Dubai is exotic, exciting, glamorous and one of the most talked about places on the planet.
In the 1950s, Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, was a 6,000-person fishing village. Since oil was discovered there in 1966, its population has grown to 1.3 million, and in the process become a hotspot for international jet setters.
Now that Dubai has become the place to be seen for movie stars and moguls, A-listers like soccer star David Beckham are buying up island properties that haven't even been built yet.
This metropolis on the Arabian Gulf draws travelers mainly from Europe, the Far East and Africa. The pull is tax-free highest-end shopping, great weather, gourmet food and pristine, almost sterile, beaches that go on for miles. If you want adventure, there's everything from camel rides to sand skiing.
While some foreigners come just for the mall experience—there are dozens of them—the souks are worth a visit. These outdoor markets sell everything from exotic spices to gold and pashminas for extremely fair prices. Keep in mind that bargaining is key; I started at half of what they stated and worked up from there.
There are also plenty of expert tailors in Dubai, so bring a picture of something you want replicated and ask your concierge for a suggestion. The tailors have both pattern books and fabrics to choose from.
In case you forget, Dubai is a Muslim country, so in public places throughout the day, you will hear the call to prayer over loudspeakers. There are also segregated prayer rooms in all public places, including hotels.
Conde Nast Traveler's readers poll in 2003 voted Dubai the world's safest city, and according to the residents we talked to, there is virtually no crime.
Amidst all the modern, gleaming high rises, there is traditional culture to be experienced, mainly at the Heritage and Diving Village and the Dubai Museum. Here, life in the U.A.E. is shown before oil—when camels were the cars and people were pearl divers, fisherman, camel herders and date farmers. The Heritage Village on the Creek is where locals and expats hang out in cafes, watch the abras (small water taxis) and smoke shishas, ornate glass pipes that filter flavored tobacco through water. The Heritage Village also offers camel and horse rides in the evening.
The U.A.E. is a young nation, federated in 1971, and a wealthy one. Many Emirates, who only make up 20 percent of the population, don't have to work because they receive oil profits, and many drive luxury cars, live in impressive houses and shop for top couture.
In addition to everything else, Dubai is known as the "Sports Capital of the Middle East," with world-class golf, tennis, horse racing, rally car racing, power boating, rugby and sailing.
Oh, and did we mention snow skiing? At the Mall of Emirates, one of the world's largest shopping centers, you can swoosh down five slopes on an indoor "mountain" the size of three football fields. And especially refreshing in the hot summer, Wadi World is a water park.
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With more than 282 hotels, 91 airlines connecting to over 132 destinations, experienced ground operators, modern seaports and a government that understands the value of tourism, Dubai is very well equipped to handle visitors.
Approximately one fifth of the world's cranes work 24 hours a day to expand this Middle East hub that supported 6.1 million hotel guests in 2005.
As if to prove the tiny enclave's popularity, when we visited this past spring, all of the hotels were booked solid, so plan ahead.
Airlift: Based in Dubai, Emirates Airlines (www.emirates.com) has twice-daily nonstop service from New York City to Dubai and also has a new Dubai-Hamburg-New York route. The world-class Dubai International Airport (www.dubaiairport.com) had 24.7 million arrivals in 2005.
Climate: November through April is best, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. The rest of the year, the weather is uncomfortably hot and humid, with temperatures rarely dropping below 100 during the day.
Visas: U.S. citizens need a visa, which is free. A sponsor is required.
Hotels: Clients can expect over-the-top luxury at the Burj Al Arab (www.burj-al-arab.com), the world's only seven-star hotel, which is on its own island. Its partner, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel (www.jumeirahbeachhotel.com), curves around a white-sand beach and boasts high-end accommodations that are family friendly. The Madinat Jumeirah (www.jumeirah.com), a grouping of hotels and small villas built to look like a 'Disney-esque' Arabian village, spans about two miles, with the buildings interconnected by waterways. Water taxis or golf carts shuttle guests to an indoor souk, an outdoor water park and the many restaurants and bars.
Close to the convention centers, The Fairmont Dubai (www.fairmont.com), is a good business hotel.
The large chain hotels on the creek in Deira—the Hilton Dubai Creek, InterContinental, Sheraton and Hyatt—are near the souks, about 20 minutes from the beach by shuttle.
Outside of the city in the desert, the Al Maha (www.al-maha.com) is in the middle of rolling sand dunes. The property's 40 individual lodges were built to resemble super-luxe bedouin camps and come with antiques and private pools. The bent is on ecology here, so there's falconry, camel treks, horseback riding, four-wheel drive safaris and desert walks led by conservationists. The staff-to-guest ratio is 1:3.
Restaurants: Spectrum on One at the Fairmont Dubai has a menu that trumps most, serving fare from around the globe. For a staggering view, try the Al Muntaha on the 27th floor of Burj Al Arab, which has views of the Palm Islands. Nonresident guests can dine in the restaurants with prior reservations made via e-mail.
The Koubba Bar at the Madinat Jumeirah is a rooftop lounge that overlooks the grounds of the hotel with a view of Burj Al Arab. Clients will lounge on couches and sip martinis infused with combinations of local herbs.
Tip: For unbiased restaurant reviews, upcoming specials, concerts and more, pick up a copy of Dubai's Time Out.
Dress: Dubai is more Westernized than clients might expect. In fact, most local women wear Western clothing. Most Emirati men wear the dishdasha (long robe, usually white) and ghutra (head covering). Advise clients that, according to the 2006 Dubai Tourism manual, "Compared with certain parts of the Middle East, Dubai has a relaxed dress code. However, care should be taken not to give offense by wearing clothing that may be considered inappropriate or revealing. At the pool or on the beach, trunks, swimsuits and bikinis are quite acceptable. Away from the beach or pool area, however, a shirt and shorts is the minimum expected."
Tour Operators: Destinations of the World (www.dotw.com ) is a wholesale travel company with 30 offices in 24 countries. Call Erik Paulsson, 212-779-1101. Arabian Adventures (www.arabian-adventures.com) has a large offering of overland explorer programs. Call Susan Joehri, 971-4-203-2111. Net Group (www.netgroupdubai.com) is the largest private tour operator in Dubai. Call David Milican, 971-4-266-6655.
Cruises: From this past October to April 2007, Dubai is scheduled to welcome approximately 50 cruise ships. The ship-shaped terminal, opened in 2001, can accommodate two ships simultaneously. Dubai expects 20,000 cruise passengers in 2006 and 30,000 in 2007 from ships including the Queen Mary 2 and Costa Classica.
More to Come: New projects are being announced every day, but here are some highlights. Three Palm Islands (www.palmsales.ca) will be shaped like palm trees (one of which, Palm Diera, will be about the size of Manhattan). The World ( www.nakheel.ae), a group of 300 man-made islands, will cover more than 593 million square feet and will be visible to the naked eye from space. The tallest building in the world will be the Burj Dubai (www.burjdubai.com), which will be surrounded by developments including hotels and the Dubai Mall, which itself will have an ice rink and gold souk.
Three times the size of Disney World, Dubailand (www.dubailand.ae) will be the world's biggest theme park, with a waterpark, replicas of the Egyptian pyramids, indoor skiing and the biggest mall in the world. —HR