How millions were convinced to give this love-it-or-hate-it holiday destination a chance – The Telegraph

Thanks to Europe's confusing and erratic Covid rules, millions who wouldn't normally visit this city gave it a chance during the pandemic
The world may be in disarray, but you wouldn’t know it at Dubai’s beach club Drift. “Business is booming,” says its manager, Ben, a long-term Dubai resident originally from York. “Because Dubai opened its borders to tourists before most of the world, we’ve had so many first-time visitors since the pandemic began who came because they had difficulty getting into Spain or Italy or wherever.
“They had an antiquated view of Dubai, and wondered if they were even able to drink alcohol. But then they discovered they loved it. I hear all the time about people visiting as a tourist and then relocating and moving their businesses over.”
Alcohol is definitely on the menu at Drift. Bordering a long strip of sand on the cusp of The Palm artificial island, the venue overlooks a profusion of recently erected skyscrapers and the newly inaugurated Ain Dubai, which at 250 metres is the highest observation wheel in the world. By the pool, guests sip Ruinart champagne and cocktails. Entry to the club is £42 on weekdays and £52 on weekends, or groups of 10 can hire a more secluded premium cabana with its own pool for £1,250 or £1,900 respectively. Ben tells me it’s occupied five or six days a week. 
Dubai certainly has its detractors – the most vocal of which have often never been – but the emirate’s decision to impose few entry restrictions during the pandemic means its hospitality sector has enjoyed relative success. After an initial ban on inbound tourism, Dubai reopened to holidaymakers in July 2020 and has remained accessible ever since. Testing has been scrapped for jabbed sunseekers, unvaccinated arrivals are still welcome, so long as they take a test, while children under the age of 16 are exempt from all testing – a boon for families.
There was no escaping Dubai’s popularity back in the winter of 2020, when vainglorious influencers flocked there and were berated for posting their snaps while their followers hunkered down in more restricted settings. Their antics provided a talking point and did much to perpetuate the emirate’s reputation for superficiality, yet they represented just a tiny fraction of the sunseekers that went there during the pandemic. More than seven million overnight visitors arrived in 2021, booking a total of 31.5 million nights in the city’s hotels. While that isn’t yet a return to 2019 levels, guests are tending to stay longer, and occupancy rates over the key winter season have been high.
Ultimately, tourism chiefs hope Dubai will become the world’s most visited city – and its attitude during the Covid crisis has only helped with that goal. According to analytics firm STR, demand for hotels in Dubai during 2021 surpassed that of London and Paris combined, while the total number of rooms sold last year was around one per cent of the global total. 
I was reminded of the vital contribution tourism makes to the global economy when I checked in at ME Dubai. The last project designed by Zaha Hadid before her death, the hotel is the flagship tenant in a landmark skyscraper shaped like a melting ice cube. Inside, terraces curl in undulating ribbons around a brilliantly white atrium. In the centre of the lobby, a McLaren supercar forms the centrepiece of a glitzy exhibition by the British artist Nat Bowen; in an adjacent boutique, a pair of her customised Nike trainers costs £1,250 – or you could pick up a customised Louis Vuitton bag for £4,700.
That’s the kind of excess for which Dubai is notorious, but 28-year-old ME Dubai receptionist Alona is very grateful she works here. As she showed me to my room she explained how she spontaneously decided to move to the city from her native Ukraine last year: “That last-minute decision saved me. Currently Ukraine doesn’t need tourists, it needs soldiers. But I’m happy to be in Dubai now; here it doesn’t feel like there are any differences between us because we’re all from somewhere different; the city is more open-minded and more social than people might think.”
I had a similar conversation that night with my waiter, also from Ukraine, at the hotel’s open-air Deseo restaurant. With a DJ playing on the terrace, the clubby Latin American restaurant was packed with tourists (many of them British) tucking into ceviche and Wagyu steak. Though the property got off to a slow start, welcoming diners briefly in winter 2020 before closing again, it has done a roaring trade since opening properly last autumn. Occupancy since then has hovered between 70-90 per cent per night. 
In total, 44 new hotels came to Dubai last year, bringing the total number to 755 by the start of 2022, but none is more famous than the Burj Al Arab. Unveiled in 1999, the sail-shaped property on its own man-made private island is one of the world’s most exclusive (and expensive) addresses. Low-season summer rates here start at £1,140 per night, but this winter the hotel launched £50 tours to give ordinary folk the chance to step inside. About 500 sign up each day to gawp at the lobby, with its 180-metre-high ceiling, and amble around some of its gaudiest suites.
Travellers visiting Dubai for the first time since the pandemic will find that plenty of other audacious attractions await. The Dubai Expo, which runs to the end of March, has already welcomed more than 20 million visitors to a site larger than 600 football pitches. Representing the UAE and designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the largest pavilion resembles a falcon’s wings and includes a domed cinema with seating that rises as a film plays. 
The second-largest pavilion belongs to Saudi Arabia and features internal waterfalls and replicas of national landmarks. Most poignantly, the Ukraine pavilion has been adapted and now staff members hand out coloured post-its so visitors can write notes of support. The walls are plastered in heartfelt messages. While much of the Expo’s infrastructure will disappear upon the event’s closure, some of these structures will remain in place as the site is redeveloped into a new urban district. 
Opened on 22/2/22, Dubai’s other most notable new attraction is the Museum of the Future. It is an exceptionally beautiful building, whose oval-shaped, stainless steel facade is covered in Arabic calligraphy, though its contents leave a lot to be desired. Entry costs £30 and exhibitions spread across its many levels supposedly challenge visitors to consider what humanity’s future will look like and the ways we can collectively strive to make the world a better place. They’re laudable aims, but with few exceptions the displays and installations were just a series of Instagram-friendly moments that are otherwise flimsy, vague and forgettable. Style over substance – the very thing many detractors say about Dubai.
Discussing the museum with a long-term Dubai resident, her response was revealing: “That fits in with a lot of Dubai, and how people think about it, but this city has so much going for it. When I lived in London I found life very difficult, but here you become spoiled. Everything is within 30 minutes and it’s such an easy way of life; tax-free too. On a Sunday I’ll go with friends to a beach club where we’ll spend the day sipping fresh coconuts by the pool. What other people do on a five-star holiday is an average weekend for us.”
She’s not alone in seeing appeal in that. Over 120,000 Britons currently live in Dubai and access to the city has become easier in recent weeks, with mandates on wearing masks outdoors dropped (while they’re required indoors, compliance was variable and rarely enforced in any of the hotels I visited), vaccinated travellers no longer need to test for Covid when accessing the country, and proof of vaccination status isn’t required when exploring the city’s attractions. 
Still sceptical? If you have a dislike for constant heat and inescapable air-con then Dubai is probably best avoided. However, as millions of people have discovered during the last two years, there are other distractions for those willing to dig below the surface. The emerging art district on Alserkal Avenue, where about 40 warehouses have been converted into a cluster of galleries and cafés, is one; the Dubai Opera, which opened in 2016, is another; while the oldest district in the city, Al Bastakiya, dates from the 1890s. 
As for the quotes etched on the exterior of the Museum of the Future, one key passage translates as follows: “The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it. It isn’t something you await, but rather create.” Though there are plenty who will continue to deride Dubai’s approach over the decades to come, there’s no doubt it’s a mantra the city has taken to heart. 
Rates at ME Dubai start from £282 per night (melia.com); you can book Inside Burj Al Arab tours here. Tickets for the Museum of the Future should be booked in advance via its website. British Airways flies from London to Dubai from £505 return (britishairways.com); Emirates fares for the same route cost from £535 (emirates.com). Read the full review of ME Dubai here, plus our guide to the best hotels in Dubai.
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
Explore hotels that have been tried, tested and rated by our experts
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