For a small fishing village of just 800 people in 1820, the two-hundred-year growth of Dubai has been stratospheric in comparison to many nations. It leads the world in many indices and lays claim to a boutique of “firsts”: It plays host to the world’s busiest airport for global traffic, for example, and over 100 shopping centers it boasts, one of them just happens to be the largest mall on earth, Dubai Mall. Add to that the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, and arguably “the world’s only seven-star hotel“, Burj Al Arab – an accolade proposed by guests and visitors, and not proclaimed by the hotel itself.
It’s important to clarify Dubai’s grandiosity is not for everyone, but, if you’re a follower of luxury, fashion, or unapologetic opulence, you’ll love it. Arguably only Las Vegas can be more ‘OTT’ in such a comparatively small landmass, although those that live in Dubai say there is no comparison – simply due to the novelty of the attractions, the Middle Eastern dimension, and the region’s commitment to growth.
Already a significant merchant hub nestled between the continents, the discovery of oil in 1966 exploded the course of Dubai’s ambitious plans. However, despite what many think, oil now only accounts for a small amount of its total revenue, shared with trade, tourism, retail, real estate, financial services, and aviation.
According to Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index 2019, it is the fourth most-visited city across the globe, based on the number of international visitors and happens to be the fastest-growing, with the potential to reach 25 million tourists by 2025. In 2018, it topped the tourism big spenders list for the fourth year in a row, with a total spend of over $30 billion – an average per day of $553 for each tourist. Be warned.
It’s not difficult to contextualize these numbers. As an example, Dubai Mall offers a personal shopper for AED 2950 (approximately R12 000), a three-hour concierge down Fashion Avenue, or you can try Harvey Nichols in the Mall of The Emirates, considering you didn’t make it all the way to London. You can ask your hotel for high fashion stores like Halston Heritage, Kooples, Symphony, or even request a chauffeur service to collect you to browse Boutique1.
For a more traditional retail experience, you can steep yourself in some history. Originally, given its location, dhows from East Asia, China, Sri Lanka, and India would deliver textiles and spices to be bargained over in the souks (or traditional markets) adjacent to the docks. Visit Dubai Creek for the Perfume, Spice or Gold Souk – which is seen as the largest gold bazaar in Arabia, and homes more than 250 gold retail shops.
There’s a caveat though. Dubai’s winter, especially late November to early February is the best time to go, although South Africans would benefit from a better climate back home during these months. In our winter, when many choose to spend their travel savings, Dubai temperatures can reach the late 40s, limiting the majority of any stay to remain indoors under the cool shelter of air conditioning. Be warned, again.
The end and beginning of the year offer the two best opportunities to visit Dubai for tourism or business. There is the 25th Dubai Shopping Festival (DFS) from December 26th 2019 to February 1 2020, or the Dubai Expo 2020 from 20 October till 10 April 2021, lasting 173 days. Across a staggering 438-hectare area, part of the new Dubai Trade Centre Jebel Ali urban development, 192 country pavilions, and 200 restaurants will feature narratives from every part of the globe, supported by 60 shows daily.
For South Africans, Dubai offers something of huge value to family audiences, and that is accessibility and security. Direct flights in on Emirates or Ethiopian from both Cape Town and Johannesburg makes a difference for parents who can’t handle the European long haul with kids. On arrival, there is architecture, luxury, entertainment and shopping for parents, and for children, there is the Aquaventure Waterpark and Dolphin Bay, aquariums, Legoland Dubai, Kidzania, City Walk, Dubai Ice Rink and Ski Dubai, IMG Worlds of Adventure, Motiongate, fireworks displays, Kite Beach and, yes, the desert – a real-life camel ride or dolphin experience will challenge our own ‘Big Five’ for a prized placed in the lifelong Memory Hall Of Fame.
If at this point in the article the numbers may seem a little overwhelming, that’s because they are. To unwind and recharge you will most definitely need a restorative base that can play host to some of these top attractions, and with family, there is no better choice than Atlantis, The Palm. With more than 20 restaurants, Aquaventure Waterpark, the 65,000 marine animals in the Lost Chambers Aquarium, and the dream-like underwater restaurant, Ossiano, Atlantis chalk up multiple once-in-a-lifetime moments, irrespective of your age.
This cascading list of extraordinary highlights, supported by the numbers, justifies a quote I found online from writer Mina Menon, “Dubai is about castles in the air, a childlike belief in fairytale living where everything is perfect because nobody counts the cost, and you can wear your tiara every day.