(CNN) – A quick look around Dubai will make you think life is back to normal. In recent weeks, the bustling city has attracted tourists, mostly European, trying to escape a harsh winter and a severe coronavirus scare.

But as tens of thousands of visitors flocked to the city during the peak season at the end of the year, the virus inevitably took hold, despite precautions taken to limit its spread. The number of cases began to rise and has nearly quadrupled since November.

Even as Covid-19 took hold, images from Dubai – especially on Instagram, which is saturated with influencers and celebrities – painted the picture of a vast winter paradise in the sun.

For those who live in countries like Britain, where most people are told they cannot go abroad because of health risks, these images have caused a stir and drawn criticism from those who are having fun.

An angry response

Dubai is facing tighter restrictions after a spike in Covid-19 cases. That's Atlantis the Palm in the background.

Dubai faces tighter restrictions after an increase in covid 19 cases. Atlantis is a palm tree in the background.


For Danish tourist Emma Matilda, who has been in Dubai in recent months, this backlash comes as no surprise.

“In Europe everyone is locked up at home, it’s cold and gray,” she says, “Dubai is the only place you can go, so everyone goes there. Here it’s sunny, you can go out to eat, so people get angry because they have to stay at home while other people are enjoying their lives.”

With the recent UK travel ban effectively shutting down the world’s busiest road in recent weeks, the opening of Dubai appears to be facing external challenges – an issue that has contributed to the reconsideration of measures against Covid-19.

Meanwhile, the emirate is determined to maintain its tourism-based economy, and officials are not happy about the recent bad press, believing that the level of compliance with Covid 19 precautions has so far met expectations.

“We are taking a very balanced approach, but our philosophy is that we need to address this pandemic,” Helal Saeed Al Marri, director of Dubai’s tourism and trade marketing department, told CNN.

“If we ask everyone to change their behavior 100%, we are unlikely to achieve full compliance. In our case, we asked people to change their behavior, to learn to live within the new norm, and people accepted that norm.”

According to Al Marri, the actions of a few tourists should not tarnish Dubai’s reputation.

“When you walk down the street in Dubai, people wear masks. If someone is not wearing a mask, it is not the authorities who order him to wear a mask, it is a passerby, because that is how we have learned to live in the covident era.”

The “inevitable” peak

Dubai was one of the first countries to fully reopen after the first global wave of Covid-19 cases.

Dubai was one of the first countries to fully open up after the first global wave of 19 Covida cases.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

In the United Arab Emirates, the number of cases rose by 80,000 last month to more than 290,000. More than 4,000 cases are reported every day, putting pressure on hospitals. According to some experts, the responsibility for this increase should not necessarily be placed on tourists.

About 85% of the city’s population consists of expatriates, many of whom returned home in December or participated in local Christmas or New Year celebrations to replace cancelled trips home to their families.

Celia Antony, a physician at Aster Clinics in Sharjah, said the number of UAE covidification cases was very low in August, then began to rise in September and October, stabilized in November and early December, and rose sharply again from the end of the year.

The spike, she says, was an inevitable result of residents relocating. The numbers, she adds, also increased because of more testing.

Ahmed Mohamed Abdelhamed, a specialist in internal medicine at Medcare Women and Children’s Hospital in Dubai, says the increase would have been just as large whether the borders were closed or not.

“Most countries are now experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of cases, and many of them have opened their ports of entry only to a very limited extent,” he says. “I remain of the opinion that the only way to stop this situation is to comply with infection control measures and get vaccinated. Closing the doors can only stop people, not the virus.

Tourism Authority Director Al Marri says Dubai has always been ready to respond to the situation on the ground. In particular, the containment of Dubai in the first days of the pandemic was one of the first and most difficult in the world.

During confinement, residents were not allowed to leave their homes without prior permission through the application for up to three hours and only for medical emergencies, errands or basic household tasks.

Stricter penalties

Dubai plans to host the delayed 2020 World Expo later this year.

Dubai is planning to host the 2020 World Expo, which has been postponed until the end of the year.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

According to Al Marri, Dubai’s policy towards Covid remains pragmatic and the new measures will be examined for their effectiveness, even if they aim to keep the city’s economy intact.

“We close when we have to, and because we’re open, we monitor the data,” he says. “If we see compliance, we don’t have to tighten up. If we find non-compliance in any part of the economy, we look at it very thoroughly, sector by sector. It has nothing to do with what others tell us”.

When a drop in compliance was observed in early January, which was directly linked to an increase in the number of cases, authorities began to crack down, Al Marri said.

Starting Tuesday, beach clubs, hotels and shopping malls will be limited to 70% of their capacity and cinemas to 50%. Bars and pubs will be temporarily closed and those who break the rules will face harsher penalties.

According to Danish tourist Matilda, Europe lacks this kind of threat-based response.

“I think the UAE government is handling it well,” she says. It’s very different from here in Europe, where there are still many cases and the economy is suffering a lot.”

“In Dubai, I think it’s just another way. It’s about balancing caring for people, caring for people and caring for businesses that have to survive a pandemic.”

It’s a dilemma that governments around the world know all too well: trying to strike a balance between keeping the economy going and keeping people safe.

Safety before profit

Dubai has one of the world's highest Covid vaccination rates.

Dubai has one of the highest Covida vaccination rates in the world.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

Adil Ghazzawi, co-owner of the local Cove Beach club, says Dubai has found that balance.

“I think they (the government) sensed that everyone was feeling the pain at the first lockdown,” he says. “So the idea is not to close the doors, but to methodically figure out how to keep the facilities open so that visitors are safe.

Immunization now plays an important role in the United Arab Emirates. The country has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than four million doses of vaccine administered to a population of 10 million. The government plans to vaccinate half the population by the end of March.

Al Marri says this and other data will determine the tightening of restrictions.

“All decisions that affect public health are made under the direction of the Ministry of Health, and the scientists are in there,” he says. “Whatever their recommendations are, we work with the private sector to make sure they are implemented in the best way possible.

For Dubai, 2021 is an important year, both economically and in terms of tourism. The city will host the World Expo in October, after it was postponed for a year due to the pandemic.

Therefore, it is important to keep the services moving. This view is shared by some entrepreneurs in Dubai, such as Ghazzawi.

“It’s a gradual opening, but it could also be an abrupt closure in the blink of an eye, depending on what happens, which I think is a signal that Dubai is safe, because they don’t hesitate to make quick adjustments when necessary.”

Mohammed Islam, director of the Blah Blah Beach Club, which became Dubai’s largest establishment with its opening last month, believes that as long as the situation remains volatile, security should come before profit.

“There are a lot of people [in the industry] who are pushing too hard, but we have to look at security as our biggest concern, because if we abuse the system, we’re completely out of business,” he says. “Let’s not think about making money, let’s just stick together and get it over with.”

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