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What’s it like to visit Dubai now? Covid comfort as Expo arrives

The exhibition was delayed for a year due to the pandemic; Dubai anticipates it to attract 25 million visits, both virtually and in person. (REUTERS)Premium
The exhibition was delayed for a year due to the pandemic; Dubai anticipates it to attract 25 million visits, both virtually and in person. (REUTERS)

The buzz around lunch time in Dubai’s financial center paints a clear picture of how the city’s dealing with the coronavirus pandemic: Business people are back in full swing, many restaurants have to be booked in advance. It’s a far cry from last year’s empty parking lots and deserted office spaces.

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Abeer Abu Omar and Ben Bartenstein are reporters based in Bloomberg’s Dubai bureau.

The buzz around lunch time in Dubai’s financial center paints a clear picture of how the city’s dealing with the coronavirus pandemic: Business people are back in full swing, many restaurants have to be booked in advance, and luxury sports cars swarm the entrances of the area’s five-star hotels. It’s a far cry from last year’s empty parking lots and deserted office spaces.

If there is such a thing as pre-pandemic normalcy in 2021, Dubai is keen to display it. International tourism resumed more than a year ago, and the city has relatively lenient rules to combat the spread of Covid-19. That’s thanks to the fact that the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, is one of the world’s most vaccinated nations. According to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker, around 75% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.

Now, it is opening up to millions of visitors for the World Expo, which will take place in the outskirts of the city from Oct. 1 through March 31. The exhibition was delayed for a year due to the pandemic; Dubai anticipates it to attract 25 million visits, both virtually and in person.

The number is less eye-popping considering the scale of the Expo. The site is as large as 600 hundred football stadiums, filled with architectural spectacles from around 190 countries. The UAE’s is designed by Santiago Calatrava and will be shaped like a falcon in flight; the Canadian pavilion is a towering ring made of wood lattice with a “360 degree theater" at its center; and the Netherlands has built a cone-shaped vertical farm.

To avoid inciting a super spreader event, visitors will be required to adhere to the similar rules that apply when entering the country: they can either show vaccine cards or negative PCR tests taken within 72 hours. (When crossing the border, the vaccinated set must also provide a negative result, and stricter provisions apply to those coming from certain countries, including tests that are only valid for 48 hours and a requirement to quarantine until a second swab, taken at the airport, comes back clean.)

The hope is that Dubai can maintain its good track record—the entire UAE is currently registering below 500 new infections a day—even if the Expo crowds are as astronomical as the city hopes. The show, after all, is just one way Dubai is doubling down on tourism. Its easygoing public health measures and low case counts are also luring business travelers, convention goers, and leisure vacationers. After recording nearly 17 million international arrivals in 2019, Dubai expects that 27 million people will pass through the city in 2021—a goal it’s still far from reaching, with roughly 3 million visitors in the first seven months of the year—and more than 50 million in 2022.

The Dining Scene

Dubai’s dining scene held up remarkably well during the pandemic. Aside from a 24/7 lockdown in April 2020, the city’s culinary hot spots have largely kept their doors open, albeit with social distancing and mask mandates. Many fine dining restaurants also entered the delivery game, offering visitors eight-course meals via motorbike.

These days, vaccine cards are only required if you’re sitting at a bar, and the government has capped restaurant tables to parties of 10. Officials have been known to impose heavy fines on establishments that break the rules, so enforcement has been reliable across the board.

Those rules, however, are subject to periodic changes, as they are everywhere. The latest updates allow restaurants and cafes to open until 3:00 a.m.—the time they usually closed pre-coronavirus—and reduce the social distance requirement to 1.5 meters from 2.

As Dubai emerges from its steamy summer months, beachside gems like folly by Nick & Scott and Tasca are becoming increasingly pleasant. The latter is the first international opening for Michelin-star chef Jose Avillez, with seating around the Mandarin Oriental hotel’s breezy sixth-floor pool, views of the Burj Khalifa, and a menu of gorgeously plated Portuguese tapas (get the prawn ceviche, served inside hollowed limes). Amazonico, in Dubai’s swanky financial center, features a multi-level outdoor terrace resembling a jungle—a fitting backdrop for dishes like that take inspiration from the Peruvian Amazon and Japanese Nikkei cuisine (think Hamachi tiradito with passion fruit).

A new reason to venture indoors: Puerto 99, a convivial Mexican restaurant on Dubai’s newest man-made island, Bluewaters. Trying not to dance along to its Mariachi performances is guaranteed to be a losing battle.

Culture Makes a Comeback

Tourism is making a big restart in Dubai, which translates to a lot of options along the spectrum of Covid-cautiousness.

If you’re still Covid-wary: A saunter through the residential district of Karama allows visitors a chance to see the fusion of old and new Dubai, with mural-lined streets and old school coffee shops. In the evening, a stroll along the Canal Boardwalk from Business Bay to Jumeirah provides breathtaking views of the city skyline with significantly less foot traffic than Downtown Dubai. Plenty of tour companies offer night cruises and desert drives—two more relaxing ways to take in the surrounding sights without ever stepping foot indoors.

If you need a gentle reentry: Al Fahidi Historical District gives first-timers a taste of Old Dubai; its alleys showcase the stone and palm wood architecture that existed here long before skyscrapers took over. Both in souks across the district and markets across Dubai Creek, visitors can haggle for gold, spices, and rugs—expect a mix of both shops and open-air stalls, and avoid the midday rush if you’re crowd conscious.

The feeling is decidedly more modern along Alserkal Avenue—the place to be for art galleries and trendy coffee shops. You could spend most of a day exploring this hotbed of contemporary culture, with stops at Cinema Akil for outdoor indie movie viewings and A4 Space, a sustainability-oriented concept shop and community hangout.

If you want to pretend the pandemic never happened: Bla Bla, the spacious beach club in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence, has been attracting hundreds (and sometimes even thousands) to its weekend parties, with themed rooms, DJs, and live bands. Masks are virtually out of sight here, though staff keep an eye on rowdy dancing.

And of course there’s Expo Dubai, a multi-billion dollar project literally intended to “bring the world together." Opening day, on October 1, it will become one of the largest in-person events since the pandemic began, with curious onlookers pouring into hundreds of pavilions representing the themes of sustainability, mobility, and opportunity. It promises to be a spectacle. The Egyptian pavilion will have original antique Pharaoh statues, while the “mobility district" will let visitors try out autonomous vehicles and see what aviation engineers are working on for the next generation of planes.   

How to Get Around

For most of the year, Dubai isn’t much of a walkable city, thanks to temperatures that climb to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius).

But whether it’s a bus, taxi, metro, or your car, the government has made sure passengers and drivers adhere to strict rules. Taxis and ride-hailing services require everyone in a vehicle to wear a mask—and a maximum of three people are allowed per ride.

The once-common plexiglass-like barriers in taxis have mostly disappeared; most vehicles now follow a simple mask mandate. Sanitizing products are also present in all public transportation vehicles.

On the metro, it’s business as usual—if anything, it’s growing, as service will extend to the outskirts of the city on October 1, to help visitors get to the Expo site. Getting there from the Dubai Marina station takes around 15 minutes.

Download the Dubai’s Roads & Transportation Authority (RTA) app if you plan to take the metro. It lets you add money to the cards that you tap into each station, minimizing contact points along the way.

The Lingering Covid Etiquette

Wear a mask. Around the city, you’ll find everybody wearing one in all public spaces both inside and outside, including shopping malls, hotels, and restaurants. (There are exceptions for eating, drinking, and outdoor exercise.) Fines for not adhering to the mask-wearing rule can reach thousands of dollars—and to avoid confusion, public places are required to provide signals showing where you need to wear your mask.

Almost two years into the pandemic, people either opt for a fist bump or greet each other verbally. Everyone can agree that human contact in Dubai, for now, is probably a thing of the past.

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