The UAE emirate of Dubai has achieved a dream to transform itself into a world-beating destination for business or pleasure, reports Jonna Simon
Less than two decades ago, before mobile phones and e-mail, a few people in Dubai had a dream to turn a desert emirate into an international vacationland to compare with the Caribbean, into a commercial centre to compete with Hong Kong and a sports centre as popular as Monte Carlo.Many people scoffed, when Dubai started its own airline in 1985. Today, Emirates is one of the world's top airlines. No-one believed that a former pearl centre could become a commercial centre. Today Dubai's Internet and Media City is leading the Arab world into the age of e-commerce. Who would have believed that a transit point between East and West would in 2001 have a major airport with one of the world's largest duty-free shopping centres and plans to become a global hub? By 2005 another terminal will be built to mirror the present one, tailored exclusively for Emirates and including the first-ever, purpose-built double-decker boarding gates for the airline's new A380 super jumbos. Dubai is now rated among the top 10 most exciting holiday destinations among Europeans and Tiger Woods and Martina Hingis recently competed there to underline the emirate's new-found prowess as a sporting centre. Dubai also runs the Dubai Cup, the world's richest horse race, offshore powerboat championship races and the Dubai Rugby Sevens. How did the dream become a reality? By initiative, investments and innovations. For the tourism industry, the number one priority was to have more hotels, an airline, sightseeing and shopping attractions. So Dubai started an airline and not just any airline. It invested in the future by drawing up plans for a unique airline and attracted a multi-cultural team of experienced and innovative specialists to run the new carrier. The Dubai government also did not just talk about new hotels, it encouraged local business people to invest in stylish five-star properties, beach resorts to compare with any leading hotels anywhere in the world. It started a tourism organisation and marketed their product worldwide. Knowing that tourists and other visitors need more than sea, sun and sand, it built 18 huge shopping malls, a new museum and supported the establishment of safari and sightseeing companies, water theme parks. Realising that at some times of the year, there was a need to attract more visitors, Dubai introduced the Dubai Shopping Festival and the Dubai Summer Surprises, Every two years, the Dubai Air Show is staged, now placed third in the world after Farnborough and Paris. The development of Dubai as a tourism centre is on-going with a new heritage village due to open shortly at Hatta to complement the Creekside village at Shindaga. Another exciting development is the building of a man-made island to be called Palm Island off the coast near the Dubai Internet City. It is understood that the Palm Island project will cover some 16 sq km and will be the location of 25 exclusive hotels as well as residential villas. There will also be two marinas and a huge shopping mall. The project is scheduled for completion within a three-year period. The project is entitled Palm Island, because it will be shaped like a palm tree. Perhaps the secret to Dubai's emergence as a tourist and sporting and commercial hub in the Middle Fast is the government's declared policy of free enterprise. An open-skies policy with no protection for the national carrier has enticed more and more airlines to fly to Dubai, 92 at current counting. Tax-free areas such as the Jebel Ali Free Zone and the Dubai Airport Tax Free Zone have persuaded more than 1,000 companies to base themselves in the emirate. A sustained and determined campaign to encourage Internet and hi-tech companies as well as media publishers and TV producers to base themselves in Dubai Internet and Media City, has been outstandingly successful with firms such as Microsoft, Compaq, IBM and Oracle already moving in. Perhaps nothing highlights the success of Dubai's tourism business as well as actual statistics. Today, oil income represents some18 per cent of the emirate's total revenue. Tourism is at 22 per cent and rising. As Dubai's oil is finite with, some say, only 15 years reserves remaining, obviously it makes a great deal of sense to build up other industries to maintain the country's wealth and provide continuity, employment opportunities for its rapidly-growing younger generation. The Emirates Training College for entrants to the aviation industry and the Emirates International Hotels Management School are testament to the contribution to the economy, which is being made by these relatively new industries for the UAE. It is estimated that by 2005, some 15 million visitors a year will transit Dubai International Airport and it has been said that by 2015, there will be 50 million passengers using the airport. In view of the success of Emirates and the tourism industry, who would be inclined to doubt these figures? The upsurge in the number of hotels in itself has been a series of success stories. None more spectacular than the Jumeirah International saga - a dynamic, newly-created group of well-managed government-owned hotels: the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the Burj A1 Arab, the Jumeirah Beach Club, the Emirates Towers and the Dubai World Trade Centre hotel. Among a number of new hotels are the Dusit Dubai, an archway-tower hotel on the Shaikh Zayed Highway, just opposite the new Shangri-La Hotel, another twin-towered building just with the foundations now under construction. Further down the highway towards the city is the new Sheraton Plaza Hotel, almost ready for opening.