TORONTO — After almost two years of on-and-off travel restrictions – mostly on, as the industry knows all too well – anyone setting out on a trip these days is understandably eager to tick several to-do’s off their list.
That’s especially true for travellers who also sell travel for a living.
Ayesha Patel is a travel consultant with The Travel Agent Next Door. On her recent whirlwind trip to Dubai, Patel managed to squeeze in both Expo 2020 and the TFest luxury travel conference. She also arranged site inspections, including the famous Burj Al Arab.
“It was the first time I travelled in two years and it was so exhilarating!” Patel tells Travelweek. She flew with Emirates: “I couldn’t contain myself on the flight over and was probably just a tad too giddy,” she jokes.
So many people in the travel industry got into this business because they love travel, and they’re sorely missing the experience of new destinations, new cultures and new experiences. Patel knows exactly how that feels. “Overall, my trip to Dubai, after being forced not to travel for two years, was absolutely incredible and more exciting than I could have ever imagined. It never felt so good to travel again and I’m looking forward to getting back to a normal travel routine,” she says.
The trip got off to a good start with flights on Emirates. Way back in the early months of the pandemic, Emirates was one of the first to offer COVID-19 coverage, at no additional cost to passengers. Patel says Emirates is one of her favourite airlines, and she was impressed with the carrier’s onboard safety protocols: enforced full mask protocols, fully vaccinated crew, HEPA cabin air filtering and complimentary face masks and hand sanitizers. Emirates has maintained its policy of including COVID-19 travel insurance automatically with every ticket purchase, she notes, “a great add-on as we continue to face uncertainty during this pandemic.”
Patel’s Dubai itinerary was a workcation. “My trip was a combination of business and pleasure as I was there for the TFest luxury travel conference but arrived a few days early so I could visit the long-awaited Expo that was cancelled in 2020,” she says. “This is the largest event ever to be held in the Middle East, spanning over 1,080 acres with 200 exhibitors, including 192 countries.”
While some Expos have come and gone relatively unnoticed, others made their mark on history, from Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating the first telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial Expo in 1876, to the first live TV broadcast at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. For many Canadians, memorable events include Expo ’67 in Montreal and Expo ’86 in Vancouver.
No doubt Dubai’s Expo 2020 will make its mark in history as the pandemic-era Expo. Like another major world event – the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games, which took place in 2021 – Dubai’s Expo 2020, originally scheduled for October 2020 – April 2021, was postponed because of the pandemic. It ended up starting in October 2021, and will run through the end of March 2022.
Says Patel: “The vastness of this Expo gives visitors many ways to discover and immerse themselves in this historic event. It was divided into 3 zones: Opportunity, Mobility, and Sustainability. Each pavilion reflected one of these themes based on which part of the three zones they were in through interactive exhibits, artifacts and displays.”
Despite the long list of pavilions to see, Patel did make sure the Canadian pavilion was on her must-see list. “The Canadian pavilion was located in the Sustainability District, reflected by the round building’s architectural presence draped in wood. The type of wood used was Douglas Fir, brought over from B.C. specifically for the Expo. The exterior design was inspired by Canada’s landscapes and Arab-influenced architecture, while the round design represents unity. An immersive presentation inside showcased Canada’s accomplishments in space, AI, aerospace and future developments in sustainability.”
Patel says strict safety protocols were in place to attend Expo. Visitors over 18 had to show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test. “Dubai also requires everyone to wear masks indoors and outdoors and the visitors showed high compliance to this measure which was great to see.”
After a too-quick two days at Expo – “that barely scratched the surface – it is an event that surely requires multiple visits to truly experience all the amazing exhibits” – Patel headed for TFest. This second annual iteration of the luxury travel conference took place at Atlantis, The Palm, part of Dubai’s famous man-made Palm Islands. Buyers and suppliers from all over came together for an in-person conference over three days.
For this edition of TFest, the theme was ‘Rising’, “from a tumultuous period and bringing luxury travel back stronger,” says Patel.
“This was such a welcome experience considering we’ve all been stuck doing virtual events over the past year and a half,” she adds. “TFest offered a refreshing and relaxed atmosphere where mornings were filled various activities on the beach based on different themes.”
There was ‘The Circles’ area with presentations and discussions related to travel trends and the industry. The ‘Zen Den’ focused on wellness with mindful activities like yoga, meditation and acupuncture. In the ‘Festivals’ area, creativity was expressed on land (with everything from tea making, bead and macrame workshops), and in the water (with activities including paddle-boarding and speed boat tours).
Says Patel: “With a heat wave going through the city, the afternoons were a great welcome as we had one-on-one meetings with suppliers at Atlantis’ air-conditioned Asateer tent. After full afternoons of meetings, the festivities continued into the evenings. There was a sunset cruise, dinner in the desert, and live music and immersive artistic performances showcasing Dubai’s culture. The final night was filled with exquisite food and entertainment and a celebration of the success of this in-person event.”
Being at this conference, where people could interact and get to know one another face-to-face rather than screen-to-screen, “was such a momentous and much-needed occasion,” says Patel. “For all of us in the travel industry who may have been deflated by the current situation, this conference left us with a surge of energy and renewed sense of hope.”
Patel wrapped up her Dubai trip in fine style, with site inspections at several local luxury hotels, “including a very memorable one”: the famous Burj Al Arab.
“It was great to hear the optimism from the hoteliers that hotel capacity is up and tourism is almost back to normal with the help of the Expo,” Patel tells Travelweek, adding that many hoteliers are hoping the momentum continues long after Expo winds down. “Though it was a great catalyst to boost the industry, many said they believe tourism will continue on an upward trend even after the Expo is over.”