I Just Returned From a City Packed With Tourists. Here’s What It Was Like

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“Did you get a test at the airport?” a woman asked me as I went to collect my luggage. “I came from the U.K., so I can get tested on arrival. But no one has said anything to me yet.”

I was quite surprised to hear this. I had to present my negative test certificate on three occasions during my journey to Dubai. Once before boarding in Berlin, once during my transit in Amsterdam, and again after landing. I was under the assumption that everyone else had to.  Then again, I could see how it may be possible for a few people to slip through the net. After a nine-hour journey from Berlin, I landed at Dubai’s airport to see long queues of bustling tourists. Open borders, low COVID-19 numbers, and consistent marketing made Dubai the holiday destination for Christmas. Or as they phrase it: “the world’s coolest winter.”

Dubai is a city reliant on tourism and it is determined to get the industry back on its feet. On July 7, after a strict lockdown, Dubai opened its doors to visitors. Since then, it has been relaxing the requirements to enter the country. And in December tourists started flocking in for their Christmas break, particularly from Europe.

At the end of November, the U.K. placed the United Arab Emirates on its travel corridor list. It was reported that after this announcement, flight bookings rose to over 50% of the levels in the equivalent period in 2019.

Like many tourists, I knew that Dubai’s bar, restaurants, and attractions were open, and after a strict lockdown in March, the city has reported low COVID-19 numbers. Considering this, I packed my bags for a three-week trip to the UAE. I found that thousands had the same idea.

What Measures Are in Place?

The UAE COVID-19 case numbers have remained low for a good reason. The city of Dubai has many measures in place, which were visible (and reassuring) as soon as I had left the airport. On taking my first step outside, I was told to wear my mask, and this continued for my three weeks there. Face masks are the most noticeable measure that the city is enforcing. Wearing a mask in public outdoor spaces is mandatory, and as one tourist told me, “In Dubai, people stick to the rules.”

It is being monitored closely and, on several occasions, security guards would appear, as if from nowhere, to tell people to wear their masks correctly. Not wearing one could result in a hefty fine of up to 3,000 dirhams ($816 USD), as if Dubai was not already expensive enough.

Once arriving at my hotel, I stepped through a full-body sanitizer and was required to have a temperature check—another staple of the city. All public spaces need a temperature check: the mall, the bars, the restaurants, and the beaches. All the hotel staff was wearing masks. Social distancing measures were restricting the number of people entering the elevator.

Nowhere can you see the number of tourists more than at some of Dubai’s most well-known bars and restaurants. To manage this, restaurants have plastic shields to separate the tables. In almost all of the restaurants, QR codes are the norm so that menus can be viewed online.

Despite these measures, it cannot deny that the risk was there. It had been a while since I had seen this many crowds; I spoke to one tourist about her experience in Dubai. She told me, “You know that when you travel, you are increasing your risk of exposing yourself to the virus. What was comforting to me was knowing that everyone needed a negative test to get into the country.

“The city is doing what it can to keep people safe. But at one hotel I stayed at, it was full and there was an absence of social distancing at the breakfast buffet. You were not supposed to serve yourself, but people were doing that. I think it was the sheer number of people there. The other hotel I stayed at felt much less crowded. Out of all the places I could have traveled, I would have felt the safest coming to Dubai.”

Do Dubai’s Workers on the Frontline Feel Safe?

The people who are most exposed to the virus are Dubai’s hospitality workers. They are coming into close contact with thousands of European tourists, where the epicenter of the pandemic currently is.

“I had to go home for a few months and once the hotel became busy again, they brought me back here. People adhere to all the measures in place, so I feel safe and more at ease.”

With some tourists opting to get a test on arrival, the hotels are also a place of quarantine for those awaiting their results. For one front desk worker, the growth in tourism numbers has brought about mixed feelings—happiness that business is booming yet added concern regarding safety. “It has been a tough time. [You are] worried that you have tourists, and you do not know where they are coming from and what the situation is like in their home country. Now we understand more about the virus and how to keep ourselves safe. At first, everyone was scared.

“We get tested every couple of weeks, which the hotel pays for. As I am at the front desk, I am happy there is a plastic screen there, and we have hand sanitizers at every point in the hotel. People cannot gather in the lobby like they used to. For the swimming pool, we no longer provide towels. We clean and sanitize all the rooms on a regular basis.”

Another hotel worker, Anphi, from India, told me while her exposure may have increased, she feels safer in Dubai than returning to her home country. “I had to go home for a few months and once the hotel became busy again, they brought me back here. People adhere to all the measures in place, so I feel safe and more at ease than when I was in India.”

What Is the Current COVID-19 Situation in the UAE?

The UAE has reported over 10,000 new COVID-19 cases so far in January, setting record increases. And while over 40 countries have closed their borders to the U.K. due to the new virus strain that was found, Dubai is one of the few places that remain open to British holidaymakers.

So how is the city coping? By the looks of things, quite well—though the real impact of the recent travel boom will likely be seen in the next couple of months. Strict enforcement of the COVID-19 measures seems to be paying off, but with the high number of tourists entering Dubai, they will only become more difficult to put in place. While reports show the infections are rising, tourists are continuing to soak up the sun on the city’s beaches. Only time will tell.  

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