Bigger and Better


Dubai is building towards hosting the World Expo in 2020 and has set itself an ambitious goal of attracting 20 million visitors by that year. It looks on track to achieve that, thanks to an aggressive marketing strategy that positions the emirate as both a leisure and business travel destination of choice, as Dylan Rogers discovered.

Dubai is one of those polarising destinations – it seems that people either love it or hate it.

Which way you swing depends very much on your attitude to glitz, glamour and all things bigger and better, because that makes up a large part of what Dubai is all about. Not all, but a large part.

The world’s tallest building; the world’s tallest hotel; the world’s largest mall; the world’s largest indoor ski resort… you get the picture.

Of course, there is so much more to Dubai, and one needs to spend just a few days exploring all that it offers to realise that the emirate has embarked on a big drive to prove that there is more to Dubai than the glitz and glamour already cited.

Part of that drive is a desire to position itself as a premier business events destination, and in this respect, it seems to be making progress.

In 2015 MasterCard announced that Dubai had climbed to fourth out of 132 top destinations for international travellers in the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index, behind London, Paris and Bangkok.

MasterCard also projected that Dubai would welcome over 14 million international visitors in 2015, just days after Dubai retained its top ranking in the Middle East region for international association meetings, and climbed 19 places globally to 44th position in the International Congress & Convention Association (ICCA) World Rankings – up from 63rd place in 2013.

“Dubai is convenient, easily accessible, has really good infrastructure and a high service level, and we find that’s very attractive to international meeting planners,” says Steen Jacobsen, Director of Dubai Business Events. “It is also strategically located, so if you have events in Europe and Asia, some meeting planners are opting for one event in Dubai.”

Dubai has come a long way from its origins as a fishing village and subsequent role as important trade location, prior to the discovery of oil in the 1960s and the formation of the United Arab Emirates with Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qawain, and Fujairah in 1971 – Ras Al Khaimah joined the following year.

“Dubai knew very early on that the oil that was discovered in the 1960s would only last a relatively short period,” says Jacobsen. “So, the government knew that the great wealth that was created would not last a long time, and that’s why they decided early on to diversify the economy into non-oil related industries, such as healthcare, IT, trade and logistics, tourism, retail, financial services etc. The non-oil sector now accounts for 95% of GDP.”

Airports & Airline

Dubai International Airport serves 140 airlines covering 260 destinations across six continents, and as with everything in Dubai, its location and proximity to the rest of the world has made it arguably the most attractive airline hub in the world.

“Within four hours of Dubai, you’ll find one third of the planet’s population,” says Matt Raos, Vice-President Corporate Sales for Emirates. “Within eight hours, that becomes two thirds, and within the current non-stop flying range of aircraft, it’s 90%. Dubai is perfectly positioned for our business.”
Emirates have capitalised spectacularly on that, growing from a start-up airline with two borrowed planes from Pakistan International Airlines in 1985 to becoming the world’s biggest airline – in terms of international traffic – in just over 30 years.

Emirates now operates nearly 200,000 seats every day and serves 149 destinations across all six continents, thanks to a fleet of 242 aircraft dominated by the world’s largest order book for the A380, the world’s largest aircraft.

Of those 149 destinations, 23 are on the African continent, with Emirates now a popular choice for African travellers looking to visit the Middle East or connect to Europe and Asia.

No surprise then that the region is an important one for Emirates.

“Long-term we’re very optimistic about Africa,” says Raos. “It is a little pressured at the moment in the mining and natural resources segment, with commodity prices coming down. But, we’re still seeing strong trade from what we call the ‘trader traffic’. That’s typically smaller businesses going to Asia to source product and bring back to Africa.”

A key element of Dubai Airports’ Strategic Plan 2020 is Concourse D, a facility due to open any time now. It will increase Dubai International’s annual capacity to 90 million passengers and serve Terminal 1 to which it will be connected by an elevated rail system with a transit time of two minutes. Terminal 1 is also undergoing a major refurbishment programme.

The new facility will feature: nine lounges; seating for more than 8,000 passengers; a new open gate concept to allow passengers more flexibility to shop, dine or relax before boarding; a spacious ‘meet and greet’ reception area and an air-conditioned taxi waiting area; a wide range of F&B offerings including Wolfgang Puck, Camden Food Company, Yo! Sushi, CNN News Café, Taste of India, Giraffe, Starbucks, KFC, Krispy Kreme, McDonald’s, Brioche Doree, The Noodle House, Cavier House & Prunier and Costa Coffee.

Dubai International may be beefing up its offering, but the city already has another airport up and running, and with big plans. Al Maktoum International (DWC), 37 kilometres south-west of Dubai, commenced cargo operations in 2010 and received its first passengers in 2013.

Dubai Airports then announced in 2015 a project to expand the existing passenger terminal at DWC to accommodate 26 million passengers per annum by 2017. The project is a precursor to the $32bn expansion project announced by Dubai Airports in September 2014 to create the world’s biggest airport with an ultimate capacity in excess of 200 million passengers per year.

Hotel Landscape

With well over 600 hotel establishments, Dubai is not short on hotel accommodation.

Just about every major international hotel group has a presence in Dubai and the offering is extensive, although predominantly in the luxury segment, with industry giants such as Hilton, Marriott, Accor, IHG and Starwood Hotels & Resorts all well represented.

“Dubai is fortunate to have probably the largest number of 5-star hotel rooms in the world, but the government wants to diversify the visitors that come into Dubai,” says Jacobsen.

In this way, and to further the objectives of welcoming 20 million visitors year-on-year by 2020, the Dubai government has come up with a number of initiatives to assist in growing the three and four-star hotel sector.

One already implemented initiative stands out.

From the 1st of October 2013 to the 31st of December 2017, investors and developers of three and four-star hotels who are in the process of construction or have a pending construction permit, are being offered an incentive to waive the 10% municipality fee that is levied on the room rate for each night of occupancy.

“As the tourism board, we provide the licences, and we received more than 50 applications for new three and four-star hotels,” says Jacobsen. “So, the incentive seems to work and we are already seeing the first three and four-star hotels opening in Dubai. It’s diversifying the market and we have a much broader hotel product to offer.”

One of the groups to fill the gap in the mid-market segment has been Hilton, with the group opening three Hilton Garden Inn properties at the end of 2015. The opening of the Hilton Garden Inn Dubai Mall of the Emirates followed quickly on the heels of the Hilton Garden Inn Dubai Al Muraqabat and Hilton Garden Inn Dubai Al Mina.

“There is certainly a growing demand for a stronger mid-market offering and more mid-scale properties in Dubai,” says Rudi Jagersbacher, President of Middle East & Africa, Hilton Worldwide. “As we see a flight to affordability in Dubai, the mid-market sector represents a significant opportunity to further grow and diversify our hotel portfolio to encompass the Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton by Hilton brands.”

Hilton now has a diverse Dubai hotel offering, as the three Hilton Garden Inn properties complement the group’s three Hilton Hotels & Resorts, one Waldorf Astoria, a Conrad, and two DoubleTree by Hiltons.

“Dubai’s vibrant hospitality sector continues to develop at an impressive pace with the addition of world-class tourism attractions firmly positioning the emirate as a highly desirable destination for global travellers,” says Jagersbacher.

Of the other big groups, Accor has the most extensive portfolio with 21 hotel properties across Dubai, with a range of Novotels, Sofitels, Pullmans, Mercures, Aparthotels and ibis hotels to choose from, depending on what your needs are.

Close on Accor’s heels is Starwood, with 16 properties across its Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, Luxury Collection, W and Le Meridien brands. It also recently opened its first St Regis in Dubai in November, with a Westin and W hotel due to open in the same complex in the next few months.

Rivalling Accor and Starwood for the biggest Dubai portfolio is IHG, which boasts 13 properties, made up of a fairly even spread of three Holiday Inns, four Holiday Inn Express hotels, three Crowne Plazas and three InterContinentals. In a similar category is Wyndham, with 12 hotels, including nine Ramadas.

Marriott is another group with a large collection of hotels, with 11 properties, including the world’s tallest hotel in the form of the JW Marriott Marquis on Sheikh Zayed Road, whilst Carlson Rezidor has three Radisson Blu hotels in Dubai and two Park Inn by Radisson Hotel Apartment properties.

“More owners are beginning to see the attractive model and offering of mid-market products in terms of development costs and operational efficiencies, hence from an investment perspective,” says Elie Milky, Rezidor’s Senior Director Business Development: Middle East & Africa. “This is also a result of the growing demand for more affordable, branded accommodation across the Middle East.

Looking at the other international groups that have smaller Dubai portfolios, there is Hyatt and Moevenpick with six properties each, Kempinski and Four Seasons with two each, and Best Western with one, whilst there are also two Fairmonts and a Raffles.

All these global brands operate side by side home-grown brands such as Emaar Hotels and Resorts, which launched in 2005 with the opening of its Address properties, followed in 2013 by its Vida boutique hotels. However, the flagship venture of Emaar Hotels and Resorts is the Armani Hotel Dubai, a joint venture between Emaar Properties and Giorgio Armani – the first ever partnership of the fashion legend with a property developer.

The first Armani Hotel is located in Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Reflecting the elegance, simplicity and sophistication that defines Armani’s style, “every detail in the 160-room hotel is testament to his personal touch.”  

The most renowned Dubai-owned hotels belong to the Jumeirah Group, with the iconic Burj Al Arab often referred to as the “only seven-star hotel” in the world. The group has eight properties in Dubai.

In a similar style and more leisure and family orientated is Kerzner International’s colossal Atlantis The Palm, with its 1,539 hotel rooms, 21 restaurants and bars, 5,600 square metres of meeting space, ShuiQi spa, N’Dulge nightclub, 1.4 kilometres of private beach, an aquarium, a lagoon in which visitors can swim with dolphins, as well as the awesome Aquaventure waterpark. Kerzner also has two One&Only properties in Dubai.

For those executives needing to stay in the city for several weeks or months, Dubai has a plethora of serviced apartments, such as Arjaan Dubai Media City, Hilton Jumeirah Hotel Residences and the Jumeirah Living apartments at Dubai World Trade Centre.

World Expo 2020

In 2013 Dubai was awarded the right to host the World Expo in 2020. It’s the first time the event will be held in the Middle East and follows Milan’s hosting of the World Expo in 2015.

Since its beginnings in London in 1851, the World Expo has been about sharing innovation from across the world, and launching new technology and inventions. Every five years, a city hosts millions of visitors over a period of six months.

Perhaps most significantly, hosting Expo 2020 will promote Dubai as both a hot investment prospect and an appealing place to visit.

“The legacy of holding such an event in Dubai is where the real value lies,” said Helal Saeed Almarri, Director General of Dubai’s Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing and CEO of Dubai World Trade Centre, when Dubai’s bid was declared the winner. “A wide range of sectors will benefit, including construction, engineering and transportation and, of course, the hospitality, retail and aviation sectors.”

Early projections suggested that Dubai Expo 2020 will create 200,000 new jobs and cause Dubai’s GDP growth to increase by 1% annually in the run-up to the event.

In many ways Dubai is a natural host thanks to its location at the centre of the world map, its airline connectivity and its facilities. Expo 2020 will be a big step up from the events it is accustomed to holding – the exhibition is expected to attract 25 million visitors from October 2020 until April 2021 and will launch the United Arab Emirates’ golden jubilee, celebrating 50 years.

But Dubai is up for the challenge. The emirate has said it will invest $7 billion in the expo – the chosen theme of which is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”.

Before it won the bid, Dubai had already made plenty of plans to bolster its infrastructure to increase tourism. The government’s “Vision 2020” initiative aims to double the number of annual tourists to Dubai to 20 million by the end of the decade and triple its economic contribution to Dhs 300 billion ($800m).

The planned site for Expo 2020 will be highly ambitious. The 438-hectare lot will be located on the south-western corner of the emirate in Jebel Ali, next to Al Maktoum airport. It will be comprised of three pavilions – representing the themes of mobility, sustainability and opportunity – all interlinked by a central plaza in the style of a traditional Arabic souk.

Sustainable principles have been incorporated into its design. The main walkways will be covered by a “photovoltaic fabric structure”, designed not only to create shade but to generate solar energy. This will work alongside the panels on the façade of the building to absorb enough sunlight to generate half of the expo’s on-site power. As well as recycling its wastewater and materials, at the end of the event the site will be transformed into the Museum of the Future, which will celebrate the event’s achievements.

“I think it was just a matter of time before Dubai had to start thinking about sustainability,” said Baharash Bagherian, Managing Director of Baharash Architecture, the firm behind phase two of Dubai Sustainable City. “There’s been an increased awareness in Dubai of the fact that its current lifestyle is just not sustainable. If it wants to create a healthy city while protecting the environment, then I think that needs to be supported and encouraged.”

The 46-hectare residential project to the south-west of Dubai broke ground in 2009. When completed this year, about 2,700 people will live and work in the outpost, which will generate more than 50% of its electricity through 56,000m2 of solar panels. Baharash Architecture’s involvement in phase two incorporates equestrian, cycling and pedestrian-only pathways, a planetarium, a  mosque, an eco resort of 143 bungalows, a “sustainable“ hotel and an “excellence centre”, where residents can learn how to manage their energy consumption. It will also feature “biodome” greenhouses with organic farms, and water and waste will all be recycled.

Dubai, though, needs to be careful that it manages its growth in a sensible way. Commentators will be quick to point out what has followed rapid expansion in the past – the bursting of the property bubble in 2009, for example. Speculation about Expo 2020 caused property prices to rise by 20% in the year after Dubai was awarded the event, and if this hikes Dubai’s cost base up too far, it could find itself heading for another crash.

The same needs to be considered for the hotel market. Shanghai found that once Expo 2010 was over, it was faced with an oversupply of rooms, and struggled to reach occupancy levels beyond 60% during the years that followed.

Dubai Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing
World Expo 2020

Key Developments
Dubai World Trade Centre expansion
– 15,500m2 extension expected to open early-2016
Dubai Design District – 2015 soft opening as hub for design and home for art galleries and studios
IMG Worlds of Adventure – world’s largest multi-brand indoor theme park, due to open in 2016
Wire World Meydan Adventure Park – first?ever adventure rope course in the UAE
Dubai Parks and Resorts – Hollywood?themed Motion Gate, Bollywood Parks Dubai, and Legoland Dubai expected to open in 2016
Dubai Opera House – 2,000?seat venue expected to open in 2016
Museum of the Future will house some of the world’s latest inventions
Union Museum – will tell the federation formation story
Mall of the World – retail and hospitality showpiece development commencing in 2017
Dubai Healthcare City – phase two targets three, four and five-star hotels, driving medical tourism
Dubai Frame – consists of two 150-metre high towers, connected by a 100 square metre bridge
Dubai Ferris Wheel – largest ferris wheel in the world, expected to open in 2016
Dubai Water Canal project – expected completion in 2016
Mohammed Bin Rashid City – a city within a city due to be completed in next couple of years

Things to Do in Dubai
Go up the Burj Khalifa – world’s tallest building
2. Have high tea at At.mosphere – on 122nd level of Burj Khalifa
3. Visit a souk – located in Old Dubai
4. Do a desert safari – go dune bashing and enjoy dinner in the desert
5. Take a seaplane tour of Dubai – gives you a different perspective
6. Visit the Mall of Dubai – for its sheer size and ‘wow’ factor
7. Watch Dubai Fountain show – world’s largest choreographed fountain show at base of Burj Khalifa
8. Visit the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding
9. Catch a dhow across Dubai Creek
10. Get wet at Wild Wadi Water Park

Nasif Kayed
MD – Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding
There is this perception that from a cultural point of view there are do’s and don’ts when you come to Dubai. There’s no such thing. Just be yourself, respect others the same way you expect to be respected, and you’re good to go.

There is also the perception that when we wear our traditional dress we are oil-rich and when we wrap ourselves up and cover our faces we become terrorists! Why do the men wear white and the women wear black? Why are you so mean to your women? How many wives do you have? It is the perception and that’s why we have to talk about it. But we understand that this is how people perceive us.

It has become inevitable that we have to answer these things, as more people come to Dubai. All we say is that we are all part of the human race, regardless of colour, gender, status, background, culture, ethnicity or preferences. All of us have to respect one another – just like the no smoking rule in aeroplanes!

The message is spreading. You may have 14 million people visiting Dubai, but we don’t get 14 million people visiting the cultural centre. But I speak at crowds and people do visit the centre, and just about everybody leaves saying they have a one hundred percent different view on dealing with people here, along the lines of, “I accept that they are different from me”, rather than, “they have to be like me.”

It’s good and it’s changing.

Travel Tips
1. How do you make reference to the locals?
UAE natives are generally referred to as Emirati.

2. Is alcohol available?
Hotel restaurants and bars are licensed to serve alcohol, as are some private clubs such as the Marina Yacht Club and the Polo Club.

3. What is the currency?
Dirham (AED) – $1 = 3.67AED

4. Money and Tipping?
All major credit cards are accepted and it is recommended to tip in AED currency. It is customary to tip 10% for most services (restaurant, taxi, etc). Some hotel restaurants automatically add a gratuity, however is not always passed onto the server.

5. Tipping Suggestion
Bellman: 2 bags = 5AED

6. How do I get around?
Taxis are generally abundant. You can hail a taxi from a safe pavement area or call a taxi through the hotel concierge.

7. Is it safe?
Dubai has an extremely low crime rate. Most areas of the city are safe throughout the day or night. If you require assistance at any time, the emergency number in Dubai is 999.

8. What is the weather like?
Dubai has a tropical desert climate with extremely hot and humid summers with an average high around 41°C. Winters are warm and short with an average high of 23°C. Most of the rainfall occurs between December and March.