Diplomatic Pouch / November 15, 2011
By Larry Luxner
When Saud H. Al-Nowais, commercial counselor at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, left for Egypt as an 8-year-old boy, Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road had only one skyscraper.
“At age 16, I came back and couldn’t find that tower anymore,” he recalled — because hundreds more had sprouted during the time Al-Nowais was away. Indeed, what was once a Persian Gulf backwater known mainly for pearl-diving and colorful postage stamps is now a major world transportation, tourism and business hub, its wealth fueled by oil exports and the booming financial services industry.
Dubai today boasts the tallest structure on Earth — the 828-meter-high, 160-story Burj Khalifa — as well as the world’s largest indoor ice-skating rink, its most luxurious hotel and its biggest Formula One racetrack.
Those achievements and more were highlighted in a glitzy PR film titled “Vibrant Dubai: City of Possibilities,” shown Oct. 4 to about 100 Washington-area travel agents. The film was followed by a lavish dinner and roundtable discussion aimed at promoting Dubai to prospective American tourists and business travelers.
Al-Nowais was one of five officials participating in the roundtable. The others were moderator Danny Sebright, president of the US-UAE Business Council; Dana Al-Marashi, head of the embassy’s heritage and social affairs office; Tom Civitano, vice-president of sales and marketing/Americas for the Jumeirah hotel group, and Joel Goldowsky, sales director/northeast USA for Emirates, Dubai’s flagship airline.
“Dubai appeals to all age groups,” Civitano told his guests. “When you go there, it’s a blank. You don’t know what to expect. Then you get out of the airport and go into shock — because you didn’t expect what you experienced. It was warm, courteous, friendly and professional. Then you you instantly realize that this is a destination that over-delivers what it promised.”
Statistics appear to back up the hype. Last year, more than 8.5 million foreigners visited Dubai, with the United States ranking as the fifth-largest source market. In 2010, an additional 9,500 hotel rooms became available, bringing the total to 71,000 rooms. That exceeds the capacity of even the Dominican Republic, currently the Caribbean’s largest tourist destination.
“If you travel 12 hours to get to Dubai, then go to a hotel that will really make you feel like you’re in the Middle East,” said Civitano. “We have that little hotel — that sailboat in the water — and we are proud to say it’s the greatest hotel in the world.”
Besides Jumeirah’s iconic, 321-meter-high Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s other up-and-coming properties include a Ritz-Carlton in the financial district (this luxury hotel boasts a 10-story waterfall); a Movenpick, the first five-star hotel in downtown Dubai in more than a decade; the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, which follows Ottoman architectural design, and the Radisson Blu Downtown, targeting business travelers.
Yet Dubai’s average visitor stays for only three days, which isn’t really long enough, according to hotel executive Civitano.
“It’s somewhat unfortunate that Dubai is viewed as a one-shot wonder,” Civitano told the agents as they dined on roasted lamb, cous-cous, fetoosh and other traditional Arab delicacies. “Dubai has done a great job of continually reinventing itself, so when you sell it to your customers, remember it’s not a one- or two-night stay. It’s got to be a four-day stay because there’s so much to see.”
In addition to the duty-free shopping for which Dubai is so famous, those other activities include horse racing, sailing, golf, scuba diving, skiing, 4x4 desert trekking — and, surprisingly, appreciation of museums and culture.
“Dubai has established itself as a cultural hub, especially with regards to the art scene,” said the embassy’s Al-Marashi. “Many galleries have opened, showcasing local art. This has helped young Emirati artists get recognized within the Middle East.”
But getting there should be half the fun, said airline executive Goldowsky.
“What we strive to do is sell an experience in collaboration with our partners, whether it be the embassy or the hotels,” he said. “We want that experience to begin in the air.”
As such, he said, Emirates now has a fleet of 157 aircraft and nearly 50,000 employees. The Dubai-based airline ranks as the world’s biggest customer for Boeing 777s; it also has 15 new Airbus A380s and an additional 74 on order. Despite the recent economic slowdown and Dubai’s real-estate slump, business has apparently been good.
“Dubai for us only represents 35 percent of our traffic from the States,” he said. “That Dubai hub, which is drop-dead unbelievable, gives us connections to 156 destinations around the world.”
On Sep. 29, Emirates announced that, beginning next February, it will launch daily nonstop service from Dubai to Dallas-Fort Worth with Boeing 777-200LR aircraft that can carry 266 passengers. The route, which will take 16 hours, is the first nonstop flight to the Middle East out of DFW. Emirates is also adding Seattle as part of its U.S. expansion, operating Boeing 777 aircraft seating 354 passengers on the 15-hour flight from Seattle to Dubai.
The only other U.S. cities currently served by Emirates are Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York-JFK and Houston.
Not all tourists arrive in Dubai by air. In 2010, the emirate received 390,000 cruise-ship passengers, a number expected to rise to 625,000 by 2015. Dubai’s ultramodern cruise-ship terminal can host up to 7,000 passengers and three megaships simultaneously.
Some of those who visit Dubai as tourists end up living there — lured by high salaries and the emirate’s generally laissez-faire attitude toward foreigners. Said Al-Marashi: “Over 200 nationalities are represented in Dubai. It’s a cosmopolitan city, with all these different cultures living in harmony. Dubai has worked very hard to show what an open society it is.”