DUBAI: As the heat descends on the Arabian Peninsula, residents traditionally flee to more temperate climes. Searing temperatures touching 50 C coupled with 80% humidity make outdoor activity unbearable. So why then is Dubai looking to promote tourism in its summer months? In the desert "state-let" that loves flying in the face of criticism, summer tourists are another in a line of Dubai's ambitious goals.
Early indications for 2005 show that they may be well on their way. Already hotels have reported negligible drops in occupancy rates as the summer season has set in. "Back in 1985 we had 30% occupancy in the summer, in 2005 we are expecting 80%," said Peter Fulton, regional director of Hyatt International.
And promoting summer tourism is not just Dubai's bag. Sharjah, the next emirate up the coast from Dubai, still reports that its hotels are running at capacity. Other emirates are also claiming that their room rates haven't ever been better.
So where are they all coming from? One certain cause is changing global politics. Arabs looking to take a vacation in the summer have seen their options for a hassle-free holiday slowly shrink. Post September 11, some Arabs have shied away from travelling to the US, with its stricter visa regulations and its perceived unfriendly stance towards people from the Middle East. The EU has also made getting visas difficult - and even those who get them can count on extra time at immigration and often erroneous no-fly restrictions. One Emirati reported being denied a visa because his 10-year old son was inexplicably put on an FBI terrorist watch list.
The usual Middle Eastern vacation spots are also stumbling. Lebanon, a traditional Arab getaway, has been besieged by political uncertainty this year after a string of bombings and assassinations have rocked the country. Syria, which has become the West's pariah state, has suffered blows to its image over suspected involvement in Lebanon's troubles and from accusations that insurgents are slipping over its borders into Iraq. Egypt too, the largest tourist location in the region, is experiencing its own brush with extremism while dealing with anxiety over September's presidential elections.
Many vacationers, Arab and Western alike, have decided that these are headaches they can do without. With conventional destinations faltering, the steamy shores of the Emirates don't look so unappealing.
The attention is not only by default; plenty of sites also are now dotting Dubai's shores. After the completion of the Burj al-Arab, Dubai saw the power of the "wow" factor to attract people. Now nearing completion, the Palm Jumeriah, the first of three palm-shaped islands, the emirate will add another iconic landmark to its coastline. With the world's tallest building already in construction, an underwater hotel on the drawing board, and a themed park larger fusing aspects of Disneyland and Las Vegas planned, the superlative reputation of Dubai is only going to grow.
As the big projects pull in curious travellers, Dubai has looked to enhance its already high reputation for retail tourism. Dubai built its retail portfolio with a booming business in airport duty free shopping. Relatively low prices, goods not generally found in the region, and millions of transiting passengers with hours to burn caused news to spread quickly about Dubai's shopping prowess.
Airport sales soon translated into Dubai looking for more diverse retail experiences outside the terminal. In a culture reminiscent of America more than conservative Arabian Peninsula, Dubai turned to building malls, which vie to outdo each other in size, exclusivity and gimmicks.
"Dubai is trying to develop its shopping area in a big way," Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, president of the Civil Aviation Authority, said. "In the last year we had about 6.5m sq feet [604,000 sq metres] of shopping mall space. In the next 3 years, we will have 29m sq feet [2.7m sq metres]. That is only within shopping malls."
It is here that Dubai has hung its hopes for attracting summer tourists. Sheltered by the heat from the cool confines of vast shopping areas, consumers can guiltlessly spend their entire days in the malls. The sheer scale of some malls in construction will require a full day's investment to properly explore them.
Ibn Batuta Mall, with its Silk Road motif, is now the most ostentatious retail location in town. It is soon to be challenged this year by the Mall of the Emirates, which will be the largest mall in the world featuring an indoor ski slope and a five-star Kempinski hotel. Unfortunately, the "world's largest" title will be short-lived, as the massive Mall of Arabia will snatch it away when it opens in 2008.
To promote shopping to tourists, Dubai has launched a number of the events designed to bring in international shoppers. The Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) was launched in the winter of 1996, and now has grown into an event that hauled in $1.6bn and 3.1m visitors in 2004.
In 1998, Dubai tried to repeat the success of the DSF by offering a similar shopping festival in the summer months, Dubai Summer Surprises (DSS). "The DSF had everything going for it in order to succeed," said Saeed al-Nabouda, CEO of DSS and the DSF. "It was the summer festival that was the real challenge."
In 2004, the DSS drew 1.5m visitors and $410m, up from $163m in 1998. The government expects that these numbers will continue to grow at 8-10% per year.
By targeting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) residents, Dubai hoped to be realistic in its aspirations to tempt travellers in. "We looked at the middle class families in this region," said al-Nabouda. "In the Arab world there are very few child-friendly areas. We wanted to capitalise on that."
Most agree, however, that attracting and keeping tourists is an integrated internal effort. Countries could easily throw shopping festivals to bolster their visitor numbers if the formula was so simple. What Dubai has tried to perfect is the co-ordination of all aspects of the underbelly of its tourist industry - from ease of immigration to availability of metered taxis to customer service. Its full hotels and crowded malls are the proof: Dubai can even charm people to vacation in one of world's most inhospitable summer locations.