Ever since the pandemic outbreak two years ago, this has been the most successfully organised mass event, attracting visitors from all over the world. A lot of meticulous planning has gone into mounting of the event that is taking place on a huge sprawl of 4.3 sqkm right in the middle of the desert and in the middle of nowhere, with 130 purpose-built smart buildings and an entire microcity with all amenities, built at a cost of USD 7 billion.
The results of the first two months indicate that it was a wise investment as within two months after it opened its doors to the world on October 1, 2021, the Dubai Expo 2020 has been visited by over 5.5 million persons and the organisers remained confident that they would be able to attain their target of attracting 25 million visitors by the time the exhibition came to an end in April next year.
Indeed, the organisers as well as the host country, the United Arab Emirates, banked on the high degree of vaccination as well as other checks to keep the exposition and visitors safe from infections. All visitors to the country need multiple RTPCR tests to consistently check their health and the entrance to the Expo also is closed to those without a negative test result. The Expo staff also keeps a close check on whether all the visitors sport the mask properly.
However, despite the numerous checks in place, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has penetrated both the UAE as well as the Dubai Expo, forcing the organisers to take urgent remedial action, including closure of some parts of the expo to the visitors for the time being.
In a statement, the organisers said that the outbreaks of virus amongst their staff had forced them to take the decision of closing select sections of the Expo ‘‘temporarily for deep cleaning and sanitisation’’. Though the statement did not identify the number of staff exposed to the virus and nor did it specify which areas would be closed and for how long, the news comes on the heels of reports that the daily virus caseload in the UAE has jumped by almost 40 times in less than a month. The spike has been primarily attributed to the Omicron variant, which has spread in the country despite the high degree of vaccination locally. The UAE has already administered over 22.5 million doses to its 10 million people, meaning almost entire population has been fully vaccinated.
Poor timing for Dubai
The rise in Omicron and the accompanying scare at the Dubai Expo could not have come at a worst time, not just for the fair organisers or the destination, but indeed all other stakeholders, be it the tour operators or airlines that have been busy sending tourists by tens of thousands to Dubai. Little wonder then that the Dubai Airport has emerged as the busiest international port in the world for several consecutive months and Dubai Airport expects to close the year with a healthy 29 million passengers, with a sharp spike having kicked in from November 25.
For Dubai, the peak travel season begins in December and goes on till March, with very high number of arrivals at certain key moments like the Christmas-New Year week as well as the period of Dubai Shopping Festival, a six week-long extravaganza that had become a major pull for the Indian tourists who have always seen Dubai as an ideal shopping destination for a wide variety of goods.
With schools normally closed for winter vacations, the first rush of Indian travellers goes out in second half of December, like tourists from the western world. Thus, with the peak travel season now in full swing, the Omicron scare is set to slow down the tempo, though it is not yet clear as to how much impact will it have on passenger numbers especially as most countries have kept their borders open to the UAE and the expo has kept its massive plans for the New Year’s Eve.
Blow to Indian travel industry
The developments at Dubai Expo are bad news not just for the stakeholders in Dubai but also to the Indian travel industry, for which an escapade to Dubai for the family had emerged as one of the best-selling packages as they sought to revive their businesses after almost two years of near total shutdown. From large agencies like Thomas Cook and SOTC to smaller players around the country, the Expo is one of the most saleable products and hence most agents have developed special programmes, centred around Dubai and the ongoing Expo. And the agents say the number of tourists that have taken the packages have not been disappointing.
Thomas Cook India says a lot of meticulous planning went into its preparations for the Expo. “To maximise the dual opportunity, our teams at Thomas Cook India have spent several months’ strategic planning, contracting and product development and so we were quick to go to market as soon as positive announcements were received from Dubai authorities,” Rajeev Kale, president & country head of Holidays, MICE, Visa, at India’s largest travel firm, told India Outbound.
“We have been receiving a strong uptick in demand with a substantial number of bookings in the pipeline. On the leisure travel front, Expo 2020 gives families a great opportunity to visit one of their favourite holiday destinations, starting this festive season. In addition, being doubly vaccine already, we see a sizeable interest from senior travellers as well. Honeymooners and couples are also showing strong demand. With significant interest for a 5-6 nights’ stay, we have curated an attractive 5 and 6 nights Expo product with Single Day/ Multi Day Tickets included. Besides the visit to the Expo, we also have the Guided Tour of Expo. Our offers also include attractions like Yacht Cruise, Desert Safari, Burj Khalifa, Dubai Frame and the city tour coupled with visits to the Gold & Spice Souks,” Daniel D’souza, president & country head, SOTC Travel told India Outbound.
Beyond the two giants, mid-sized and smaller companies too have been in the game. To support thousands of its members resume their businesses, the Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), which is the oldest association of the travel trade in India, had recently organised a comprehensive, country-wide roadshow of the Dubai Expo and which had received a very good response from its members.
Thus, as much as the Expo organisers and Dubai Tourism, the travel trade in India can also be expected to keep its fingers crossed over the spread of Omicron in Dubai and hope that it would pass soon, rather than developing into a massive crisis, forcing cancellations of flights and travel bans that they have had to endure for over two years.