United Arab Emirates tries to tempt Chinese tourists

In Dubai's spice souk, traders are trying to draw tourists towards the sacks piled high colourfully with cardamom, saffron, cinnamon and cloves.

Along with the calls of "Guten tag", "Bonjour" and "Ciao", the salesmen here have added a new greeting to their repertoire.

It is "Ni Hao" - Mandarin for hello, and it is a phrase they have a growing need for here.

Chinese visitors are becoming a more common sight around Dubai's tourist attractions.

About 150,000 came to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last year - almost 50% more than in 2010.

It is a small proportion of the country's nine million tourists.

But if the UAE is to reach its tourist goal of 15 million visitors by 2020, it needs more to come from China's burgeoning middle class, members of which have found themselves with more money and greater travel freedoms.

'Picking up'

The UAE has been given "preferred destination status" by Beijing, making it a place Chinese tourists can come without too much hassle, especially if they are part of a tour group.

Image caption Liang Huaiqiang says he has never been this busy before

That is good news for tour guides such as Liang Huaiqiang of Chinese travel firm Hunter International, who says he has never been so busy.

"Until about 2007 things were pretty slow for me," he says. "There weren't many visitors.

"But in 2008 it really began to pick up. Initially it was people from Beijing and Guangzhou who were coming. But now I'm seeing more travelling from other cities like Shanghai and Kunming."

In the foyer of the Burj Al Arab - the hotel famous for its sail-like design - many of the tourists milling around and taking photos by the extravagant layered fountain are Chinese.

Last year, about a quarter of the guests here were from China, compared with just 4% in 2008.

The hotel expects that to reach 30% this year - even though at a rack rate of $3,000 (£1,900) a night, many guests chose just to stay for one night.

Tax temptation

Image caption For Beijing resident Zhang Rubin, the visit is about seeing rather than shopping

Perhaps they are saving money for the one thing that Dubai is as famous for as its manmade islands and soaring towers - shopping.

With about 70 malls - including one of the world's biggest - and tax-free shopping, this is one big attraction, says Abdullah bin Suwaidan of the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce, which lists it alongside safety and regular flights as the most attractive lures for Chinese visitors.

"I went to China last month and people said they say came here for shopping," he says.

"I was surprised. China has many shops. Why come here? But they like the service, the facilities, the brands, and because it's tax free, luxury items are much cheaper than in China."

But not everyone has come for retail therapy.

Walking through the old souks, Beijing resident Zhang Rubin's hands are notably free of purchases.

"I don't really have any money, I am here only to look, to see, to learn. I will not buy anything," she says.

"Last year I went to Russia, Australia and New Zealand. I didn't buy anything there either."

Persistent growth

Some do spend, though, and they carry on spending until the moment they leave, according to Colm McLoughlin, vice chairman of Dubai Duty Free, which runs most of the retail operations in the emirate's main airport.

"Forty per cent of the luxury watches [and] a lot of the top end liquor are bought by Chinese passengers," he says

Image caption Chinese writing now features at the duty free shops at Dubai airport

"Many of our top perfumes are bought by [the] Chinese. Armani handbags? Chinese. And it's going to grow and grow."

The firm has recently been on a recruitment mission to China, to hire more Mandarin speakers to cater for its Chinese customers.

It has also started taking Chinese currency and a credit card that is popular in China.

"We're doing these things and thinking about how we can do more," Mr McLoughlin adds.

And the biggest selling item in the entire airport?

It is a premium brand of Chinese cigarettes called Chunghwa - bought almost exclusively by Chinese passengers taking a taste of home back from their Middle Eastern adventures.

Authorities in the UAE hope they also take home fond memories and spread the word among family and friends once back in the world's most lucrative future travel market.

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