Dubai's yachts offer socially-distanced luxury
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Dubai earned a reputation for delivering luxury for those with cash to splash years ago, but amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a new mode of travel has become popular -- yachts.
"It's more private, you're with only family and friends, and it's the ideal outing during a pandemic," said Nada Naeem, a 36-year-old Saudi citizen living in Dubai.
Dozens of white yachts are seen every day zipping through the emirate's bays, canals and islands, while others are docked along the coast in Gulf waters overlooking the skyline of high-rise towers.
"You feel like you can breathe," Naeem said, adding that she had not left Dubai since the pandemic began last year. "It's like you've travelled."
Unlike so many parts of the world, Dubai opened its doors wide open to tourists just a few months after the coronavirus pandemic took hold last year.
Life in the Gulf emirate -- one of the first destinations to welcome visitors again last July -- returned to largely normal, with restaurants and hotels up and running and beaches open to the public.
The UAE, made up of seven emirates including Dubai, launched an energetic vaccination drive with some of the highest inoculation rates worldwide, and continues to enforce strict rules on wearing masks and social distancing.
But some are fearful of overseas travel, and wary of crowded places where the risk of catching Covid-19 is higher.
'Secure and safe'
For those who can afford the price tag, yachts are seen as a safer bet.
"When they eased the lockdown... people preferred something secure and safe with regulations," said Mohammed al-Sayyed, manager of Royal Star Yachts charter company.
"We are providing them with the proper customer service, following all the rules, sanitising the yacht."
For now, yachts are allowed to operate at 70 percent capacity.
The company has a fleet that includes a 141-foot (42-metre) yacht able to host 80 passengers at full capacity -- if you can afford the $4,900 price for a three-hour cruise.
Charter companies said they have seen an increased interest in yachting after coronavirus measures eased, especially among those who want to spend time with friends and family.
"People want to do sightseeing, cruising," said Sayyed, who has been in the yacht industry for eight years. "They want to relax."
Cheaper yachts to hire include the company's 90-foot "Big Daddy" -- capable of normally carrying 65 people, at $1,225 for three hours -- down to smaller boats.
Some in Dubai said that when the price was split between a group, the cost was not as steep as it seemed at first.
"It can actually be more affordable than an all-inclusive brunch at a restaurant," said Naeem.
And while some groups have been busted by authorities flouting the rules and slapped with hefty fines, most excursions run smoothly.
Sayyed insisted his company follows all the rules and that even on the most luxurious "party yachts", there are Covid-19 regulations still in place, including the need for passengers to socially distance from each other and wear masks.
Beach to boat takeaways
Dubai, known for its skyscrapers and mega-projects, boasts the most diverse economy in the oil-reliant Gulf region and has built a reputation as a financial, commercial and tourism hub.
Tourism, which drew some 16 million visitors a year before the coronavirus hit, took a severe downturn in the first few months of the pandemic.
But a flood of arrivals since the beginning of the year has regenerated the industry, and helped many business activities recover.
Other yacht charter companies report an increase in demand for rentals in recent months.
And being out at sea doesn't mean the guests must skimp on takeaway food or drinks. Jet skis and speed boats are on standby -- for an extra fee -- to take orders and deliver groceries from shore to ship.
"To go on a boat is as simple as being outdoors and being away from strangers, gathering with only those you trust," said Palestinian Jeelan Herz, who has lived in the UAE for more than 30 years.
"It's also something you can enjoy safely with children -- go to the middle of the ocean, take part in water activities and take a nice dip."