The travel industry struggles to balance access and security

Covid-19 cases have soared in UAE tourist destinations like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And as they do, hotels and attractions struggle to balance access and security.

Last week, UAE Trade Minister Thani Al-Zeyoudi announced that the country would not return to a full lockdown despite the omicron surge. Instead, it will ramp up testing and vaccinations to keep its economy open.

But how? In the United Arab Emirates, the response varied by location. In the most vaccinated country in the world, the capital, Abu Dhabi, has rigorous protocols. Dubai is more permissive, but still restrictive by US standards.

“We try to balance things out,” says Rashad Al Ghadban, spokesperson for Farah Experiences, which operates the Ferrari World and Warner Bros. theme parks. World in Abu Dhabi. “We want to be safe, but we don’t want to look like a hospital.”

This may be easier said than done. There are fewer tourists in Abu Dhabi right now, partly because of the season and partly because of the rise of omicrons. Visitors I encountered seemed to enjoy the warm weather and easy access to theme parks and hotel amenities. But behind the scenes, it’s clear the tourism industry is eager to get back to normal as soon as possible.

And nowhere is this more evident than in Abu Dhabi’s theme parks.

No queues at Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World

The pandemic has certain advantages. For example, at two of Abu Dhabi’s iconic theme parks – Ferrari World and Warner Bros. World – you won’t find any queues. Despite hand sanitizer dispensers and social distancing and mask rules, these attractions don’t feel like hospitals.

It’s a stark contrast to American theme parks, which have seen large crowds despite the pandemic. Ghadban explained that it’s not usually a busy time of year in a place like World Warner Bros., the largest indoor theme park in the world. The streets of Gotham City, where you can snap photos next to the Batmobile and take a thrilling ride like knight’s flight, are empty.

Most of the theme park patrons seemed to be locals, although these parks attract significant numbers of visitors from Europe and the United States when school is out. But January seems like a good time to visit – pandemic or not.

On the other side of town, it’s also quiet.

Is anyone visiting Abu Dhabi during the pandemic?

In Abu Dhabi, most hotels are half empty. But it’s hard to say whether it’s because it’s January, which is usually a slow time of year, or because of the recent spike in omicron cases.

To luxury Anantara Hotel overlooking the mangroves of Abu Dhabi, visitors from France and Germany recline by a pool with an Instagrammable view of the lush coastal wetland framed by the city skyline. Two security guards at the front of the property check arriving guests for green screens on their Alhosn App, the United Arab Emirates’ mandatory green pass.

It’s usually a less busy time for the station, according to marketing manager Shamika Shamil. After a busy holiday period, occupancy rates have dropped to around 40%. But spring break and the upcoming Middle Eastern holiday season, along with an expected Covid-19 downturn, will soon attract more guests, he predicts.

“We hope for a quick recovery,” he said.

While most hotels followed all of the Covid-19 rules, some were more flexible, as I was about to find out.

What are the Covid-19 rules in Abu Dhabi hotels?

As they head into an uncertain future, hotels in the UAE seem to be grappling with conflicting guidelines. On the one hand, they must remain welcoming to visitors. But they must also ensure the safety of visitors.

I’ve been through several hotels in Abu Dhabi over the past week. About half of them asked to see my recent PCR test results through the UAE contact tracing app before letting me in. This is the current regulation.

One of them, a large resort hotel near the presidential palace, stood out. The officials waved me through without inspecting my vaccination status on the Alhosn app, perhaps taking me for a hotel guest already checked. It definitely felt like the good old days.

When I asked the front desk about their Covid-19 safety protocols, a woman said they followed “all the rules”. I was wondering what the rules were. They have changed so frequently in the recent past that no one can remember them exactly.

Some hotels are taking cautious but visible steps to normalize their guest experience.

Is Abu Dhabi about to relax its Covid rules?

There are signs that the worst of the pandemic — or at least omicron’s huge push — could be in the rearview mirror. I visited Zaya Nurai Island, a private resort off Abu Dhabi on Friday. If you can imagine white sand beaches, teal sea water and beautiful people lounging by the infinity pool, this is the island of Zara Nurai.

“When things were really bad, we had a disinfectant arch on the quay,” says Yuliya Bulatova, the hotel’s marketing manager. When guests arrived, hotel workers sprayed their luggage with disinfectant.

“It used to be here,” she says, pointing to a paved path leading to the $1,200-a-night villas. “But we just deleted it.”

Residents are taking similar action, quietly and often under cover of darkness.

How are people in Abu Dhabi coping with the Covid-19 surge?

I had the chance to see how the locals were coping with the wave just before I left Abu Dhabi yesterday. I left my room at Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island and I walked along the waterfront just before sunset. It was surprisingly crowded and almost everyone seemed to be a resident. UAE masking requirements are a bit ambiguous. You must mask up when walking outside in high-density public spaces but there is an exemption for people who exercise.

About 80% of people just before sunset were wearing masks. But as the sun started to set and I walked further towards the edge of the developed area, the masks slowly came off. There were people picnicking and a birthday party, and not a mask in sight.

It’s unclear when the Outer Rules will end. Or strict interior masking requirements will go out the window. Or the PCR testing rules, which require visitors to get tested upon arrival and six days after arriving in the UAE?

But it’s clear: the UAE’s tourism industry cannot wait for these strict rules to be history. Neither do visitors.