Dubai airport tops pre-pandemic passenger traffic with 87 million travellers in 2023

World’s busiest airport by international traffic expects to receive 88.8 million passengers this year, CEO says

Passenger traffic at Dubai in the last three months of 2023 rose 13.8 per cent year-on-year to 22.4 million. Photo: DXB
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Dubai International Airport surpassed its pre-coronavirus annual passenger traffic last year and beat its own forecast on the back of a strong performance in the second half of the year.

The airport handled nearly 87 million passengers in 2023, a growth of 31.7 per cent year on year, as it edged past the 86.4 million recorded in 2019, operator Dubai Airports said on Monday. The figures are also above its last full-year forecast of 86.8 million.

Dubai Airports chief executive Paul Griffiths said the airport, which recorded average monthly traffic of 7.3 million passengers in 2023, is one of the few hubs in the world to have “moved past” the impact of the pandemic.

“We emerge from the pandemic stronger than the position in which we entered it, which is a great situation, and that reflects in the traffic numbers,” Mr Griffiths told The National.

“All of this has propelled the city of Dubai to a level of credibility that it has not enjoyed before and the evidence is all around us,” he said, pointing to the city's busy roads, packed hotels and strong economic activity.

The airport recorded a total of 416,405 flight movements in 2023, the highest on record at DXB, and up 21.3 per cent year on year.

Passenger traffic in the last three months of 2023 rose 13.8 per cent annually to 22.4 million. December was the busiest month in the fourth quarter with 7.8 million passengers.

The airport is now connected to 262 destinations in 104 countries through 102 international airlines.

“This exceptional performance underscores Dubai's emergence as the world’s most popular tourism destination and its pivotal role in global commerce and trade, facilitated by the unmatched connectivity, aviation capacity and logistics infrastructure that has been built steadily over the years,” Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, wrote on X on Monday.

Dubai's aviation sector has made a strong rebound from the pandemic-induced slowdown and was among the first to reopen to international travellers, bolstered by a strong Covid vaccine programme and health guidelines.

The airport's passenger traffic in 2023 is in line with Dubai achieving its best annual tourism performance last year when international arrivals to the emirate increased 19.4 per cent to 17.15 million. This exceeded the 16.73 million visitors in 2019, according to Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism.

Travel demand has continued to boom despite inflationary pressures, concerns about economic headwinds and risks stemming from geopolitical tension.

India was DXB's top country destination, with traffic totalling 11.9 million passengers last year, followed by Saudi Arabia with 6.7 million passengers and the UK with 5.9 million. Other countries included Pakistan (4.2 million), the US (3.6 million), Russia (2.5 million) and Germany (2.5 million).

London retained its position as the top city destination with 3.7 million passengers, followed by Riyadh with 2.6 million and Mumbai with 2.5 million.

Chinese travel

However, the return of Chinese travellers to the city remains slower than anticipated and the number of Chinese passengers is 20 per cent below expectations, Mr Griffiths said.

“China is one of the slower growing markets and we're slightly down on Chinese visitors, but every other market has performed incredibly well,” he said.

The weaker-than-expected performance comes as the world's second-biggest economy grew 5.2 per cent in 2023 but faced a deepening property crisis as well as weak consumer and business confidence.

“The collapse in the value of real estate markets had profound economic effects on China, but the good thing is that once all this is overcome and Chinese travellers start to become mobile again, I think they will come back with very strong and very quick recoveries,” Mr Griffiths said.

Red Sea shipping crisis

In 2023, Dubai International Airport handled more than 1.8 million tonnes of cargo, down 4.5 per cent compared with the previous year.

However, cargo volumes rose 20.4 per cent year on year during the fourth quarter to 506,018 tonnes.

“If that continues we will be well over two million tonnes by the end of the year on an annualised basis,” Mr Griffiths said.

This comes as attacks on shipping through the Red Sea by Yemen's Houthi rebels continue in support for Palestinians in the Israel-Gaza war.

Bullish outlook

In 2024, the airport expects to receive 88.8 million passengers, revised upwards from its November forecast of 88.2 million. This would put it within sight of its previous record of 89.1 million in 2018.

“I've had a sneak preview of the January numbers and there is cause for optimism, the signs are very good. And the strength behind this is our geocentric locations,” Mr Griffiths said.

DXB is investing heavily to increase its capacity through new technology and more efficient processes to funnel more people through the airport more quickly as the land-locked building nears its full capacity.

“It's clear that at some stage we are going to reach the limits of DXB's potential capacity,” Mr Griffiths said.

“It's difficult to say when that will be, it depends on the growth and the profile of what our airline customers do.

“But obviously at some stage we will need further investment in DWC and the details of that are being studied at the moment.”

As DXB nears its capacity and as home carriers Emirates and flydubai place orders for new aircraft, plans for expanding the passenger terminal at DWC have been under discussion for many years.

Dubai's second airport, Al Maktoum International Airport or Dubai World Central (DWC) has been operational since 2010. It is mainly home to cargo operations and private jet operators but is also used by some commercial airlines.

DXB is currently investing new technology so that passengers can pass through security without taking items such as laptops and liquids out of their bags, speeding up waiting times and processing more people through the airport, Mr Griffiths said.

Economic and geopolitical pressures

Asked about the impact on DXB's business of the Israel-Gaza war as it enters its fourth month, Mr Griffiths said the airport has a resilient model and any decline in one market is often offset by growth in other markets in its vast network.

“What we tend to see is that where one region takes a bit of a dip for whatever reason, whether it's unrest or economic pressure, all the other markets tend to respond very positively,” he said.

“Where we get a dip, that is usually filled by growth from another market, and that's one of the incredible virtues of being so well-connected with the rest of world in such a great geographic location.”

Asked if he was concerned about the outcome of the US presidential elections in November and the impact of a second win for Donald Trump, who during his presidential term had introduced a ban on passengers carrying laptops onboard US bound flights from certain airports in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr Griffiths said the volatility of world politics is “something we've got to learn to live with”.

“You can't plan around those things, you just have to roll with the punches whenever a situation presents itself and we've proved ourselves more than capable of having the right political relationships and the right operational capability and being pretty much ready for anything and adapt our policies accordingly,” he said.

Updated: February 19, 2024, 12:37 PM