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What was an empty desert a few decades ago has astonishingly morphed into a cosmopolitan financial centre that many aspire to get a glimpse of. Statistics distinctly reflect the magnitude of Dubai's transformation. In 1993, the city saw only one million tourists visiting the country, according to the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). By 2005, the number had grown six fold, until it reached a staggering 13 million visitors last year based on data from Kipp Report.
In other words, within two decades, the number of visitors had soared by 130 per cent. Hotels multiplied in parallel. From just 167 hotels in 1993 (according to DTCM), the number climbed to 413 graded establishments at the end of last year.
The city is not resting on its laurels though, as it steadily moves towards its target of attracting more than 20 million tourists by 2020. This requires efforts similar to those made over the last decade. Whether it takes record breaking projects or larger-than-life developments, Dubai has taken all directions to boost its infrastructure.
A slew of world records
Entertainment projects have especially garnered a great deal of private-sector attention, but if those were to compete with their international counterparts and influence tourism, they would have to introduce something new to the region.
Dubai Legoland, for instance, will be the first in the Middle East and only the seventh in the world when it opens next year. Situated within the massive 25 million-square-foot Dubai Parks and Resorts, not far from the World Expo 2020 site, Legoland will be built alongside a Bollywood theme park developed in partnership with Mumbai's major film studios, and Motiongate, a cinematic tie-up with three of Hollywood's largest motion picture studios.
An even larger development towards the eastern side of the city was announced a few weeks ago. Named Meydan One, it will break several world records — for having the tallest residential tower, longest indoor ski slope, highest observation deck and largest fountain.
Given the lack of opera houses in the region, it was also high time to initiate the Dubai Opera project, the cultural centre piece of The Opera District in Downtown Dubai. In the same year of the venue's planned launch — 2016 — Dubai Safari Park on the other side of the city will also be ready to offer wildlife encounters with around 1,000 animals.
Amid the intense pace of development, Dubai has never lost sight of its heritage, with grand plans to revive some of the oldest parts. The government's Historical District project will extensively renovate and expand four areas — Shindagha, Bur Dubai, Al Fahidi and Deira — and part of the scheme is to restore the emirate's oldest surviving structure, Al Fahidi Fort. While the main goal is to raise awareness on local history, it is also hoped that the project will enhance Dubai's ability to register Khor Dubai as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Weird and wonderful
Dubai has no shortage of world-famous landmarks, but a new wave of tourists will demand fresh, imaginative concepts. One of the best known among Dubai Marina residents is the 210m Dubai Eye, set to become the world's largest Ferris wheel when completed in 2018 on Bluewaters Island.
Where else could you ride a Ferris wheel in the middle of the sea? And where in the world does a 3km waterway run across the desert? This idea will manifest in the 6m-deep Dubai Water Canal project that will flow beneath bridges and highways, creating a much-desired atmosphere and transforming the overall landscape.
Other iconic projects coming up, although on a smaller scale, include the Dubai Frame that will allow panoramic views of Old Dubai and New Dubai's skyline from each side; the 64-hectare Holy Quran Park containing all 54 plant species mentioned in the Quran, and the world's first fully functional 3D-printed building.
A hotel rush
Hotels are impressively keeping pace with the city's growth, with the likes of Jumeirah and Starwood expanding their existing chains, and others venturing into the UAE market. Examples are Lapita, a Polynesian- themed resort set to open in 2016 within Dubai Parks and Resort, and Las Vegas brands MGM Grand and Bellagio, both due to launch in early 2018 in Dubai Pearl.
Before we see any of these establishments, the world's largest hotel complex — Habtoor Palace — comprising W Hotel, St. Regis and Westin, will have opened its doors this year. The complex is part of the Dh11-billion Habtoor City that will bring to Dubai the first permanent water themed production by Franco Dragone Entertainment.
That said, the busiest year for the local hospitality sector is anticipated in 2017, with at least 30 hotels slated for opening, including the city's first fully solar-powered hotel, Indigo, as well as the Mandarin Oriental and Bulgari luxury hotels.
On a strategic level, transport infrastructure is continuously being developed to accommodate the expected increase in residents and visitors. Among the most important projects is Etihad Rail, which will connect all seven emirates and eventually the UAE with its GCC neighbours.
On the other hand, Al Maktoum International Airport is on its way to become the world's largest as it expands annual passenger handling capacity from the current five million to seven million by 2016, before taking it up to 220 million by 2020.
With nearly 33 per cent of the world's population located within a four-hour flight from Dubai, and with dozens of infrastructure developments and hospitality projects under way, the UAE's second-largest city can only be deemed as advantageous for investors.
Source: Porush Jhunjhunwala, Special to Property Weekly
The author is Director of Banke International Properties