The Choice Is Yours


Dubai plans to double the number of yearly visitors by 2020 to 20 million. The Emirate's target is at the heart of its 2020 strategy, and efforts are being made to attract more families and increase the number of mid-range hotels.

Tourism is big business in Dubai, contributing 20% of the Emirate’s GDP. Total hotel revenues came in at $5.95 billion in 2013, up 16.1% on 2012. Between 2003 and 2014, visitor numbers grew 7.5% YoY. World Expo 2020 will coincide with the culmination of Dubai Vision 2020, aiming to draw 20 million visitors a year, generating $85 billion for the tourism industry. Attracting families is at the heart of this effort, and Dubai is developing a multitude of attractions with this in mind. Theme parks, safaris, and holiday villas have replaced the traditional emphasis on top-of-the-range hotels and the luxury sector. The Emirate is now striving to present itself as a “destination of choice,” offering something for everyone, and adding diversity to its mainstay tourist attractions of hotels, shopping, and sun, sea, and sand.

The renewed strategy of encouraging travellers to see Dubai as a destination in itself, and not merely a stopover, appears to be working. The average length of stay is increasing and the greater range of more affordable accommodation is encouraging this effort. According to Deloitte, the average length of stay at Dubai hotels has risen from 2.2 days in 2002 to 3.5 days in 2014, while the length of stay at hotel apartments has increased even more, from 3.1 days in 2002 to 5.7 days in 2013, adding significantly to the demand for guest accommodation. Around 80% of visitors come from 10 countries: Saudi Arabia, India, the UK, America, Russia, Kuwait, Germany, Oman, Iran, and China.

The importance of the sector is reflected in the leviathan structures of the ubiquitous Department of Tourism (DoT). In its wide-ranging role of “Welcoming the World to Dubai,” the DoT is the well-funded body responsible for meeting some big targets. It does this through its sub-division partner, the Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DCTCM), a newly established body overseeing Dubai’s branding, promotion, and marketing strategies. The Department’s second arm, the longer-established and more visible (yet confusingly similar) Department for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), operates out of 12 offices around the world in addition to its headquarters in Dubai. DTCM markets and promotes the Emirate’s tourism sector, and also issues licenses and generally regulates the industry. DTCM’s published goal is nothing less than to make Dubai “the leading destination for global travel, business, and events by 2020.” Its impressive aim is to double the number of visitors from 10 million in 2012 to 20 million by 2020. A less well-defined mission to “strengthen the Dubai economy by attracting tourists and inward investment into the Emirate” accompanies this vision.


The tallest (for now) building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, the sail-inspired Burj al-Arab, and many of the biggest shopping malls are now headline attractions, famous the world over for their iconic designs and vast proportions, and are rapidly being joined by a growing list of family attractions. The usual hotel pools, restaurants and beaches now vie with Dubai Mall’s shark-filled aquarium, skiing in the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Zoo, the roller-coaster style Wild Wadi Water Park, and, opening in 2016, Legoland. Dubai’s food and shopping festivals are now firm fixtures on the calendar, as is Art Dubai.
Amid all this dizzying development, Dubai Creek is the area that represents old Dubai—the traditional abra boats chugging back and forth take passengers (for AED1, or $0.27 a crossing) to the gold souq, the spice souqs of Bur Dubai, and the cafes and traditional courtyard houses on the waterfront. The Dubai Museum tells the story of the city’s beginnings as a village of pearl fishing and trading, with boats up and down the Creek laden with wares for home or overseas.

Much of this area, and in particular the historic quarter known as the Bastakiya, was made up of fishing and pearling villages which, in the 19th century, was colonized by Persian trade merchants who developed the area’s distinctive housing, complete with cooling “windtowers,” and at the same time began in earnest the development of Dubai and its trading waterfront. The Creek, the city’s historic waterway, dates from 1896 and is at the center of the city’s trade to this day.


There remain stiff challenges to overcome if these aims of expansion and diversification are to be fully realized. Dubai is the most expensive city in the Middle East, and the 22nd priciest in the world. Only the Swiss resort of Geneva has more expensive hotel rooms. From 2013 to 2014, the occupancy rate declined marginally, from 79 to 78%, while the average daily room rate rose from $235 in 2013 to $238 in 2014. However, the city’s hotels are set to experience double-digit growth, with operating profit per room forecast to increase by 16.7% in 2015. This positive trend is partly due to greater efficiency in the hospitality industry, and also a big drive to expand the sector. By 2016, DTCM expects to add a further 20,000 rooms—taking the Emirate closer to its 2020 target of 155,000 rooms—fully doubling its room capacity. According to Deloitte, Dubai needs to build an additional 283 hotels between 2015 and 2020 if it is to meet its target.
And in the immediate region, Dubai is facing stiff competition. From within the UAE, Abu Dhabi is opening ever more hotels and is competing with Dubai for its draw of foreign visitors to the new museums, sporting events and shopping malls. And neighboring Qatar and Oman are both seeking to increase their tourism industries, making the sector a priority target for growth.


Straddling the coast, and with some spectacular backdrops to offer sports enthusiasts, Dubai is capitalizing on its reputation to develop world-class sporting events and facilities. The Dubai World Cup is perhaps the most prestigious horseracing event anywhere in the world. The Dubai Classic Golf and the Barclays Dubai Tennis tournaments are both firm fixtures on the international sports calendar. Adventure sports are also gathering momentum. Skydive Dubai affords unique views of the city from unique perspectives—during the course of a 26,000-sqm drop zone area taking in the soaring Burj Khalifa, the Burj Al Arab, the Dubai Marina, and Palm Jumeira. Indoor skiing, polo (played on camels), and jet skiing are also increasingly popular.