Dubai's Dramatic Transformation: A Front Row Seat
In 2000, I arrived in Dubai the morning after Ramadan had started. There were giant photos welcoming their much beloved leader H. H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan back to the United Arab Emirates. (He was returning from having a kidney transplant in the USA.) Dubai was beautifully decorated with the same lights we use for Christmas trees in the west, however this was for Ramadan. This created a dreamlike quality and I remember thinking "A futuristic Arabian Nights fantasy."
My first trip to Dubai was short. It was just a few glorious days of truly memorable experiences including my first desert safari and an enchanting Dhow dinner cruise on the Dubai Creek. I was mesmerized by the view as I floated past the Dubai Heritage Village while nibbling on chocolate delicacies. I was certain it was so certain that this was a dream that I kept pinching myself. After I returned to Canada, I never stopped talking about my incredible journey.
One incident that stands out in my mind happened after a riding lesson at the Dubai Polo Club. I relaxed and watched some polo. When I was ready to leave, I went to call taxi. A handsome polo player from Rajasthan offered me a lift back to the hotel. My father's words "Never take a ride from a stranger echoed in my mind". I politely declined with my usual "Oh I wouldn't want to take you out of your way." His response was "Out of my way? The whole place is about 5 miles wide." I laughed accepted his offer and he safely took me to my destination in no time flat. At the time, I had no idea how dramatically Dubai was about to change.
On that trip, I met an elderly couple from the UK. The husband told me that when he had been in Dubai to help put in the infrastructure for electricity, the area around the clock was desert. At that time, the clock tower was a prominent landmark. When I went to Dubai in 2007 and 2008, I couldn't even find the clock. It had been dwarfed by all of the new developments. In January, 2007, as I travelled downtown from the beach where I was staying, I counted 100 mega high rises under construction before I gave up and stopped counting. This was an area that, at the time of my first trip was just desert and beach. On that same trip, as the taxi took me out to Bab Al Shams to go riding, I noticed huge displays in the desert showcasing the shape of things to come. That part of the desert is slated for development and 40 upscale luxury resorts will soon be springing from the desert sands.
Dubai: An Incredible Incentive Travel Destination
They say that the Dubai skyline changes every 6 months. I had a chance to actually put this to the test in 2007 and 2008 by visiting every few months and it's true. I like to think of Dubai as not one but 3 dramatically different incentive travel destinations, the Dubai of the past, present and future.
Dubai of the past includes Deira and the area around the Dubai Creek.
In Dubai of the present, an area of explosive growth, you'll see glistening skyscrapers under construction and modern shopping centres. It can best be seen from the upper floors of any of the beach hotels.
Dubai of the future includes the Palm Island trilogy and The Map. It also takes in the part of the desert slated for development that I described earlier. You'll pass this area on your way to the Bab Al Shams resort.
It has been a pleasure to watch the new Dubai take shape and each time I return, I look forward to seeing the dramatic transformation that has taken place.
Surefire Tips for Amazing Incentive Travel in Dubai
If you're considering Dubai as the destination for your next incentive trip, I hope that you will find some of these suggestions based on what I have observed during the last 8 1/2 years to be of value. Keeping these guidelines in mind will ensure your comfort and help you spend an enjoyable and memorable time in Dubai. It will be a unique incentive trip that your group will talk about for years.
1. Plan well ahead for lowest airfares and best accommodation in Dubai.
The most important thing to remember is that it is important to plane WELL ahead, especially if your group is large. As hotel space becomes scarcer, prices do go up for accommodation and airline flights. Popular hotels like the One and Only Royal Mirage and Madinat Jumeriah's Al Qasr sell out really fast. To avoid disappointment, some of the most popular attractions must also be reserved well ahead of time to ensure availability for groups.
2. Schedule your trip between October and April.
The best time to travel is between mid October and the end of April. At that time the temperatures are more comfortable and you can spend more time outdoors. Be flexible with your dates and don't lock them in until you have given your incentive travel planner an opportunity to confirm availability of hotels and attractions. It would be a shame to lose out on an incredible location that could have been available if your dates had been more flexible.
3. Build in enough time for your group to experience the local culture.
Add an extra day to your group's itinerary so that you can have a chance to explore the heritage section and get a sense of Dubai's rich history and culture. Why go to Dubai and not see it? Why travel to a foreign destination and learn nothing about the people and their culture? If you just plan to sit in meeting rooms, lie on the beach, and get drunk, you may as well stay home and save yourself some money.
4. Double check visa requirements.
Visa requirements changed dramatically as of August 1, 2008 so make certain that you carefully verify what is required. Upon arrival, you will fill in an immigration and customs form. A portion of the card will be retained and you will be required to surrender it upon departure so don't lose it.
5. Stay out of trouble.
- Illegal drugs are a definite no-no and penalties are STIFF. Remember that American TV commercial from a number of years ago? "When you're busted for drug over there, you're in for the hassle of your life." My advice is don't even think about it.
- Even some prescription medication that is perfectly legal in North America and Europe is prohibited (e.g. codeine).
- Some drugs that are over the counter in other countries are controlled substances in UAE. It is always best to check ahead of time and to carry your prescription and the original container. (Check with your nearest United Arab Emirates consulate for updates before departure)
- Pornography is prohibited and possession carries stiff penalties.
6. Take precautions for the climate.
Dubai is ultra modern. It's easy to forget that you are in what was up until recently a desert:
- Wear a scarf or hat to protect your head from the sun and avoid sunstroke.
- To avoid dehydration, ALWAYS carry a bottle of water with you and drink plenty of it.
- Apply sunscreen liberally and often.
- Be sure to pack cotton shirts, dresses, and blouses to ensure comfort.
7. Plan around the traffic.
Until the LRT is ready in September 2009, traffic congestion will continue to be a problem. Plan your itinerary and then book your accommodation so that you are close to the attractions you want to see on certain days. For example, if you want to explore the heritage area, stay in Deira for a night or two. Arrange a late check-in at your beach hotel and travel at night after at night after your Dhow cruise. This will be much more comfortable than sitting in gridlock for hours at time during the day.
8. Respect traditions.
The lifestyle in Dubai is opulent. I've never seen so many Ferraris and custom made Mercedes Benz's in my life. You will find that the architecture and technology is even more advanced than what you're used to back home. It's easy to forget that you're in a Muslim country with a vastly different culture from North America or Europe. Remember that the United Arab Emirates is rooted in tradition and a proud history.
Make sure that your group is aware of local customs and that you respect them. Here are some examples:
- Show respect for your hosts and keep noise level to a minimum during prayer time.
- When eating, be sure to remember to avoid using the left hand as this is reserved sanitary functions and it is considered to be unclean to use the left hand at the dining table.
- Consumption of alcohol is permitted at some hotels, restaurants, night spots, and tourist attractions. Other than these venues, alcohol should never be consumed in public. You can actually be charged for being drunk in public.
- Neighbouring Sharjah is a dry Emirate and penalties for possession or consumption of alcohol are STIFF. Don't even think of taking it there.
- Kissing, holding hands or making out in public are not considered to be appropriate in public.
- Don't even think of having sex in public. (Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors recently learned this the hard way after their arrest on Jumeirah Beach.)
- Sex between unmarried couples is illegal and you are unlikely to be permitted to check into a hotel with someone who is not your spouse.
- Women should not even think of topless sunbathing.
- Nude sunbathing and changing of clothes in public is to be avoided by both sexes. (Authorities have recently cracked down on this and there have been numerous arrests.)
9. Dress modestly.
While Dubai is more tolerant than some other Muslim countries and you will see some tourists wearing bikinis on public beaches, out of respect for your hosts, it is best to opt for a modest swimsuit.
- Long walking shorts are fine for the beach, resorts and desert safari but, other than that, they should be avoided.
- Women should be sure to wear blouses and dresses with sleeves that come to just above the elbows or longer.
- Sleeveless tops are frowned upon for men and women but especially for women.
- Skirts and dresses should be to the knees or longer.
- Showing cleavage is a definite no-no.
10. Include attractions that are unique to Dubai in your group's itinerary
- A MUST: A tour of the heritage section including Dubai Heritage Village, the Dubai Museum, the gold and spice souks, lunch at Al Dawaar Revolving Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency, and a Dhow Dinner Cruise
- A desert safari (overnight for a special treat)
- Jumana Desert Show
- A day trip to Al Ain
- A Day trip to Abu Dhabi
12. Don't Pack Your Itinerary. Give your group some free time.
It is important to give your group some time to relax, unwind and see Dubai their way. Some members of your party may want to play golf. Others may prefer to go horse riding in the desert or skiing at Ski Dubai. Others may want to relax on the beach or book some treatments at the spa. Provide your group with a list of options and give them an opportunity to customize their experience.
Shopping is an important par of any trip to Dubai. People look forward to it.
Best Shopping: Souk at Madinat Jumeirah, Mall of the Emirates, Ibn Battuta (named after the great Arabian explorer), Gold Souk, Spice Souk.
13. Build at least one luxury excursion into your budget.
There will be no shortage of options but here are a few ideas:
- Upgrade your Desert Safari to 5 star
- Dinner in the Sky
- Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab
- A helicopter tour of Dubai
- Hot air ballooning over the Desert