Building on deepening trade ties and China’s position as the world’s most lucrative outbound tourist market, Abu Dhabi has made a series of strategic decisions to attract Chinese visitors. A combination of strategic partnerships, promotional activities and changes to visa legislation have seen successive years of strong growth, culminating in the country becoming the emirate’s number-one source market in 2017.
More than 372,000 Chinese visitors stayed in Abu Dhabi in 2017, representing 61% growth year-on-year (y-o-y), pushing China ahead of India and the UK in terms of market contribution. This impressive jump followed successive years of strong growth: in 2015 and 2016, visitor numbers from China grew by 47% and 31%, respectively. In 2016 Saif Saeed Ghobash, undersecretary of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi), announced the aim of attracting 600,000 Chinese visitors by 2021, which now looks achievable at current growth rates.
While a number of factors were involved in this strong performance, DCT Abu Dhabi attributed the easing of visa restrictions as a key factor. Changes to legislation in September 2016 made visas available on arrival for Chinese nationals, who received more than 80,000 such visas in 2017.
Promotions & Partnerships
DCT Abu Dhabi also made a concerted promotional drive to attract Chinese visitors in 2017, pursuing a strategy to increase market penetration through a range of methods. In the online space it successfully launched visitabudhabi.cn, a version of the emirate’s promotional tourism website hosted on servers in mainland China with Mandarin-language functionality. Abu Dhabi tourism was also visible to the Chinese market through social media posts, thanks to partnerships with prominent platforms WeChat and Weibo.
According to DCT Abu Dhabi’s “Annual Report 2017”, its efforts resulted in 223m impressions — a calculation of how many times an online advertisement is fetched from its source — from Chinese nationals in 2017, a social media reach of 998m and 32,000 followers on WeChat and Weibo. The launch of a promotional campaign on Baidu in December 2017 led to a 5000% increase in traffic to the Chinese-language version of the Visit Abu Dhabi website over the following three-month period.
In terms of offline activities, May 2017 saw Abu Dhabi participate in ITB China, a travel trade show hosted in Shanghai focused exclusively on the country’s travel market, while in October 2017 DCT Abu Dhabi hosted Abu Dhabi Week in Shanghai. Intended to create opportunities for business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer interactions, as well as generate positive media for Abu Dhabi in China, the Shanghai-hosted event was attended by more than 2500 visitors, 50 tour operators and 54 media agencies. Abu Dhabi is also the venue for the Meet China Forum, the UAE’s only B2B event focused on the Chinese tourist market. The latest edition took place at the Yas Island Conference Centre in September 2018.
Abu Dhabi’s decision to target the Chinese market is underpinned by China’s current standing as the world’s most lucrative tourist markets. According to UN World Tourism Organisation calculations, in 2017 Chinese travellers spent $258bn abroad, considerably more than the next-largest market, the US, whose nationals spent $135bn abroad. Growth in Chinese continue, with real estate services company Colliers International forecasting that 2.5m visitors from China will visit the GCC annually by 2021.
Trade & Cultural Ties
The expansion comes against a background of strengthening trade relations between the UAE and China. More than 4000 Chinese companies operate within the UAE, while it was reported that two-way trade between the UAE and China grew to $53.3bn in 2017, a 15.1% increase over $46.3bn a year earlier. The UAE also forms an important stopping point on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which will create a vast land and maritime infrastructure network across Eurasia. In April 2018 the Shanghai Stock Exchange agreed to a deal with Abu Dhabi Global Market to develop a Belt and Road Exchange to support businesses and investors across the network. China was also selected as the guest of honour at the 2017 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which led to the attendance of Chinese authors and publishers, who presented over 3500 titles and held over 400 activities at the fair.
Abu Dhabi’s hotels and attractions have been taking a number of steps to ensure their Chinese visitors feel welcome. This includes the Welcome Chinese Certification, one of the only internationally recognised standards of hospitality to Chinese guests. Stipulations for organisations seeking to receive the certification include the availability of Chinese TV channels Jiangsu and CCTV in hotels, Union Pay terminals and a welcome kit, as well as access to Chinese newspapers and Mandarin-speaking staff. The Yas Waterworld and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi theme parks have been certified since 2015, while Rotana Hotels are among the most prominent hotel chains to meet the standard. Some hotels, meanwhile, have implemented their own certifications; Intercontinental Hotels have a programme called China Ready, or Zhou Dao, which has similar requirements to the Welcome Chinese Certification, while also including mandatory staff training in Chinese culture, hospitality and etiquette.
Yves Tarabout, complex general manager at the Sheraton & Le Meridien Abu Dhabi, told OBG that the majority of business from China comes from group travellers. “At the moment it’s all about group travellers,” he told OBG. “They come through big travel companies offering very competitive rates, and typically stay in Abu Dhabi for short stays of one or two nights before moving on.” Abu Dhabi’s appeal to the group market is based on major international attractions like Louvre Abu Dhabi and the emirate’s strength as a shopping destination.
A preference for shopping remains a key characteristic of the Chinese tourist market, with the “2017 Outbound Chinese Tourism and Consumption Trends Report” issued by market research company Nielsen noting Chinese tourists spend 25% of their money on shopping while abroad. This compares to 19% on hotel accommodation, and sets Chinese travellers apart from other travellers, who typically spend 29% on hotel accommodation and only 15% on shopping.
Another key factor in the emirate’s appeal to the Chinese market is its safety. The Nielsen report noted that when it comes to tourism priorities, safety and security rank second only to the beauty and uniqueness of a destination as a priority for Chinese travellers. With the UAE scoring the highest ranking for safety and security of any Middle Eastern country in the “World Travel & Tourism Council’s 2017 Competitiveness Report”, Abu Dhabi has a strong competitive advantage in this regard.
As the Chinese tourist market matures, it is likely that individual travellers will become an increasingly important segment. According to Colliers International, there is a broad trend towards independent travel in the outbound Chinese market, which will become more apparent as younger travellers increase their market share. If Abu Dhabi is to appeal to this demographic going forward, the emirate will have to market itself as a holiday made up of numerous destinations and authentic experiences.
Early indications from 2018 suggest that the influence of the Chinese market on tourism in Abu Dhabi is continuing to grow, with the number of Chinese hotel guests in the first quarter growing by 31% to reach 127,000 (y-o-y). As the sector continues to expand the number of services catering to the Chinese market, while continuing to be proactive in its localised marketing and partnerships with tour operators, DCT Abu Dhabi is well on its way to meeting its target of 600,000 Chinese visitors annually by 2021.