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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dubai: destination re-branding urgently required - from 'playground of the rich' to the complex compelling place we know it can be

"Dubai has always been seen as a playground for the rich. What is the Dubai tourism authority doing to pull in people with less money?" That was one question among others that came to me Friday via the DK-Rough Guides PR office, as author of DK's Top Ten Dubai and Abu Dhabi guidebook, from a London journalist writing a story on Dubai. Although I suggested he contact Dubai Tourism for comment, I still shared my thoughts. While Dubai Tourism has appeared to focus on marketing Dubai as a luxurious, safe 'sun, sand and shopping' destination, the media, which loves covering the rich and famous and the glitz and glamour, has lapped it. There's no denying Dubai does luxury well (better than many places), but it's always been so much more than simply a lavish destination where you can spoil yourself silly, especially to the people who live in Dubai. When I lived in Al Mankhool, for five days a week my everyday experiences were more centered on Dubai's gritty backstreets (the 'off-the-beaten-track') and the city's heritage, culture and arts. We'd regularly walk to the Creek and Bastakiya, wander through Bur Dubai souq to Shindagha, both for exercise and to shop at the Shindagha supermarket, browse the souqs at Bur Dubai or across the Creek at Deira, or see a traditional performance at the Heritage and Diving Village. We'd frequently stroll along the Creek and through the parks, especially Al Seef Road and Za'abeel Park. We'd attend opening nights at galleries like The Third Line and B21, and we'd go to events like the Dubai International Film Festival. Occasionally we'd do very 'local' things like watch the camel training or even go falconing with some of the local guys. It was only on weekends when we'd go out with friends for drinks, dinner and a dance, at the bars, restaurants and clubs in the five-star hotels that we'd experience 'luxury Dubai'. But our Dubai, the Dubai most locals and many expats (not all) experience, is the one I've always tried to promote through our guidebooks and writing like our Insider's Guide to Dubai. But while Dubai for us is a set of complex experiences and representations, for much of the global media and potential tourists (as I'm reminded everyday) it's nothing but a luxury destination. It's time Dubai Tourism gets serious about re-branding Dubai and telling the world about the things its residents love about the place. Don't you think?


Grace @ Sandier Pastures said...

I agree. Dubai is so played out as a playground of the rich and famous, forgetting that there are normal, middle class people who live from day to day quite normally.

When I toured my friends around Dubai in the off the beaten track places, they usually comment, "Hey, this was not in the guidebooks!"

Gary Arndt said...

Having spent several weeks in Dubai, I think that they have some serious work ahead of themselves if they are going grow as a tourist attraction.

Dubai is expensive and there isn't much to do other than shop. If you want to sit on a beach, I can think of dozens of other places in Europe or in the Indian Ocean which would be more attractive as a destination.

The malls seem very orientated to luxury brands.

Every month there is some sort of news story which comes out of Dubai about someone getting arrested over something trivial. Taken together, these raise enough doubts in the minds of people to probably make them want to go elsewhere.

Prior to my visit to Dubai, I got many emails from my readers warning me about Dubai, none of which had actually been there.

I left Dubai thinking it would be a much nicer place to live than to visit. While you and other residents may like living in Dubai, that doesn't naturally translate into a great tourist attraction. Look at the Midwest of the United State. People like living there and they have a high standard of living, but it is pretty boring from the standpoint of tourism.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Grace - I'm glad you agree. But don't you think that some of the 'normal' things that us middle class people do in Dubai are some of the most fun? And add to that, the working class?

Whenever we've had friends come to stay they've absolutely loved seeing and doing the simple things, like families and friends having barbecues in the parks at midnight (and later) during Ramadan.

We've always loved heading down to Shindagha on a Friday afternoon when it really buzzes, when all the construction workers are playing cricket or are dressed up in their 'Sunday'-best snapping photos of each other to send to loved ones back home.

I think I could write a book on those things alone - except publishers always want the main sights in there.

Now, I hope you've found some 'off-the-beaten-sights' in our guidebooks! We tried to insert them when we could, but it's tricky when guides are always so sights-focused. We'll have to share some secrets off-line! :)

Thanks for dropping by!

DaddyBird said...

Very much agreed! We live in Deira and love walking through the older areas, enjoying the wonderful un-fancy restaurants and the friendly people. Went to watch the weekly kushti wrestling in a parking lot across from the fish market a couple of weeks ago. Such fun! Some of the touristy stuff is OK, but it is so much more fun getting to know the regular folks in this town, and enjoying the many simple pleasures.

previously.bitten said...

You know, people ask me why I've not added Dubai to my travel plans. I try to explain that any country where you can go to jail for kissing someone you're not married to - or be thrown in jail for not being hetrosexual, is not the type of place I'd want to be (regardless of my sexuality, or if i plan to be kissing any strangers.) Just the fact that those laws exist are (more than slightly) terrifying to me.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Gary

Good to hear from you! How's the trip? I didn’t realise you spent a few weeks in Dubai, I thought you were only there a few days - which makes your perceptions all the more intriguing – more from my travel writer’s perspective rather than someone who’s lived there. I can't understand why you didn't discover more than the beaches and malls.

Personally, I don’t think Dubai needs to ‘grow’ as a tourist destination in terms of numbers – globally, it’s been one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world in recent years, the most popular destination on the Arabian Peninsula, with some of the highest hotel occupancy figures, and Dubai Airport is one of the world’s busiest airports – so while Dubai Tourism might want to see numbers increase (I think their aim is 14 million a year by 2015 and they're well on the way to getting there), I think people who live there are happy the way things are. Because with a growth in tourism comes the crowded shopping malls and traffic chaos, crowds, etc. So in many ways it’s obviously been too attractive a destination and infrastructure hasn’t been able to keep up with growth.

The way I’d prefer to see tourism ‘grow’ is in the types of travellers Dubai attracts, I’d prefer to see fewer five-star travellers and far fewer package tour and cruise ship travellers, and instead see more cultural tourists, travellers who are keen to get out and explore and see more than the beaches and shopping malls and experience more of the things that locals see of value and interest in the city, from the heritage and traditional culture to the contemporary art galleries.

It’s such a shame you left with the impressions you did – I wish you would have used one of guidebooks because there’s a tonne of stuff to experience in Dubai that we write about that are easy to find, easy to do, and either free or cheap.

But as far as I’m concerned some of the best things to experience in Dubai (and the UAE of course) are those that are intangible – you’ve got to remember like the rest of Arabia it was a nomadic culture, (which is why you don't see pyramids!) but the culture is still a rich one, far richer than many others in some ways, and more so because it’s still alive – for example, the young people still know traditional songs and dances, they still tell the old stories, and they love to recite poetry. That’s not something you’d find if you met teens in London or New York.

Which is why one of the best things to do in Dubai/UAE is simply to meet Emiratis and learn about their culture through them, go out falconing with the guys, or simply sit around and chat over some sheesha. However, unless you’re an outgoing person who is good at making friends quickly, the closest you’ll get to that kind of authentic local experience is the Cultural Breakfast with the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding or the Jumeirah Mosque Tour. I hope you at least did those!

Thanks for calling in!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Daddy-bird - I'm so glad you agree! That's exactly what I mean! Yeah, the best thing about Dubai is walking in Deira and Bur Dubai - although sadly unless you want to work up a sweat, that's only possible for 6 months of the year.

But some of those simple restaurants you mention are fantastic and they're dirt-cheap too. But I just love the way you can eat a tasty shwarma (or two) and have a freshly squeezed mango juice for less than $10. It's hard to get anything in Europe or Australia for less than $10 these days; it's only places like Thailand, India and Egypt where you can eat so cheaply.

Totally agree with you that some of the simpler things are the most fun!

Thanks for commenting!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Previously Bitten

Sadly that means you won't be visiting most of Africa (except South Africa I think), most of Asia and the Middle East, and half of Central America where homosexuality is still illegal.

Re the kissing in Dubai, I'm guessing you're referring to the couple who were thrown in jail for having sex on a public beach, because they don't throw you in jail for kissing, although it's certainly frowned upon. However, having sex on a public beach is actually illegal in most countries in the world, and as a reporter of a US paper recently wrote, it's also illegal in many states in the USA.

Overt displays of affection are not acceptable in most Middle East countries and Asian countries. Take Thailand and India for instance... talk to a Thai person who doesn't work in tourism about what's acceptable in Thai culture and ask them how they feel about things like Full Moon Parties, and you'll learn that most Thais don't approve. Talk to an Indian, even a Goan who doesn't work in tourism about how they feel about girls sunbaking in bikinis on their beaches. The thing is that a lot of poor countries will turn a blind eye to practices that are not acceptable in their countries because they want the tourist dollars - even turn a blind eye to some things that might be illegal, such as homosexuality.

I'm not saying I agree, but I certainly don't believe in placing my values on other cultures. When I visit a country I recognize that I'm a guest and I accept their rules, cultural traditions and values.

Ed Burghard said...

Lara you may be interested in the discussion on

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Ed

Thanks for the link! I'll check it out.