The UAE tourist experience in a Post-COVID-19 World
Posted on 2020 Aug,20  | By Kristine Pitts

By Kristine Pitts, Director of ExperienceLab Middle East

Travel and tourism is a key pillar of the UAE economy. Without question, the travel and tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic and COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way people think about international travel.

So how can the UAE restore and instil further confidence in travellers that the country is a safe destination in a post-COVID-19 world?

International travel and tourism will need to adapt to survive

Serco’s user-centred design company, ExperienceLab, conducted research to ascertain people’s perception of international travel in this climate, finding that there were plenty of examples of either extreme – 83% of respondents were concerned about travelling internationally until the virus is contained, whilst 16% said they couldn’t wait to travel for vacations as soon as possible. And 55% would postpone travel until a vaccine or effective treatment is found.

The consensus between these fields of thought was that both were very much missing travel and simply required varying levels of safety to be implemented for them to do so.
Even so, the feedback on the study shows that there is still a lot of hesitation regarding travel and that most of that hesitation doesn’t necessarily come from concerns of their own personal safety as such, but instead around the levels of trust people would have in each other to have followed the correct infection control guidelines. With the signs and potential risk of a second wave of the virus, perhaps people are right to recognise the worry of ‘just because I have followed all the rules, it doesn’t mean the other people on my journey have’.

Clear messaging from local government is the key to restoring confidence in travel and tourism both across the globe and in the Middle East

ExperienceLab’s research shows that although people are choosing to travel as the effects of the pandemic become more controlled, the biggest variable and perhaps inhibitive factor to travel is the availability and accuracy of information. This is true for both visitors to the UAE and across the globe. There’s confusion around what you need to do before you travel, what restrictions are in place, whether or not you need a test and when, what documentation will be needed, so on and so forth. By defining a centralised source of information for travellers that adds clarity to all aspects of the journey, governments can enable them to travel with more confidence, knowing that they are following the correct procedure.

Redesigning user experience is essential to improve visitor confidence in travel to the UAE

The UAE by and large has been receptive to the challenges of the pandemic, adapting the way we do even the most basic of activities – such as ordering food at a restaurant, with menus now viewable via QR code. The key to moving forward is to remain receptive to people’s expectations and concerns when doing anything in this new world and using that information to design targeted solutions to their problems. Technology also plays a huge role in this, enhancing our capability to make more and more services completely contactless. Thinking of travel for example, do you need a paper form to be filled in at the airport, or could you allow visitors to create a digital profile with their travel information and testing status that can be shared with the airport? Covid-19 is driving and fast-tracking digital transformation across most industries. The travel and hospitality industry included. As the industry adapts it would do well to ensure these new experiences are designed to ease the stress and anxiety caused by the uncertainties Covid-19 brings, not add to them.

In addition to the postponement, Expo2021 will have to implement further changes to ensure the global event remains safe

It is highly likely that we will still be living with the effects of COVID-19 by the time Expo2021 comes around, even with its new date. Expo will have to re-analyse visitor experience in preparation for the event. Centred around conferences, talks, networking and concerts, by definition each event at Expo2021 will require changes that support social distancing and overall infection control. Given the extra time they have to do so, it would be invigorating to see a truly contemporary and forward-thinking approach to this, particularly given the themes of the world expo itself.
UAE Airports will play an important role in ensuring travellers feel safe and in a controlled environment upon their arrival to the country.
Our research also showed that 43% of people would travel as soon as possible, most often to visit family they haven’t seen during the crisis, but would take additional precautions. Many expressed need for reassurance from airlines and destinations about safety measures in place.
As such, the role that airports play in welcoming travellers to the UAE will be more important than ever. People will be travelling to the UAE from across the world and the measures in place in their country of origin will be different to what is expected here in the UAE.
 It’s important that upon arrival to the UAE, travellers are quickly accustomed to the rules and that social distancing and infection control practices are followed by everyone. Not just because they need to, but also because it helps them feel safe.
It is important to ensure passengers receive the right information at the right time. Passengers cannot be expected to fully understand all rules and regulations prior to arrival in the UAE, particularly when they are ever-changing in response to the situation. Empathy is also key to delivering a positive travel experience, and staff need to understand that travellers will be anxious, no matter how experienced they are.
Achieving a 5-star customer experience in the world we now live in will be a tall order. Ensuring customers feel safe and are treated with empathy will be key.
Companies will need to centre on the not just the feeling of safety but on actions that actively demonstrate the preservation of people’s safety and well-being. A hotel for example will need to demonstrate exactly what it is they are doing to minimise the risk of infection. In a similar manner to the airport, an empathetic approach will be important to restore the confidence in travel and this in turn will dynamically influence further visitors from across the globe to the UAE.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget the travel trends predicted at the beginning of the year, such as a drive towards more sustainable tourism. Travellers want to feel safe, but they also want to see responsible solutions to managing the Covid-19 risk. We have seen an increased use of disposables and plastic being used to protect travellers, however as the industry adjusts to more long term thinking, a balance must be achieved.