Surge in outdoors in the UAE after lockdown

View from Al-Rabi trail. Rights reserved.

I’ve lived in Dubai for a long time and my Instagram feed has never been so full of friends hitting the local hiking trails. As far as I can remember, it’s largely been me and two other friends out of about two hundred who went out of their way to get some adventure. I decided to do look in to this drastic change further.

Not accounted for by seasonality

Outdoor activities in the UAE have always been very seasonal. Only a handful of extreme enthusiasts will be looking up trails in the middle of summer. However looking at this 5 year search trend for hiking below, it is clear that this year is different.

Search trends for “hiking” in the UAE. Notice the incredible surge in late 2020. From Google trends.

The graph is a normalised to a range between 0 and 100 with 100 being the most activity a search term has seen. As expected, there was a reasonable drop during February-March 2020, coinciding with the first lockdown, followed by a summer lull. The resurgence from September 2020 onwards is shown in the dotted line (as data is still being finalised) and completely breaks the model.

What’s more, residents of Dubai have been driving this surge.

What’s more, residents of Dubai in particular have been driving this surge.

What’s going on?

It appears as though the long summer of lockdown has refined residents’ tastes for adventure and everyone is appreciating options available to them significantly more. The local retail scene is perpetual, but winter is not. Add to this social media — a number of YouTube videos popped up about the views from various “secret” beaches and hiking trails bringing these options to the limelight. Then, after the relatively adventurous ‘early-adopters’ made their way to relevant locations and shared pictures, it entered the mainstream and Google Maps started providing exact directions. Cue people swapping Barasti for an Instagram photo shoot in the Hatta mountains.

Why has Dubai been the driving force for search activity? Well for starters, Dubai is a more populous emirate than many of its neighbours and this data is not normalised. However, in addition, one must consider the fact that residents of other emirates may have been exploring outdoor options for much longer given less variety of retail available to them in many cases. Add to this an influx of tourists in Dubai in particular due to different COVID policies and residents may have felt the itch to hit the road.

What about cycling?

In my circle of friends, I am the cycling expert. Because of this I have anecdotal evidence that there has never been a more popular year for cycling in Dubai. Sports retailers from mass-market to luxury have run out of stock at various points leading to multiple periods waiting for a re-stock and the same applies to accessories.

HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, has been integral to developing the cycle seen here. Under his initiative, cycle infrastructure has expanded and a high-profile event with 20,000 cyclists on the main thoroughfare of the city really helped increase awareness.

What’s next?

All I can hope is that this organic growth is sustained throughout winter and re-appears every winter to come. This will encourage significantly more development and increased access to outdoor opportunities and allow residents of the UAE to do something different.

There are relatively distant places within the UAE that can seem a world apart. Shuweihat Island looks completely different to the rest of the terrain. Keep at it with the discovering and sharing, and let’s get out there together.

Shuweihat Island. Photo by ahmad hasan on Unsplash

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