December 29th, 2011
01:55 PM GMT
Dubai, UAE (CNN) - China's fast-emerging middle class is providing a lifeline to the UAE's tourism ambitions, with the trickle of Chinese visitors to Dubai rapidly becoming a flood.
The drama and the glamor of the United Arab Emirates, especially Dubai, have made it one of the Middle East's glitziest draws for Chinese travelers. The UAE has spent millions of dollars on its luxury hotels and designer brands, which are proving increasingly appealing to the Chinese customer.
Last year the number of hotel guests in the UAE arriving from China jumped nearly 40%, but they're still only a small portion of the total tourists.
“The number of arrivals from China in 2010 was about 150,000 out of 8 million,” Liz Martins, a senior economist at HSBC MENA, told CNN’s Leone Lakhani.
She added: “It's a very early stage, but I think there are marketing efforts and where you're getting trade links, investment links and contracting links throughout the rest of the economy, actually that feeds through to a greater awareness - a mutual awareness between the markets - and that creates potential.”
China's enormous population and disposable wealth means hotel operators are taking note. The Jumeirah group owns the world's first self-titled 7-star hotel, the Burj al Arab. The hotel's exclusivity has made it a draw for Chinese tourists.
“It's expected that there will be 100 million outbound Chinese travellers by 2020 and already it's quite close to 50 million outbound tourists, so why would we ignore it? It's a great opportunity,” said Gerald Lawless, executive chairman of Jumeirah Group.
“Year to date, the total number of Chinese visitors to the Burj, the total percentage of our business, is about 25%,” he added. “One of the great things for us is that the Chinese love to travel in the summer time. They don’t mind that it’s quite warm in Dubai in the summer, so it's not even pushing into our high season.”
Jumeirah is also making inroads into China. It opened its first hotel in Shanghai this year and has plans for five more across the country.
The UAE gained approved destination status in China two years ago. That makes it easier for Chinese tourists to get visas for travel to the UAE, and it's allowing more travel agents to tap into that market.
“There’s a growth in the number of Chinese tourists coming into the UAE, and that’s due to a multitude of factors,” said Basel Abu Alrub, managing partner of travel group Utravel.
He added: “Their purchasing power is increasing because the Yuan against the dollar is rising.
"The second thing is, with the economic growth with the Chinese economy … there's more disposable income for the average Chinese national. And there's also connectivity: Now they’re building more and more airports so that the average Chinese national is more connected.”
The UAE has ambitions to double the number of tourists by 2020: China's fast-emerging middle class could be key.
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