Follow a group of travel advisors on social media for even the briefest of moments, and it won’t be long before you see pictures, posts, and discussions about Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose popularity is soaring higher than the city’s iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper.
Advisors are booking group trips, “girl getaways,” and shopping excursions to Dubai for clients looking for glitz, glamour, and bucket list moments that few destinations can offer in one trip.
In fact, advisors on Dubai fam trips fill their social newsfeeds with such a wide variety of activities and places to see, you would think Dubai is much larger than its actual 1,600 square miles.
“Many say that Dubai is like New York City on steroids. It is a vast metropolis, complete with a very diverse population,” said Franda Graves, a travel advisor who lives there and owns Journey with Franda. “Also, like New York and some of the larger cities in the U.S., one does not need a car to get around, as we have a fabulous metro system, Uber, Careem, and taxi service.”
“Dubai has everything,” said Ivaline Joseph, Ivy League Travel, in Charlotte, North Carolina, “from gorgeous hotels to deserts and beaches. It’s a mesmerizing, beautiful place.”
“It’s exotic, modern, and ancient, all in a small area you can manage on a short getaway or an extended vacation,” said Phyllis Stoller, owner of the Women’s Travel Group, in New York City.
For January through August of this year, Dubai welcomed 10.85 million visitors, up from 10.44 million last year during the same period, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism. About 20% of those visitors are from Western Europe, and about 6% came from North America.
“The ideal client for Dubai and the UAE as a whole is someone ready for fun and adventure,” Graves said, “open to the nuances of different cultures and respectful of its edicts, as it is a Muslim country. There is literally something for everyone, from the sedate to the adventurous, male and female, young and old.”
The first thing a visitor probably notices as they drive from the airport to downtown is the sparkling modern skyline, topped off by the famous 2,700-foot-tall Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world since 2009.
Agents rave about the views from the skyscraper’s observation deck, restaurants, and hotel. “I have a picture of me looking down from a group trip there. I was blown away by the experience to see this incredible city from that viewpoint,” Joseph said.
A shopper’s paradise
At the tower’s base is the famous Dubai Fountain, with jets and lights choreographed to music — like those found on the Las Vegas Strip. The Fountain is emblematic of a construction boom that has included amusement parks, massive malls, and even an indoor ski center.
Adjacent to the tower is the Dubai Mall, “a full-day shopping experience,” Graves said, offering everything from “lavish stores on Fashion Avenue to the Souk al Bahar and the Village,” as well as the Dubai Aquarium and an underwater zoo.
For children, there is an Olympic-sized ice rink, virtual reality park, and “Kidzania” (an edutainment area for the kids). If a traveler is looking for “a smaller but still luxury shopping experience,” Graves also recommends the Mall of the Emirates, which hosts Ski Dubai and Magic Planet. But her favorite is the “more relaxing” Ibn Battuta Mall, which is considered to be the world’s largest themed shopping mall.
“All of this, though, will be outdone by Expo 2020,” said Margie Jordan, president of Jordan Executive Travel Service, in Jacksonville, Florida. The 1,100-acre world’s fair-like development, opening October 2020, will have hotels, offices, and the 176-store Dubai South Mall.
Jordan has toured the site, and describes the Expo “like Epcot on major steroids. It's estimated that you can see three pavilions in a day along with entertainment and food from each of those countries,” and she is promoting it to other CCRA agents.
The city is also famous for its souks, traditional Arabian style marketplaces. Nearly 400 jewelers will haggle with tourists at the Gold Souk, in Dubai's Deira commercial business district.
For clients looking for Arab heritage, Jordan recommends the Al Fahidi District. “It’s a great example of what Dubai used to be,” she said. “In this neighborhood are restored homes turned into museums and art galleries. You can wander through the neighborhood from home to home and check out artwork from local artists. There are also tea houses and cafes. It's a great cultural scene to dig a little deeper.”
Graves’ favorite souk is Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a re-creation of an ancient Arabian marketplace, located in the heart of the city, with more than 50 restaurants, an amphitheater and water canal tours. Graves includes the Sheihk Mohamed Center for Cultural Understanding for all of her tours, where tourists can learn about the culture, as well as share in a traditional Emirati meal.
Then there is the club life. Many Arab nations – like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — prohibit or strictly limit alcohol consumption, so Americans are often surprised to learn they can imbibe at Dubai’s clubs, hotels, and restaurants. As a result, Dubai is extremely popular with Americans looking for a New Year’s Eve getaway.
“There is so much to do and see that one never gets bored,” Graves said.
For a slower pace, advisors can book clients at one of the dozen or so luxurious resorts on The Palm Jumeirah, an artificial “island” that juts out into the Persian Gulf, dotted with homes, water parks, and marine animal parks.
High-quality hotels at reasonable rates
One of Dubai’s greatest selling points is the high quality of accommodations, at extremely reasonable room rates. The emirate has about 270 hotels with 4- and 5-star ratings, making up more than half of the total lodging available.
Preliminary August data from Smith Travel Research (STR) shows that supply outstripped demand this year, lowering Dubai hotel occupancy to 68.5%. As a result, the average daily rate dropped 12.5%, to AED389.11, or $106 U.S.
STR analysts noted that “hotel rooms are being competitively priced in an effort to stimulate demand and keep up with accelerating room supply.”
Even if a client is looking for something less expensive, they can still feel like royalty. “A 3-star hotel in Dubai is more like a 4-star hotel here in the U.S.,” Joseph said.
“Our hotels are all amazing, even the 3- and 4-star ones,” Graves said.
Getting over the fear
For so many clients and prospects with only limited international travel experience, the concept of visiting a nation on the Arabian Peninsula might be intimidating.
Graves moved to Dubai about a year ago, after living for 13 years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She loves the Middle East, “primarily due to culture, diversity, and safety. I love to take a long walk in the marina or at the beach, and I have always felt very safe in this environment.”
While it is a Muslim country, Dubai is home to 200 nationalities and most of the residents in Dubai proper are expats, Graves noted. “So, you may find a mosque across from a church across from a temple,” she said. In fact, the UAE proclaimed 2019 to be “The Year of Tolerance.”
Graves, who has been booking trips to Dubai for the past six years now, including individual and group trips, believes Dubai “is an excellent place for an American woman to visit and to live, as well as any nationality. I think that the biggest myths throughout this region are that women are oppressed and have no power. It is the complete opposite, especially here in the UAE,” she said.
Agents looking to market the destination to a women’s group also might find themselves having to overcome misunderstandings about how women are treated, and “strict” dress codes.
“Also, the belief that female visitors to the UAE must be fully covered from head to toe. While modesty is highly appreciated, female visitors are free to wear most anything that they would wear in their hometowns, again with the focus on modesty,” she said.
“The only time we were aware of the distinctions between men and women were when we visited a mosque,” Joseph said. There, a woman’s head, wrists, and ankles need to be covered.
“When I went there, I had some family members who asked me, ‘Why would you go to Dubai? Aren’t you afraid of terrorism?” Joseph said. “Instead, I felt such peace in Dubai. The people are so friendly. The tourism community is so welcoming. Several members in my travel group said if we could find the right job opportunity, we would move there.”
Even after discussing Dubai extensively within a Meetup group she participates in, Joseph is still hearing from fellow travelers who are too nervous to join a trip she is putting together for 2020.
In fact, Jordan recommends agents book clients a meal with local Emiratis, like she has personally experienced.
“During our lunch, we asked everything from why do the women cover-up, why do they wear black, are they oppressed, and the list goes on,” she recalled. “I took a video of a lot of the discussion. It was open, honest conversation about things you might otherwise be scared or concerned about asking. The food was amazing. The hospitality made you feel comfortable enough to ask until your heart was content."
“There are just not enough words to describe the unlimited dining opportunities in this city. Due to the fact that there are so many nationalities here, one can have a complete international culinary journey, choosing from local street foods to luxury dining and literally everything in between,” Graves said.
Day trips are a must
The typical length of stay in Dubai is about 3.5 days, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism, but depending on what clients want to do, you might want to add on another 1-2 days for experiences like a desert safari.
“The ideal visit to Dubai UAE should range from 5-7 days in order to really enjoy the sites, participate in activities, and to have downtime or beach time, etc.,” Graves said, with a day trip to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, as well. The Grand Mosque there is a must see, Graves said.
In Hatta, about an hour’s drive from the city of Dubai, “I literally saw the sand end and the mountains begin,” Jordan said. “In Hatta, you can kayak, hike, mountain bike, learn ax throwing, archery, and well, just get back to nature. There is a full range of accommodations from American Airstream campers to hotels. I never knew this part of Dubai existed.”
For the adventurer, many Dubai tour companies offer 4x4 Jeep tours on the sand dunes. “Thrilling,” Joseph said. “They take you out to the highest sand dunes. There are camel rides and dinner in the desserts, with entertainment, belly dancing.”
Joseph also highly recommends the full-day excursion to Abu Dhabi, to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. For even more Arab heritage, travelers often take a side excursion to the stricter Emirate of Sharjah, the third largest city in the UAE.
“It can be a bit overwhelming to see so much in too short a time, getting out of the hotel after breakfast and not getting back until dinner. I would build in more down time for my groups,” Joseph said.