File Photo, Paul Griffiths, the CEO of Dubai Airports, speaks to The Associated Press at the Dubai Air Show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 15, 2021. AP
The 2021 passenger figures are encouraging for the tourism-driven economy of Dubai, regarded as a critical link between East and West. The numbers are sign that international travel has picked up somewhat since the coronavirus pandemic spawned unprecedented global lockdowns and border closures in 2020. Last year's figure represents a 12% increase in traffic at Dubai International Airport compared to 2020, which had recorded nearly 26 million travelers.
Still, even with 29.1 million passengers crisscrossing last year through Dubai International Airport, or DXB, the figure is nowhere near the pre-pandemic milestone of 86.4 million in annual traffic logged by the airport in 2019.
Dubai is currently hosting the six-month-long World's Fair, which was delayed by a year due to the pandemic. Expo 2020, which opened in October and runs until the end of March, has attracted millions of visitors as well as heads of state, royalty and celebrities, helping to further cement Dubai's reputation as a global destination. It's unclear, though, what the overall contribution of the Expo has been to Dubai's economic recovery.
Just over 70% of Dubai's airport traveller figures last year represent arrivals, with much of that likely resident traveling to and from the emirate. Prior to the pandemic, around half of all passenger figures were transiting through Dubai.
CEO of Dubai Airports, Paul Griffiths, said DXB forecasts 57 million travellers to come through the airport this year, and full recovery to pre-pandemic figures by 2024.
"Dubai has done such a good job in reassuring travellers. It's a safe city to visit and to come and holiday and do business. So I think the actual trends to recovery are very encouraging, indeed,'' Griffiths said.
It marks the eighth consecutive year that Dubai International Airport clinches the mantle of the world's busiest for international travel, surpassing London's Heathrow and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson for global travellers, although the latter is among the busiest in terms of overall passenger traffic.
The largest share of traffic to Dubai came from India, with 4.2 million travellers, followed by Pakistan, with 1.8 million travellers last year. A key growth market for travel to and from Dubai is neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which is actively working to attract business and tourism in direct competition with Dubai and the wider United Arab Emirates.
The UAE is home to more than 100,000 British citizens. Dubai's main airport logged 1.2 million passengers from the U.K. last year, including 77,000 in December alone.
Dubai, under orders from the United Arab Emirates aviation authority, was forced to ground all passenger flights and close its airports for eight weeks in spring of 2020. Unlike the UAE's capital of Abu Dhabi, though, Dubai quickly reopened its doors to travellers. Dubai has not required proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter and does not require a negative virus test to enter most places. This approach has not come without a cost. The UAE was red-listed as a "do not travel'' country by the U.K., U.S. and other nations for much of last year.
"What we're now trying to do is campaign globally for the relaxation of travel restrictions and testing,'' Griffiths said. "But we now see the requirement for that is receding. We just need to get governments to recognize that fact and act quickly to remove the remaining travel restrictions.''
Overall, coronavirus infection figures remain relatively low across the UAE. The country has been aggressive in inoculating its population of more than 9 million people against COVID-19, most of whom are foreign residents and all of whom have been able to receive the vaccine free of charge.
While masks in public spaces are still required in Dubai, life in the city-state can otherwise feel unhindered by the pandemic. Just this week, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic stepped onto the tennis court to compete in the Dubai Duty-Free Tennis championship, his first tournament since being ejected from Australia and missing the year's first Grand Slam event over his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19.