emirates’ tourism boards are actively investing in new initiatives, enhancing stakeholder relationships, rolling out global campaigns and leveraging growing MICE segments to bring in visitors.