In an interview with ET, Yousuf Lootah, executive director for Tourism Development & Investments at Dubai’s Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing said with bilateral agreements being signed between the two governments, a lot of Indian businesses are expanding through Dubai. He said one of the key things that Dubai has been successful in doing over the past year has been attracting the attention of the tech community from India. Lootah also spoke about rising visitors to Dubai, the golden visa programme and retire in Dubai programmes, and the sustainability initiatives being driven through the city. Edited excerpts:
Q: According to the latest data released by Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism (DET), the city welcomed 3.97 million international overnight visitors between January and March 2022, up from 1.27 million visitors for the corresponding period last year, representing a 214 per cent year on year visitation growth What would you attribute this growth to?
A: I think the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the trust of the global community and travellers in what Dubai could offer them in terms of safety, accommodation and experiences. This didn’t happen overnight. It’s the will of the government, the leadership, and the government agencies that worked together on ensuring the continuity of business and safety of the population and travelers in general. Dubai had the highest level of vaccination and the lowest numbers of infections and deaths. At the same time, business did not stop. And over the last two years, that resonated globally with the business community and with the leisure travellers.
It improved their confidence. We have seen a huge growth because of that. When it comes to the number of residency visas being issued, the UAE government innovated around this. We introduced the remote work visas, the five year tourist visa was issued among the suite of golden visas being offered in general for investors, and people with special expertise. I think the impact of the pandemic in terms of the difference between what other destinations dealt with and how they dealt with it versus how we dealt with it increased.
So some destinations closed down completely to international travellers and also started creating challenges for the expatriate business community. From our side, it was about having all of these solutions and offering an entirely different level of vaccination services, healthcare services and connecting it with the safety of Dubai in general and the tech enablement of the city. There are people who came over and stayed from a travel perspective and then there were people who moved to make Dubai their second home.
Q: Please share more details on the golden visa programme and the retire in Dubai programme?
The retirement programme is part of the whole suite of innovations being developed by the UAE government. The UAE is home to almost all nationalities globally and due to the tolerant nature of society, the acceptance, it has started to be their first home. In line with the vision of their highnesses to make UAE a leading country of commerce, the government has engaged in a lot of innovations and improvements across the board from regulations to banking to residential offerings to commerce and one of them is also the naturalisation and immigration side.
From that end, recently his highness awarded the doctors and scientists working in the pandemic the golden visa. In combination with the improvement or regulations of ownership, where a lot of the sectors can be owned a 100% by expatriates, that brings in that additional confidence. The golden visa is the enhancement and enablement offering for people to make Dubai and the UAE their permanent home or at least their second base for a major part of the year. The golden visa splits between the investor golden visa which is a ten year visa where the person self-sponsors themselves and they can sponsor their partner, spouse, children and dependents. Even the women who are not married are eligible and daughters can bring their parents.
The retirement visa is a 5 year programme. It is self sponsored and people can continue to live in Dubai. Once you retire, you want to experience the world. So there is no better hub to travel the world than the Dubai airport and Emirates Airlines. It’s a very good visa to have. The holder of the visa could sponsor the spouse and children. The golden visa also has the entrepreneur golden visa for people who are focused on growing their startups and businesses from Dubai. There is a golden visa for students as well who are high achievers. All of these residency solutions are aimed at getting the non naturalised expats to stay here longer.
Recently his highness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of UAE has also announced the incentives for inducting and including the local population in the private sector and incentives to the business community to hire locally as well. We also held the inaguration of the event for the one million programmers that is led by Dubai and the UAE government which feeds into talent. The other thing we have been working on is making Dubai the global hub for business communities across tech and traditional businesses.
We have seen a huge influx of incoming businesses into Dubai and have created a lot of opportunities. One of the key things that they look for is the ability to retain their talent and it was one of the best places to increase retention. The appetite for expansion through Dubai for a lot of Indian businesses has increased as well with the bilateral agreements between the governments.
Q: You have said previously that you also want to enable a lot of startups to grow in Dubai. How has the response been from the Indian start ups ecosystem? Considering the number of unicorns we have in India, would you look at any special incentives for Indian startups?
One of the key things Dubai has been successful in doing over the last 12 months is attracting the attention of the tech community from India. We have seen a huge appetite from that community across different stages- from series A, and all the way to a unicorn status. Founders and talent are considering Dubai as a tech hub. Talented people are sensitive and precarious. Keeping them happy is also part of the solution and not only the money. When Indian companies bring in staff from Eastern Europe, America, or East Asia, Dubai, because of its experience as a melting pot of the world, makes it easier for them to gel and integrate with the community. Our safety infrastructure of personal safety our educational infrastructure is one of the best globally. We have seen a lot of companies looking at Dubai in a very practical way in terms of considering us as a viable option when they consider moving. We have been very successful in attracting numerous companies across the growth cycle, not only from India but also from Europe, Asia and Africa.
Q: How have investments on tourism fared during the pandemic? Have they gone up or down post the Covid pandemic in keeping with other needs such as healthcare?
I would not be able to share numbers, but from a qualitative perspective, the mission is to develop all sectors. One of them is healthcare. We are continuing to increase and improve our medical infrastructure and healthcare services. We have seen the importance of medical tourism. We work closely with the ministry of health, and the Dubai health authority to ensure that we prioritize the key medical tourism specialties. There is engagement on that. There is engagement around improving pharma manufacturing as well so that’s a tie in. In terms of tourism, the continuous level of infrastructure when it comes to our room nights capacity for example is that the occupancies are very high and it’s a very good sign that we are on a trajectory to achieve the targets being set for 2025. We are hopefully looking at specific bespoke lifestyle experiences along with hopefully adding more resorts and expanding the offerings based on the source markets. We are at a space where we have bounced back from the pandemic downturn and one of the things that we have done in that period is that the Dubai government and the Dubai economy and tourism have done quite a lot to support the operators in staying afloat and supporting them with the reduction of fee, postponement, cancellations of fee etc.
Q. Sustainability is a subject that’s close to you. Please share some details of the new initiatives that you would have launched around sustainability.
One of the key things that Dubai’s department of economy and tourism aims to do is to align with UN’s sustainable development goals. Dubai is committed towards ensuring a lot of sustainability targets should be achieved on a city level and for us in the tourism side, one of the key things that we worked on initially from the get-go is to ensure that we continue to achieve the carbon emission reductions of the tourism sector.
One of the key contributions to climate change is carbon emissions and therefore it was a key priority, and we work with other government agencies to manage waste and cover the main UN SDG goals that tie in to the tourism sector. We have achieved good numbers in that period of time because we worked with the industry to train, educate and get them to make sustainability a core aspect of operations, and a top of the list planning topic when it comes to annual planning. We spent some time to educate around 600 establishments.
The parameters of our strategy in general are based on creating educational programmes, performance monitors, regulations and targets, and celebrating with the industry and creating awards and innovation. One of the key things that was done beyond achieving the improvements in carbon emissions on the baselines of 2014 is getting a lot of the businesses to think about creating a regulation that covers 19 aspects of hotel operations that when done right, achieve a huge impact not just on carbon emissions but also on the general resources of the sector. We are the first destination globally to have implemented sustainability standards on the hospitality sector. We have a high level of passing grade and a high level of compliance, between 80-90%.
We collaborated with hotels and experts when we designed the regulations. We have set easily acceptable targets. As we move forward, we are going to increase the targets. The Dubai can initiative is an important aspect of trying to reduce single use plastic can bottles from our value chain. A lot of hotels have implemented refill plans wherein they refill glass bottles or aluminum cans. On the community and public awareness side, we have introduced 30 touchless fountains across the city. These are free to refill for life. We are adding another 20 by the end of June.
The objective is to keep it on top of mind for people to remember and refill. It has a huge impact when we are doing it together. We have seen a lot of buy in from corporates nad individuals sharing their experiences through social media. Another one is the ban on single use plastic bags. It goes live from July 1 . We are going to prioritize retail bags as we go towards a complete ban on single use plastic bags hopefully in two years across different spaces.
This is being launched in collaboration with Dubai municipality, the executive council and ourselves. We are working towards having an easy transition for the whole community. We are very excited that we are creating a lot of impact on the ground. We have new regulations coming on board with sustainability targets as well so we are ensuring that everybody thinks about this in the business models.
Q: How important is the tourism infrastructure agenda under the 2040 urban master plan?
A: Our objective for the 2040 urban master plan is to make Dubai a city of the future. Taking into considerationm the innovations and changes in life. To increase happiness, to improve the efficiency of commuting. In terms of reducing our environmental impact and increasing experiences across Dubai, the design for the plan is aimed at creating a city of the future, a digital city, and Dubai municipality aims to do a lot more to create opportunities for investments. From our side, as a tail end part of the eco system, our main focus is to ensure the hospitality sector and the tourism experiences keep ahead of the curve.