Skift Take

Chinese travelers are gradually returning to Dubai. Numbers are good, but if the tourism authority wants them be great, it needs to shift away from 'one-hit wonder' strategies.

Pre-pandemic, the cash-rich, travel-hungry Chinese tourist was a principal focus for Dubai, so much so that an entire “China Readiness” strategy was created. It included rolling out marketing campaigns on local social media app WeChat; the creation of a “Chinese Travelers Standards” training program for workers; a raft of signings with Chinese tour operators, and much more.

In 2016, the emirate announced visas-on-arrival for Chinese nationals. By 2019, China was Dubai’s fifth-largest source market with 989,000 visitors, a doubling in just three years.

The pandemic decimated these numbers, but they are gradually creeping back up. It started with 23,000 travelers from China in January, making it the 17th largest source market. By April, China broke into the top 10.

Visitor numbers through July put China as the eighth-largest source market with 328,000 visitors, a 311% increase.

Can this rebound keep going?

Peggy Li, CEO of sps:affinity, a Dubai-based consultancy, discussed the demands of modern Chinese travelers with Skift, and the ways in which Dubai must adjust its strategy.

For a while, Dubai was a prime location for status-seeking Chinese tourists. Home to the world’s largest mall, it is a shopping mecca, with a string of five-star hotels instantly recognizable to overseas travelers. 

More recently, however, this “glitz and glamor,” as Li refers to it, has worn off for the new wave of Chinese travelers. This should prompt a shift towards other demographics, including corporate travelers.

“Dubai needs something more than just a lifestyle angle now. I think this bling of Dubai thing is slowly wearing off,” Li said. “Dubai can emphasize its place as the commercial springboard of the Middle East. Corporate guests will spend. Anyone asked to station in Saudi Arabia will come to Dubai at least once a month. Chinese are creatures of comfort, we need certain comforts. It’s not only alcohol I mean, it’s the shopping, it’s the food as well.” 

Shifts in Shopping

Despite Li’s predictions, a report published earlier this year said Chinese are still coming to the region to shop.

According to the May 2023 report by the luxury consulting firm Agility, more than 20% of Chinese millionaires have intentions to travel to the Middle East within the next 12 months, primarily looking for deals on high-end goods.

Li still sees interest in shopping, but within China itself.

Domestic travelers have started to explore the country’s own developments, specifically Sanya on Hainan Island, which rivals Dubai in terms of shopping. Sanya is home to the third Kerzner-managed Atlantis hotel: Atlantis Sanya, which opened in 2018.

Li said: “Shopping has been one of the biggest draws to come to Dubai before…But China has its own tax-free zone now. Hainan Island. China has created a massive duty-free zone there. Now the Chinese are thinking, ‘What if the tax rebate doesn’t add up when buying a ticket to Dubai?'”

Another issue for Dubai’s tourism market is a lack of training, according to Li. “If I’m coming to Dubai as a Chinese traveler, I don’t want to make a fool of myself if I cannot speak English. Chinese speakers are lacking in the front of the house across every single one of Dubai’s iconic hotels.”

These shortcomings culminate in a lack of repeat business back into the city, Li suggested. “The only repeat business you often see is corporate business. Leisure travelers often just ‘tick the box’ to see certain attractions or do certain activities.”  

“China has such a huge population, so a Chinese ‘one-hit wonder’ for Dubai tourism will still be enough for many years.” 

Old Tactics Die Hard

Li’s discussion of “old tactics” not working anymore echoes similar sentiments from’s Chief Operating Officer, Schubert Lou, at the Skift Global Forum East 2022.

Merely marketing hotels, flights, and cars in a traditional way won’t cut it anymore, Lou said, arguing content needs to be inspirational and truly inform travelers what they can do in a destination and why it might be special.

“That to me is the future,” Lou said at the event. 

Strong Pandemic Bounce Back in Dubai

One-hit-wonder strategies or not, insights provided by ForwardKeys to Skift show that Chinese tourism is looking strong in Dubai.

In May, Chinese travel to Dubai had already once fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, primarily propelled by Labor Day Travel. In the first nine months of this year, Chinese travel to Dubai has reached 69% of the levels seen in 2019, and approximately 17 times the figures from 2022. The number of available seats from China to Dubai has bounced back to 64% of the levels seen in 2019, largely thanks to Chinese airlines, which hold a 49% share of total seats and have achieved an 84% recovery rate.

During the upcoming Golden Week travel period, Dubai stands out as one of the most sought-after destinations for Chinese travelers, experiencing a 58% growth compared to 2019 levels. And, it’s important to note that overall outbound travel is still lagging at approximately 40% behind 2019 figures.

Looking ahead to Q4, forward bookings for travel from China to Dubai have fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, aligning with the seat capacity that has surpassed 2019’s levels by 4%.

Dubai has not only remained a popular destination for Chinese travelers but has also strengthened its position as a hub after the pandemic. In the context of Chinese travel to Europe, Dubai has emerged as the largest international hub, expanding its market share by 3 percentage points, whereas Doha saw a 1 percentage point decrease in its share in 2023.

How to Make The Numbers Great

But if Dubai wants truly stellar performance when it comes to Chinese tourism, it needs to think differently, according to Li.

She said: “Dubai has to manicure its image on [Chinese] social media to make the place still relevant and attractive.

“The tour operators need more evolution. It cannot just be Burj Al Arab, Burj Khalifa, and so on. There needs to be diversification. China is huge on glamping right now, as an example. They are big on sports tourism. Dubai has such terrain, it has sports competitions, and it should put more emphasis on marketing to China.

“A lot more can be done, not just showing off the glamor. You lose the luster.”


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Tags: asia newsletter, business travel, chinese tourism, Dubai Tourism, tourism

Photo credit: Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa. Credit: Unsplash Unsplash

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