Mainland tourists flock to Mideast

By Zhang Haizhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-02-04 06:47
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DUBAI: It is no exaggeration that the first 10 guests I met at the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai were all Chinese. I was in the lobby of what is regarded as the world's first seven-star hotel on a sunny morning last month just as a band of tourists from Jilin province checked out. They were all snapping away with cameras to capture reminders of their stay.

"It's pretty cheap to travel to Dubai after the credit crisis. We each paid just 10,800 yuan ($1,600) for a five-day trip and stayed in a top hotel," said a woman in her 40s surnamed Li who was with the group.

The United Arab Emirates has become a popular destination for Chinese tourists, with many attracted to Dubai, arguably the most glamorous of the seven emirates. Analysts told me they expect the city to see unprecedented numbers during the Lunar New Year holiday next month.

"We will send five tourist groups to Dubai during Chinese New Year. They are already fully booked," said Zhang Wei, general manager of the outbound department for China International Travel Service in Beijing. "The number of Chinese tourists going to Dubai has surged since September."

Liu Tao, who is in charge of Middle Eastern and African destinations for CCT travel, said Dubai will be the company's main product during the New Year break. "Dubai is attractive for its diversity. It's a place with Arabic culture and is modern," he said, adding he is confident all CCT tour groups will be fully booked.

A marketing manager of a travel agency in Dubai told China Central Television his firm is looking to launch more programs to attract tourists from emerging markets such as China and India. CCTV also quoted a local tourism official who said that a reduction in prices had also made the city more attractive. The daily hotel tariff dropped almost 30 percent to about $260 dollars last year compared to 2008, according to media reports.

An estimated 100,000 Chinese visited Dubai in 2008, according to CCTV. However, tourists' opinions on the city are mixed.

"We came here mainly for the shopping but I still think Hong Kong is a better place for Chinese shoppers," a middle-aged Beijing man told me in the Gold Souk, Asia's biggest gold market and a top tourist destination.

However, the emirate is still proving attractive to Chinese investors. Shortly after the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, opened on

Jan 4, a group of investors from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, were planning a trip to snap up some discounted properties.

"When they heard about the opportunity to visit Dubai, more than 20 members expressed an interest in joining the group," said Zhou Dewen, head of the Wenzhou Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Business Development and Promotion Association. "Residential properties in Wenzhou cost 60,000 yuan per sq m but a single square meter in the world's tallest building costs just 70,000 yuan at the moment. Why not buy them while they're still cheap?"

Yang Guang, director of the school of Western Asia and African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, urged Chinese merchants to invest more in Dubai's property market and said: "Although house prices have fallen to 2006 levels, the property market will revive."

A recent investigation showed Zhejiang merchants lost about 2 billion yuan due to the Dubai property slump, but Yang said real estate in the emirate still looks still promising.

(China Daily 02/04/2010 page7)