After throwing its doors open to partygoers over the New Year, Dubai is now facing the economic cost of surging coronavirus cases as flight bans threaten its £23billion tourism sector.
Britain last night placed an outright travel ban on the Middle East party haven where the New Year revelry has been blamed for a spike in infections.
Denmark also shut down flights last week while Germany is now requiring negative tests for travellers from the UAE.
Before the pandemic struck last year, 100,000 British tourists a month were visiting Dubai during the winter, typically spending £34million per month to stay in its stylish hotels – which now face a setback after enjoying a revival in December.
Dubai’s re-opening has helped to staunch the bleeding of its crucial tourism and hospitality sectors after lockdowns and curfews cratered its economy in 2020.
Hotel occupancy in the city had risen to 71 per cent in December, the highest since the pandemic began, after glamorous influencers and reality stars flocked to Dubai from locked-down Britain – some claiming their trips were essential for work.
British tourists normally make up seven per cent of all visitors to Dubai, the third-largest group behind Indians and Saudis, but the UK government has shut down flights over fears of importing the feared South African strain of the disease.
The Philippines has discovered the UK variant in a man who returned from Dubai, while Israel has closed its main airport to nearly all flights after finding more than 900 positive cases in people coming back from the emirate.
The UK ban is also an irritation for long-haul travellers who would normally connect in Dubai, where flagship carrier Emirates has stopped flights from Britain to Australia.
The party was still going on in Dubai today after a stream of British influencers headed to the Gulf emirate – but the Middle East party hub is now being blamed for infections elsewhere
Love Island’s Joseph Garratt (left) and his girlfriend Desiree Schlotz continued to enjoy the sun in Dubai today
Instagram influencers posted photographs of themselves still in Dubai today despite the UK travel ban coming into force
While many countries shut down travel from Britain after the UK variant was blamed for an exponential growth in cases in Kent and elsewhere, Dubai kept its doors open.
But cases have climbed alarmingly for weeks, with deaths also rising to their highest level since the spring, forcing some new restrictions on gyms and bars.
‘The new year shenanigans in Dubai were an obvious superspreader event,’ one expat doctor told the Financial Times.
‘After that, cases have gone up quickly and we have the new variant too,’ they said, after Britain cited fears of importing the South African strain from the UAE.
The rise in cases has caused alarm abroad, where the UK first struck the UAE off its travel corridor list and then imposed an outright ban on Thursday.
The UK government said the ban was being imposed to ‘prevent the spread of the new variant originally identified in South Africa into the UK’.
‘International travel, right now, should not be happening unless it’s absolutely necessary,’ health secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC this week.
‘No parties in Paris or weekends in Dubai. That is not on and in most cases, it’s against the law.’
Dubai’s airport advised those booked on flights due to arrive in Britain after the ban not to go to the airport and instead contact their airline.
But the news was a blow to long-haul travellers who often change planes in the UAE on their way from Britain to destinations like Australia.
The Australian government said it will add more charter flights from Britain if needed as a result of Emirates and Etihad cancellations.
Eran Ben-Avraham, an Australian stranded in Britain due to limits on the number of arrivals in Australia, said his options for getting home were continually shrinking.
‘Every day it is making it more difficult to get home. The flights back are anywhere from like £4,000,’ he said.
Dubai to London was the world’s busiest international route in January, with 190,365 scheduled seats over the month, airline data provider OAG said.
The UAE’s infection rate has risen to its highest level yet, and the UK government fears that travel from Dubai could import the South African strain of the coronavirus
Deaths are at their highest level since the spring, although the numbers are still low compared to those in Europe, with 819 having died in total
In other European countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain, arrivals from the UAE would face various restrictions such as quarantines and compulsory testing.
Denmark last week suspended flights from Dubai amid doubts over whether the tests obtained on leaving the emirate were reliable.
The Danish transport minister said that at least ‘one citizen’ brought the South African variant of the virus ‘back from Dubai.’
Like Britain, some Danish celebrities travelled to Dubai for the New Year as the second and third waves of the virus continue to rage in Europe.
Meanwhile in Israel, more than 900 travelers returning from Dubai have been infected with coronavirus, according to the military,
The returnees created a chain of infections numbering more than 4,000 people, the Israeli military, which conducts contact tracing in the country, said.
Tens of thousands of Israelis had flocked to the UAE since the two countries normalized relations in September.
Israeli health ministry expert Dr Sharon Alroy-Preis was quoted by Israeli TV complaining that a few weeks of travel had been more deadly than decades of no relations with the Arab nation.
Since late December, Israel has required those coming from the UAE to go into a two-week quarantine.
Israel later shut down its main international airport through the end of the month over rising cases.
The UAE’s neighbours Saudi Arabia and Oman have also imposed temporary border closures in recent weeks.
In the Philippines, health authorities say they discovered a British strain infecting a Filipino who made a business trip to Dubai on December 27.
He returned to the Philippines on January 7 and tested positive, since when Filipino authorities have discovered at least 16 other cases of the British variant, including two coming from Lebanon.
This was the scene at Heathrow’s Terminal 2 this morning as the last few flights came back from Dubai before the UAE became subject to an outright UK travel ban
For the last 17 days, the UAE as a whole has reported record daily coronavirus case numbers as lines at Dubai testing facilities grow.
As daily reported coronavirus cases near 4,000, Dubai has fired the head of its government health agency without explanation.
Dubai has stopped live entertainment at bars, halted non-essential surgeries, limited wedding sizes and ordered gyms to increase space between those working out.
It also now requires coronavirus testing for all those flying into its airport.
One hospital manager said there were almost no beds available at the clinic, while another said half of the 40 beds at the facility were taken up by Covid patients with the others being kept free for the coming weeks.
Dr Santosh Kumar Sharma, the medical director of Dubai’s NMC Royal Hospital, told the Associated Press that ‘the number of cases [is] ever rising,’ with over half its beds occupied by virus patients.
Another doctor who was moved to work on an emergency ward said that ‘everyone is trying to make extra space as most places are almost full’.
Both Dubai and the UAE’s Health Ministry now advertise for nurses on Instagram.
Officially, the government’s media office says that ‘we can confidently say the current situation is under control and we have plans to surge any capacity in the healthcare system should a need rise’.
Fireworks explode at the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Dubai which attracted visitors from locked-down countries
The government has also told people to ‘refrain from questioning the efforts of all those who have worked to contain this pandemic.’
But Dubai’s former finance chief Nasser al-Shaikh offered a different assessment, urging authorities to take control of a spiralling caseload.
‘The leadership bases its decisions on recommendations from the team, the wrong recommendations which put human souls in danger and negatively affect our society,’ he said, adding that ‘our economy requires accountability.’
The UAE had pinned its hopes on mass vaccinations, with Abu Dhabi distributing a Chinese vaccine by Sinopharm and Dubai offering Pfizer-BioNTech’s product.
The UAE says it has given 2.8 million doses so far, ranking it among the top countries in the world even without adjusting for population.
However, people including al-Shaikh now question Dubai’s capacity to handle the increasing cases.
‘The sad thing is that great efforts have been made since January 2020 for us to come and undermine them with our own hands,’ al-Shaikh wrote. ‘What makes things worse is the lack of transparency.’