DUBAI: A second wave of coronavirus infections threatens to upend a tourism boom in Dubai that provided salve to its battered economy, although with so few places open globally its hospitality sector hopes tourists will keep coming.
Dubai, one of the few destinations open to international travellers since July, has yet to impose the toughest restrictions after record daily infections in the UAE, in the hope that vaccinations will spare a repeat of last year's lockdown.
But after a rush of visitors during December, hotel chain RIU saw a "significant slowdown" in January bookings in Dubai after some countries tightened entry restrictions for those travelling from the UAE, said Oliver Kluth, SVP Sales & Business Development Indian Ocean.
British and Israeli tourists largely disappeared from the city's sandy beaches after the United Kingdom and Israel demanded those coming for the Gulf state quarantine.
Denmark - then Britain - suspended flights from the UAE.
The moves came as daily infections tripled over the past month to hit a record 3,966 on Jan. 28 in the UAE, which is now battling its biggest outbreak since the pandemic begun.
The Gulf state does not give a breakdown for each emirate, but some doctors told Reuters that private hospitals in Dubai were admitting sick patients for the first time in months.
Along with mandatory mask-wearing in public and social distancing, Dubai has further restricted capacity at restaurants and social gatherings and banned live entertainment.
It also limited hotel and shopping centre capacity and reinstated a requirement for all incoming passengers to take a test to prove they are virus-free.
'I CAN LIVE AGAIN'
The number of visitors began to taper off in early January, some bar and restaurant owners said, although that may be linked to the end of the peak winter travel season rather than the rising level of infections.
And tourists and residents are still hitting Dubai's sandy beaches, desert camps, clubs and restaurants ahead of the heat and humidity of summer.
Reuters spoke to 10 tourists from the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Belarus, Turkey and Egypt, who all said they felt relatively safe in Dubai.
"Everything is closed in Paris. We have to come back home at 6 p.m., but here there is no curfew. So it's very nice to enjoy the coffee, restaurants and entertainment," said Khaled Kadi, 37, an insurance broker from Paris.
Anna, a 35-year-old Italian, who recently left Dubai for London, has returned to work remotely over the next few months and spend time with her partner who lives in the emirate.
"I feel like I can live again because when I was in London for two months we were in lockdown, like very strict lockdown. So we could barely go out," she said.
And with few destinations open to international travellers, bars and clubs are optimistic Dubai will remain popular.
"Mostly European tourists are coming here and they want to escape the lockdown, they want a bit of normal life," said Nikki Beach Resort & Spa Dubai General Manager Hanna Azzi.
"There is nowhere else to go," said Charlie Weaving, managing partner at LIVIT Hospitality, which operates popular Dubai beach club Cove.
But if more countries suspend flights from the UAE, it will deal a major blow to Dubai as it prepares to host the postponed Expo 2020 world fair.
Dubai's government media office did not respond to questions on its strategy to address the new coronavirus wave.
The emirate's economic recovery will be "put on ice" if the number of cases continues to rise and tougher measures are put in place, said Capital Economics' Middle East economist James Swanston.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Mike Collett-White)