After a long break from international travel due to the global pandemic, Skift columnist and regular globetrotter Colin Nagy ventured out of his hometown of New York City for a glimpse at Dubai's re-opening. Here's his report.
How did you decide it was a good time to go to Dubai?
Dubai was one of the first global cities to open back up, in July. I had heard very good things about their operational acumen and handling of Covid-19. I wanted to get back on the road, and Dubai was a reasonable choice, as it's a frequent hub for me. There is also something about the light that I thought would clear my head from the murk of the past several months.
I set out to take some meetings and understand what it looked like to travel internationally again. I had been following the news and announcements out of the Emirates and I was curious to see if the reality matched the spin. In fact, Dubai surpassed expectations of what a place could deliver for a global reopening on short notice. I tried to poke holes, but I didn't find many.
Best practices before you left:
I've been getting Covid tests weekly. In order to even get on the plane, you needed proof of a Covid test within an allotted timeframe. Emirates was also testing on arrival, at the airport.
I planned my trip like a military operation, with a lot of thinking about what happens if... Aside from the testing, check-ups, and other precautions, I also bought travel insurance and what ended up being overkill: membership in Global Rescue, an emergency services provider.
Any additional tips for travel planning in the time of Covid?
Understand your particular risk profile. Know the plane you'll be on and the airline's approach to seating arrangements. I have built testing into my life: As frequently as I can get a test, I do. I think we have to learn to live with the virus, but obviously take great care to do it safely and protect others.
What was the airport process like in the United States?
JFK was like capitalism frozen in amber. It was an odd scene, with no bustle in Terminal 4. All stores and restaurants were shuttered, aside from the lone glow of a McDonald's. There was also a fairly dark undertone, as the Customs and Border Protection presence was pretty in-your-face, with people being shown the door from the U.S. Otherwise, it was the general cross-section you'd see on a flight to Dubai: families, business travelers, and a few solo travelers.
How was the flying process?
I chose to fly Emirates. I trust them from an operations and safety standpoint, and I was able to book a business seat with sufficient spacing around me. One of the things that got me over the hump was that they offer a built-in insurance policy with a ticket that covers medical insurance up to €150,000 for Covid-related illnesses, as well as around €100 a day if you needed to quarantine.
The flight was super professional. People normally like Emirates for the jet-set feel of the product: onboard bar, cool flight attendants, etc. These were less front and center, in favor of safety and operational efficiency. Travelers were given a hygiene kit with items like protective gloves, face masks, and sanitizer. The flight attendants wore special goggles, face masks, and gloves. It was clear that Emirates has great staff: They were able to adapt the complicated operating procedures and still be warm and welcoming. It was impressive — more sanitary surgery ward than body of a plane. While they did have a variety of food on the menu, I slept the entire flight. On arrival, blankets and pillows were collected, put into sealed bags, and stored away. Bathrooms were kept spotless. There was adequate social distancing between passengers (I pre-scanned the seat map before departure).
Did you plan your itinerary in advance?
I was just going to hang out in Dubai, see people (distanced and outside, of course), and experience the light that I enjoy so much.
This was especially great:
I really enjoyed my hotels: I stayed at Park Hyatt Dubai for a few days, my normal haunt when I'm connecting through Dubai. They are always welcoming, and they recently overhauled the property. I stayed the longest stretch at Mandarin Oriental on Jumeirah Beach. I've now stayed a few times, and I like the location and I really enjoy the vibe that has been architected there — a great mix of Emiratis and others. The new Portuguese restaurant on the top floor is out of sight. I saw the Bvlgari Resort Dubai and have put it on the list to stay next time I'm in town. It's an all-Italian staff and a really good example of execution.
This was not so great:
The lack of orderly queuing at JFK. Also, Dubai in August is a bit rough in terms of heat, but I became somewhat of a nocturnal animal, like many people do when the temps and humidity are at their highest.
What was it like being a visitor in Dubai?
I was super impressed with how Dubai handled coronavirus protocols. Everyone was wearing masks, there were temp checks at the local Starbucks, and the government was doing spot checks on a regular basis.
What were the highlights?
My friend, a noted architect, took me to a wonderful restaurant called Comptoir 102, part healthy place to eat, part stylish design store. Other than that, I did my normal circuit in Dubai: drinking coffee at Espresso Lab in the Design District and playing padel (a racquet sport) with friends at Dubai Creek, the old-school country club where many eminent Emiratis hang out. My movement was a bit more limited on this trip, but I also checked out Four Seasons Resort Dubai on Jumeirah Beach for a drink, and did nightly runs along the shoreline.
Rate your experience from 1-10, with 10 being highest:
Dubai's communication around Covid: 10.
Ease of entering and exiting the country: 10. You need to have a Covid test to enter, and they also test on arrival. Testing in Dubai was easy. For a nominal price, you can even have someone come to your hotel and test you.
Getting around: Dubai is a car-driven city with limited public transport. So I'd give it a 7 from a purely urban-planning scenario, but every Uber and taxi I encountered adhered to current health standards.
Sense of safety: 10.
General vibe: 8. It was clear that everything wasn't back to normal. Emiratis and residents had just emerged from a serious lockdown. But there was a sense of normalcy compared to how American cities feel.
I was surprised the airport was as crowded as it was, but everyone was distancing.
What was the process for getting home?
On my departure, Dubai Airport had a spaced-out check-in area, the lounge was hyper sanitary (I observed a staff member clean the sink after every use). The airport had a bit of pre-Covid bustle with an uptick in regional and long-haul travel, but the boarding lounge for the flight was not as crowded as it would normally be. Passengers boarded in small groups. On the plane, I struck up a casual conversation with a flight attendant who told me that, despite the strict protocols and edits to service, it was good to be back in the air. The service and execution were a mirror of the outbound flight.
On arrival in Los Angeles at LAX, there wasn't a glance or any test or any acknowledgement of anything. Odd and discomforting.
Would you change anything before traveling again?
I would do this trip again tomorrow, no question.
Was it worth it?
The first passport stamp after a long time in confinement felt good. It was incredibly well worth it.