A new frontier for Canadian travelers

Over the past decade oil-rich Dubai has spent mind boggling sums of money to turn its city emirate into one of the world’s great tourist destinations. However, the steepest hill to climb will be changing perception. When I visited this Arabian Gulf metropolis last year, I arrived with the same preconceived notions and concerns shared by many North Americans.

Would it be safe? Would there be religious and/or social restrictions in accordance with the country’s Islamic faith? All of my uncertainties were put to rest during a week-long trip that turned out to be a huge dose of reality.

Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the federation of United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is the most proactive among the group in its bid to cultivate tourism. Though the emirates together possess 10 percent of the earth’s oil reserves, Dubai‘s stores are projected to run out in a decade hence its move toward economic diversification with tourism topping the initiative.

Personal security

To achieve its goal the toughest challenge will be convincing potential tourists (particularly North Americans) that its Middle East location offers a safe environment in view of its proximity to political hotspots around the Gulf. In this regard, the position taken by Dubai tourism and the UAE overall is that they are a moderate Islamic federation–emphasis on moderate–whereby they insist there are no problems with respect to safety and no history of problems. Sheik leaders in Dubai condemn terrorism and the emirate has a negligible domestic crime rate of less than one percent. In fact, Conde Nast magazine recently voted Dubai the safest family vacation destination in the world.

Customs and culture

Contrary to widespread misconceptions visitors are not restricted by religious-based principles laid down in Islamic doctrine. The attitude toward alcohol consumption and dress code is relaxed and other than obscene, flesh-revealing outfits there are no taboos. In fact within the confines of resorts and hotel pool areas, even bikini swim wear is perfectly acceptable. “The same diversity and tolerance exists in Dubai as it does in Canada,” said Al Hinton, an Ontario exports promoter working in the Middle East. “The Muslin population here is not judgemental about what other people do.”

Something for everybody

With current stores of oil bankrolling their tourism initiative Dubai has already steamrolled onto the world stage as a new and exciting vacation spot by building stupendous attractions such as the world’s first indoor ski hill (a Black Diamond run) and a theme park (Dubailand) that when completed in 2009 will be eight times bigger than Disneyland. A slew of new hotels have been built and construction of several amazing man-made resort islands including one shaped like a giant palm tree is underway.

Several Dubai tour companies offer a host of experiences such as desert safaris, sand skiing, camel riding, dune bashing in four-wheel drive vehicles and overnight outings spent in Bedouin tents under the stars complete with traditional entertainment and food. The national sports of camel racing and falconry are popular spectator events.

Dubai is a birdwatchers paradise with a tidal wetland on its doorstep that is home to 400 species of birds. The waterfront city also offers a full range of water sports from windsurfing to parasailing. Too, the city is famous for its horse racing venues, several tennis clubs, numerous beaches and the oldest zoo in the Arab peninsula.

Several heritage sites include the Dubai Museum where a collection of galleries profiles traditional Arab life and the region’s pearl diving history–an industry that once drove the area’s economy but collapsed in the 1940s when the Japanese developed the cultured pearl.

Moreover, situated in a desert environment hasn’t prevented Dubai from developing championship golf courses with some of them featuring night-lit golf. The city is also an amazing shopping Mecca where there’s an inordinate number of shopping centres, including the famous Mall of the Emirates that houses 400 retail outlets, 65 restaurants and is home to the Ski Dubai complex.

The alternative to mall shopping is Dubai’s many souks where individual markets specialize in goods such as gold, spices, antiques, textiles and carpets. In the souks, haggling is a tradition and bargaining with shopkeepers is expected.

Dining and accommodations

Visitors to Dubai will be hard pressed to find a specific version of Arabic food, rather local fare tends to be a melting pot of cuisines that includes Lebanese, Iranian and Moroccan. Food can cost a little or a lot and across the city just about any type of cuisine is available including Thai, French, Japanese, Indian, Italian, together with ubiquitous fast-food chains like McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Burger King. Tourists can also opt for a truly Arabian dining experience called “dune dinners” whereby guests are taken to an Arab campsite for a sumptuous feast under a desert starlit sky.

Accommodations are equally diverse. Dubai is awash in hotels that include all the major brand names like Fairmont, Hyatt, Hilton, Radisson and Sheraton. Many up-market properties in the city have bought into Dubai’s flair for the luxurious and statement-making opulence. The 414-room Hyatt Regency Dubai, for example, has an indoor ice skating rink and a nine-hole golf course attached.

Money talks

Over the past decade Dubai has invested enormous sums on construction and the city’s skyline continues to be dotted with a forest of steel cranes assisting in the erection of attention grabbing projects like the tallest towers in the world and ultra-luxurious seven-star hotels. Overall, the city’s bold and aggressive strategies to become a premier tourist destination are quite phenomenal when you consider that until the 1960s, prior to the discovery of oil, the UAE region was an impoverished desert country whose meagre economy was based on fishing and farming. Even more astonishing is the fact that just over 15 years ago Dubai was virtually non-existent. “Dubai today is a blend of Hong Kong and Singapore,” said Norman Morrison, an Alberta government trade director working in the Middle East. “It’s exotic, safe and unspoiled.”

TRAVEL PLANNER

Getting there: Etihad Airways, national airline of the emirates, offers non-stop flights from Toronto to Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi airport is less than an hour’s drive from Dubai and the airline offers transfer service.
Entry Requirements: Canadians entering the UAE require a visa but it can be obtained on arrival.
Climate: To escape the torrid summer heat, the best time to visit is October through May.
Language: The official language of Dubai is Arabic although English is widely spoken.
Currency: The official currency is the dirham. The dirham divided by three gives an approximation of the CDN$ equivalent.

For more information visit:
www.dubaitourism.ae
www.etihadairways.com

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