Middle East | United Arab Emirates
December 9, 2008
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Dubai - Jumeirah Resort Hotel Revolution

Proof that cash can buy you almost anything.

Burj al-Arab Hotel from Jumeirah Beach

“All that glitters isn't gold” is a reliable proverb – except, that is, in Dubai. Originally founded not on oil, but trading prowess (for which read smuggling), Dubai has in a few short decades generated wealth of the most extraordinary, conspicuous degree. All around, the smell of fast money fills the air; exuding a spray-on Las Vegas glamour, the city leaves you breathless and giddy.

Offering a powerful lesson in the sheer, brute strength of cash - shed-loads of it - in the hands of a determined individual unconstrained by planning enquiries or environmental audits, Dubai has reinvented itself as a world-class travel destination.

Dubai’s tourism makeover has played to the city's natural strengths - a warm and sunny winter climate, and a geographic location two or more hours closer to Europe than the Caribbean or Indian Ocean islands. It's not surprising therefore that it has very successfully specialised in winter sun, and short breaks and stop-overs in particular.

For the most part, the city's resort hotels are strung along Jumeirah Beach (30 km of sandy coastline southwards of central Dubai). Almost all the luxury class hotel chains are now represented. However, the most extraordinary constructions have been those backed personally by the architect of Dubai’s tourist re-invention, Mohammed Al-Maktoum - ruler of Dubai. First came the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, a wave-shaped building sweeping majestically above the white coral sand. Next was the nearby Burj Al-Arab, an iconic symbol of luxury and indulgence in the shape of a billowing sail. Following on were the Madinat Jumeirah, another luxury beachfront property conceived as an Arabian oasis, and two mega-resorts each on their own palm-shaped island. Still to be completed in 2009 is the Burj Dubai, which will become the world's tallest freestanding building.

Of course, neither bold architecture nor fancy facilities necessarily make somewhere the best. Tourism in Dubai has really taken off because of the exemplary standards of service offered by all of the main hotels. This has been achieved by the wholesale import of skilled and experienced staff: managers from Europe, technicians from India, and Filipinos – famously the most smiling people on earth – for front of house. Normally hard-nosed “been-there, done-that” tourism professionals positively gush with enthusiasm when recalling their “educational” visits.

Despite their best efforts, there is one affliction that all of the hotels to some extent share - resort ghetto syndrome. Spend more than a couple of days within their compounds and it’s easy to forget which continent you’re on. Fine if you want sun and sand pure and simple, but if you’re looking for a little more, you’ll want to venture outside. Happily, the city and the desert provide two very different targets for rewarding exploration.

Dubai’s entrepreneurial pulse may now be felt most strongly in the free trade zones and high-rise business complexes that ring the suburbs. But traditional soukhs (markets) still spread back from both sides of the photogenic creek winding through the city centre. Some, such as the famous gold soukh, have been smartened up, but there remain many smaller byways and hidden courtyards where you can continue to glimpse (and often smell) the old world of Persian and Indian merchant traders.

The desert, of course, surounds the city. It's weirdly close too. Pick any road, and there it is – right where the last building stops. Drive a few miles further - especially off-tarmac - and your setting could double for a classic Foreign Legion backdrop: wave upon billowing wave of golden dunes stretching out to a shimmering horizon.

The standard way of visiting is an evening excursion to a “Bedouin encampment”. However, purpose-built as much of Dubai may be, this was one synthetic step too far for my taste. Far better was spending a whole night camping amongst the eerie emptiness of the dunes. If that sounds too testing though, try the Al Maha to experience the desert in sumptuous style.

Overall, Dubai is a one-of-a-kind destination that is both extraordinary and fabulously self-indulgent. I visited a cynic and left a convert. Would I visit again? Absolutely - for a few days at a time. Would I live there? No way.

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