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Finding Dubai's real appeal and value as a holiday destination

Finding Dubai's real appeal and value as a holiday destination

Yes, everybody knows Dubai, they have heard about it, seen an advert on TV, glanced at a billboard promotion or browsed through its modern and futuristic attractions in some glossy magazine, brochure or travel guide. The fact is that very few people have managed to escape the Dubai buzz, and although many can easily point out to its long list of unique attractions, ultra-luxurious hotels and eye-catching skyscrapers, not many can truthfully discern as to whether this is a destination worth its hefty price tag with so many culture-rich, mind-boggling places in the world to see and explore.

This was precisely my quest when a group of hoteliers and representatives from Dubai's tourist industry came to train our team of travel experts a couple of weeks ago - to find out the true Dubai appeal, what lies beyond all they hype, glitz and glamour (if anything at all) and why it attracts so many travellers, despite strongly lacking in history, cultural attractions and natural wonders.

Could this artificially created city really be so moving and captivating? Can you really pack your trip with new experiences each day with a week's stay? Would it be worth it to even think about staying longer? Or will you run out of things to do after the third day and have to content yourself with lying on a private manmade beach at plush resort? Is this a destination best suited for short 3-day breaks only and quick stopovers when travelling to other destinations or does it really have more to offer? Ultimately I know this will also depend on who you are as a traveller and what you seek out of a holiday experience, so another obvious questions would be – what kind of traveller is Dubai for? What age range may find this destination most appealing and why?

On the following paragraphs I attempt to answer all these and more questions, partly thanks to the training I received from various Dubai representatives during our Dubai Training Day in the office (we published a piece of news about it Dubai Training Day at the Holiday Place recently) and partly from briefly interviewing them directly.

Keep reading to find out more about the real Dubai appeal.

Ease of getting there

Ease of getting to Dubai - from British Airways, Virgin to Emirates.

Part of the convenience of making Dubai a favoured holiday destination is the fact that there are so many daily flight connections from various cities in the UK and despite the relative long-haul travel distance (approximately seven hours on a non-stop direct flight) the main air carriers travelling there directly from the UK work hard at making the journey an enjoyable experience. From British Airways to Virgin's renowned Flying Red perks and special touches, to the several times award-winning Emirates airline, ranking among the very best in the world, in terms of service, onboard food and entertainment and overall aircraft. There are other numerous airlines flying direct to Dubai from various points in the UK but out of them all, the one with the highest number of daily frequencies from Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and London is undoubtedly Emirates. In total they have 16 direct flights flying daily to Dubai from the UK. So, plenty of choice on travel dates and travel times indeed. Getting to Dubai certainly couldn't be easier.

In terms of documentation required, travelling to Dubai couldn't be a more straightforward business for British travellers as you don't even need to arrange a visa prior to travel, British passport-holders are automatically issued one for free upon arrival at the airport. All you need is your passport to be valid for the duration of six months after your arrival date.

So, yes, in terms of air connections Dubai is well set-up ...but does it really pay to fork out over £400 per person per flight to head to a sunny destination, when other equally attractive, culture-rich European locations can get you beach-ready for less the half the fare? Well, this will ultimately depend on Dubai's uniqueness, and how you perceive these unique factors as valuable to the kind of holiday experience you're after. We'll dig deeper on this subject further on.

What people go to Dubai for

Is it amazing picture-taking opportunities of striking sky-scraping landmarks? Is it the bragging factor for sharing with friends on Facebook? Is it sheer indulgence and pampering for beach-bums and sun-seekers, or experiencing a new level of ultra luxury in an exotic setting removed from everything you know? Is it the stark contrast of the ultra-modern coexisting with conservative traditions and deep religious faith? Is it the abundance of glittering gold everywhere attracting magpies? Is it sheer curiosity? Is it a "you-gotta-see-it-before-you-die" appeal? Is it really the fantastic shopping opportunities that so many people buzz about? Is it the boundless fun in amazing, sometimes futuristic, theme parks, the likes of which are hard to find anywhere else in the world? Or is it a mixture of it all?

When we lay it down like this, the list of things that draw you to Dubai seems long and varied, and one could say; well, with these many things to do and try, who wouldn't like to go to Dubai? Who indeed? The culture-vulture might not, the history-seeking traveller wouldn't and the nature enthusiast certainly won't. There's very little culture to absorb here, next to nothing in historical value and no green landscapes, wildlife or natural wonders to admire (except perhaps if you go on a desert safari adventure, but those tours actually take you out of Dubai, so this is something you'd have to travel outside the emirate to see).

Yet, for all the fun there might be to be had, many young travellers might find that the strict laws regarding alcohol consumption could put a damper on their general enjoyment. Because in Dubai it's widely known that you can't consume alcohol in public, only in licensed restaurants and hotel bars – but always indoors. If you act drunk or disorderly it could be enough for police to arrest you and charge you as there's a zero toleration policy for boisterous drunk behaviour (and there have been a few well-documented incidents with drunken British tourists being arrested in Dubai). But then again this might be exactly the reason why many couples, families and senior travellers choose Dubai, because of the lack of wild partying, loud youngsters and chaotic behaviour that could potentially disturb a nice and relaxing holiday.

The manmade attractions here truly are a treat for the senses, and every kind of curious, novelty-seeking traveller will be dazzled by the collection of lustrous sky-scrapers and edgy architectural designs that seem to defy nature or gravity. The luxury traveller will enjoy lavish touches everywhere he turns to. The humblest visitor that's never experienced any kind of luxury will be simply stunned and amazed. Even the most well-seasoned traveller will be impacted in some way, maybe not in the way he likes or expects, but it will certainly leave an impression nevertheless. It doesn't necessarily mean it will be a positive impression; one may dismiss it as overly empty and culturally invaluable, artificial and dull, pretty on the outside but no real substance in the inside. Too ostentatious. Too pretentious. Too frivolous. Whatever the adjectives the fact is that only few people can regard Dubai with total indifference, and that's only if they, like myself, haven't been there yet. Although for my part, that's soon to change.

The Dubai Training session

There were six different representatives giving the training during the day. Four of them represented hotel chains (Movenpick, and One and Only, Westing by Starwood and Sofitel by Accor), one from Dubai's tourism office and one from Emirates Airlines.

During the intensive two-hour training session we moved from table to table in groups of two to receive a 15-minute intensive overview about each representative's product offering. It pretty much looked like a speed-dating session, every now and then we would hear the bell that meant we had to change tables, and sometimes despite this we lingered on for a few more minutes in order to let the session finish. It was a bit mad and more fast-paced than I would have liked because it left little time to ask many questions (especially on the last table which interested me the most) but I got lucky in the end and you'll soon see why.

We learnt about Movenpick's selection of hotels in Dubai, from centrally located hotels in the heart of the city to leisure beach resorts in Jumeirah. Likewise, the lovely lady representing Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Vanessa Thodda, made a thorough presentation on the chain's two resorts in Dubai's Jumeirah beach. Luckily for me I paid extra attention during this presentation, as it later earned me a prize – a fabulous two-night stay for two at The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina on a Deluxe Sea View Room and with breakfast included! Unknowingly, I listened more intently to this presentation, as both resorts really caught my attention and somehow made me play with the notion of a manmade beach in my head; an artificial beach resort? The idea intrigued me and fascinated me a little. Why? I'm not so sure, probably the thought of how man can recreate some of nature's most loved landscapes, almost to perfection. Because upon glancing at some photos of Jumeirah Beach and seeing how fine, powdery soft and brilliantly white the sand is, how shallow are the turquoise waters near the shore, getting darker before they get lost in the horizon - it's startling to think this is not natural when it looks so much like something Mother Nature concocted itself – at least on pictures. I can't wait to see it up-close and be either as impressed in person or sadly disappointed in some way (I'll keep you posted).

But during the session I learnt the most about Dubai's variety of attractions was during my time with the representative from Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. Sadly because I was in the last group of trainees and we were running out of time, this session was cut short, so my the number of questions I got to ask were limited, but still helped me clear up a few doubts, if only slightly.

At the end of the session, refreshments and snacks were served, and after that each representative gave all participants a quiz about their presentation with the possibility of earning prizes. Well, if you've been reading this far, now you know what I won, the best prize out of them all – a two-night stay at a fabulous Dubai beach resort, the excuse I needed to visit the emirate and finally get to know it personally.

Dubai's latest attractions

Some of the highlights that caught my attention during the short introductory training given by Dubai's tourism representative, included a surprisingly affordable array of experiences for children and adults alike as well as some quirky facts, like the height of the Burj Khalifa Tower – 828 metres! That's a staggering landmark I won't want to miss.

Interestingly enough, the lady devoted much of her time to explaining how much Dubai had changed over the last three to five years, with a new downtown area emerging as one of the most popular spots to hang out, with plenty of restaurants, cheap fast food (yet beautifully done – part of the magic of Dubai, she explained, is that they could make the most mundane thing look expensive and chic).

She went on to talk about how great the malls were, not just for shopping but for the experiences they packed inside for old and young alike. For one, the Dubai Mall is home to the amazing Dubai Ice Rink, while you can find Ski Dubai, the Middle East's first indoor ski area, inside the Mall of the Emirates. That's not all, there's a real treat for kids inside some of these malls too, such as the amazing Dubai Aquarium, one of the largest in the world, complete with a shark-feeding tank and the awesome interactive world made for kids Kidzania – an insanely well-recreated city for children where they can engage in amazing role play and be like mum or dad for a day – a pilot, a fireman or policeman, they can do it all and even earn their! Sadly my son will be too young to experience this when we go, but I'd like to go there myself (shame about the age limit, huh?).

These malls are open until 1 a.m. on weekdays or 12 a.m. on, you really have options not to be bored. There are simply no excuses for boredom in Dubai it seems.

The lady giving the training also mentioned other attractions I had already heard of (as many of you also probably have) like Wild Wadi Water Park and Aquaventure at the Atlantis, The Palm hotel. She also mentioned not to miss the opportunity of catching a traditional water taxi to cross the Dubai Creek, the quickest and cheapest option at just 1 Dhiram per person – that's only 0.16 pence! She talked about the Dubai Lake and the musical fountains, offering an amazing show of lights, colour and melody every day after 6 p.m.

She mentioned going to Atmosphere inside the Burj Khalifa, a greatly positioned bar on the 423rd floor affording the most amazing 360 views – but she didn't mention the price tag, she only said it was cheaper than climbing the London Shard on the 129th floor – I'll soon find out how right she was.

Now that I'm going on holiday there soon I'll be digging deeper to find out more of the attractions I wouldn't want to miss. Including some off the beaten paths ones if there are any to be found.

What might put people off visiting Dubai

We've all read it in the news or heard about it somewhere – the infamous arrests for drunk and disorderly tourists, the jailing and hefty fines for public indecent displays of affection, the rules on inappropriate dressing attire or the strict boundaries on alcohol consumption. Dubai is not a place for the wild and carefree. For a westerner some measures of caution are necessary and essential if you are to have a good, hassle-free time during your holiday there.

Many a time Dubai has been put down as restrictive, intolerant destination for western travellers, because despite marketing itself as a tolerant, ultra-modern destination (avant-garde even in some aspects) and openly inviting affluent foreign visitors of all cultures to enjoy its many unique attractions, and despite appearing to a relax, still in some areas.

This was one of my main questions and concerns as to why would anyone go to Dubai for fun. Is there such thing as controlled fun? Limited fun? Many Britons wouldn't even conceive the idea of holiday fun without alcohol, skimpy summer clothing and affectionate smooches. Holidays is the time when we are the most relaxed, free from tensions and thus more likely to engage in affectionate interactions with our family members or partner – of course I don't mean things like sex on the beach, which is also illegal in the UK (and most parts of the world for that matter), but walking hand-in-hand, hugging (and I don't mean groping either) and a sweet peck on the lips (not a full-on snog). Well, such "innocent" display of affection could easily cause offense it seems, and while the police is not out to catch this sort of behaviour, any of the locals who isn't happy with witnessing it might complain and draw the issue to their attention and're in trouble - and your holiday spoiled.

A lost of damage-repair has been done on the press and public media to soften the effect of the 2008 - 2010 jailing of British tourists, in some cases for foolish and reckless drunken behaviour (which I must say it's not a pretty sight to witness, especially for families with kids, so I'm with them on this one), in one case for an alleged kiss on the lips (which the accused said was a peck on the cheek) between a married couple during a restaurant meal, in another for sex on the beach (although those responsible claim they were just kissing) and even in one case a British couple managed to escape trial by producing a marriage certificate because they were wrongly accused of having sex out of wedlock. There have been many incidents, some with more coverage than others, but the fact remains that many tourists have been imprisoned for months after also paying hefty fines.

Some people have even mentioned in blogs that locals seem to look down on foreigners, with a certain air of disgust, as if because of our modern customs and liberated way of life appeared "unclean" in their eyes. But the fact still remains that the expat community largely outnumbers that of local Emiratis in Dubai and to one extent you might understand their concern for this ever-growing foreign influence having an impact on their cultural traditions and conservative etiquette.

To kiss or not to kiss

The matter still remains very much a confusing one. On one hand many expats living in Dubai and, of course, those working for the Dubai tourism industry, are quick to reassure that Dubai is the most tolerant emirate in the UAE and as long as you behave with decency and your display of affection is not explicitly provocative or of a sexual nature you should be safe. A peck on the cheek and holding hands won't get you in trouble or land you in jail they say. Many are also keen on emphasising the fact that on most of these unfortunate incidents involving arrests, the influence of alcohol also played a big part. Whether that's true or not it'll never be fully known. The Dubai authorities will say one thing and the accused another. So I'll have to judge it myself.

When I go to Dubai, I'll be going with my husband and our hyperactive 20-month-old toddler, so with all the running after him there won't be much time for hand-holding or any kind of cuddling, as innocent as it might be, but still I'll check out what other foreign couples do, how they behave towards each other and how locals react around them.

And when it comes to the dress code, I'll also be checking out people (oh how wrong that sounds), especially women, what length of shorts is acceptable, do shoulders have to be covered at all times even under scorching 40 degrees Celsius heat? And yes, you can't walk around the street in Dubai with a beer in hand but there are plenty of licensed hotels, restaurants and bars to go around and have a drink in – yes, they are way overpriced but I guess it's all part of the experience. The same way you don't come to Dubai for a budget holiday, you don't come for cheap free-flowing drinks on tap, so you shouldn't be expecting them to be cheap as chips, especially in a deeply religious and conservative Muslim country.

In any case, the drinking issue is not a big one for me. It really doesn't phase me because neither me nor my husband are big drinkers anyway, so this definitely won't put a dampener on our holiday, and given how expensive alcoholic drinks are over there, we'd rather splash out on other experiences. That's not to say, of course, we'll say no to having a cocktail at sunset from some panoramic sky-view bar – you have to do that at least once and Dubai, to enjoy the spectacular views – and yes, you have to pay for them (no freeloading allowed, in fact many of these have a minimum spend per person to allow you to even be there in the first place).

Too elitist?

Like I was just saying in the above paragraph, there are places so extremely high-class, so utterly snobbish in Dubai that they won't let you in to have a peek, unless you are prepared to splash what, for many, can be a day's wages in drinks or snacks.

I've read people complain about the fact that Dubai's most exclusive places aren't accessible to the average visitor. And, yes, I know that the word "exclusive" implies "exclusion" of course, but then again many people go to Dubai to see these unique and "exclusive" things at least once in their lifetime.

And you certainly can...from a distance. The world's only seven-star hotel proudly rises on its own piece of manmade island off Jumeirah Beach, but its glory can only be admired from the outside unless you're prepared to spend a fortune on gourmet meals and cocktails inside its restaurants and bars. You really cannot access this hotel's interiors unless you're a paying guest or have dinner reservations. And at a minimum of 360 dirhams (around £50) spend per person to spend on cocktails in a bar and a meal that won't go below the £160 per person in a restaurant, it's not like you'll be throwing out pocket change exactly.

So, yes, Dubai is not a place for everyone, but of course there are more affordable places than this to stay at, and apparently if you stay at the much cheaper Jumeirah Beach Hotel next door you get a free tour inside the Burj Al Arab, so yes, it's exclusive, but that's implied in it being the world's most luxurious hotel, right?

Scratching the surface – any wild nature then?

I mentioned it before, this is a modern manmade city in the middle of the desert, there's no real wildlife or nature anywhere. So, in Dubai, if you're after natural adventures – better forget it.

However, if you plan to spend some time on Dubai, say more than the typical rushed two days of sightseeing, and don't mind travelling a few kilometres to the surrounding desert you might enjoy some pretty amazing desert safari adventures. Many tour agencies arrange this and the prices vary slightly, but on average you can expect to pay between 200 – 500 dirham per person (Between £30 and £80), depending on what the tour includes, if it's a morning or evening one and if you get any other activities in the package such as sand-boarding, dune bashing, camel rides or meals. You could even book an overnight one if you so wish and camp out under the stars in traditional Bedouin tents.

Desert encounters are many say essential to the Dubai experience, but I myself don't know yet if I'll have time to squeeze one of those adventures in my five-day trip to Dubai, and I'm not even sure whether they allow toddlers under two on those desert safari adventures, but I might enquire whilst there and give it a go. Check back in a couple of months to see if I managed to do it or not, and whether it's really worth it to spend the extra time and extra cash.

Can Dubai be done on a budget?

This was one of the questions I had been pondering on for a while before the training session, and at first, it seemed somewhat stupid to me, because why would anyone go to the Middle East's spending capital per excellence to be frugal and skimp on luxuries? Why would you go pay a hefty flight fare to admire some of the world's most magnificent and opulent hotels, restaurants and bars to then retreat yourself to a budget hostel and eat out in some scruffy shack? It simply doesn't add up.

But...there might be ways to cuts costs if you're a savvy traveller who just wants to see the sights, spend a little here and there on some of the essential attractions not to be missed, perhaps enjoy a fine meal for a night out, or enjoy a cocktail with a view at sunset, but you don't need the red carpet treatment every moment of your stay and you're good to wander out and about on your own, on foot, by bus or using the inexpensive Dubai metro, explore every nook and cranny whilst also sampling the humble local culture.

Well, certainly in terms of accommodation and food, visiting Dubai can turn out to be a very cheap experience, that is of course if you stay at low-end hotels like and eat where the locals eat, with many cheap Pakistani, Iranian, Indian and even restuarnts serving up generous tasty fare. Allegedly, you find these on the other side of Dubai, at Al Dhiyahaf road, with a long line of restaurants catering to the city's less affluent residents.

Also there's many western fast food outlets like McDonalds, KFC and Subways at Dubai malls, so for a quick cheap bite that's always a way to save a few pounds.

Or, so I've read, but I'll be able to find out with more accuracy how cheap and how tasty meals can be here after my visit, so come back in a couple of months' time when my next blog will be ready.

Dubai for whom?

Is it a family destination? Is it a thrill-seeker's dream fantasy ride? Is it a place to let the snob in you receive the long overdue royalty treatment it deserves? Or is it the place to grab a few bargains in one of the larger-than-life shopping malls.

Dubai is something to everyone, or nothing to some people, but it is certainly more suited to some travellers than others. Depending on your expectations out of a holiday experience you can be dazzled or you can be puzzled, or you can be both and leave satisfied or deeply unsatisfied.

Going back to my initial question what is the real value of a Dubai holiday? Well, I've gone over a few of the main factors here, but I'll only find out myself in a couple of months' time. So watch this space!

Gaby Lucius

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Gaby Lucius

Chill-out facilitator

With an eye for finding pleasurable travel experiences around the globe and catching the latest...

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