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Change your old perception about Dubai, go beyond desert safari, dune-bashing and the iconic Burj Khalifa. Explore the Museum of the Future, camp at the mountain town of HATTA in the backdrop of Hajar terrain, visit the animal kingdom at the bio-dome of Green Planet, think of meeting the locals to experience the Arab Emirati culture and be assured of year-round cosmopolitan activities when you Visit Dubai: Bader Ali Habib, Head of Region - South Asia, discusses with The Asian Footprints all these hidden gems of Dubai and how luxury travel and responsible tourism can work hand-in-hand, in an exclusive conversation.

June Mukherjee, August 25, 2022

Dubai is always visualised as a luxury destination for all segments, but luxury with an abundance of everything does not necessarily mean waste. I want you to first answer how luxury travel and responsible tourism can walk together, whatsoever rich tourist you are.

That’s a very good question. Obviously, luxury is an important segment for us for many years. Our positioning has been of a very familiar destination which is targeting, let's say, the mid segments. But what we've done over the last five to seven years is that we came up with the term “affordable luxury” which is to show that Dubai is affordable, yet it would come with lots of luxurious options. Now, within the tourism board, we are fully aware of the opportunities we have where we can merge sustainability with luxury. And as the tourism body, we have to showcase exactly the same positioning as you mentioned that being responsible is the way forward. In fact, we had recently launched an initiative called ‘Dubai Can’ where the government decided to stop the use of single-use plastics at every level in the city. Since then, a lot of our local stakeholders including hospitality and even beyond tourism have owned it up.

At the same time, our paperless initiative by the government to be followed by all entities is also a positive direction towards the same. It will save millions of papers and gallons of water. We should not only think of commerce, we do have a huge social responsibility to look at and fulfil at. Dubai Municipality and Dubai Police all work in sync to see that we keep the city’s image of a luxurious destination intact yet keep it clean and reduce all kinds of waste at every stage.

I would like to mention, how much Dubai has put together through this pandemic, with all the new attractions, new hotels, and new experiences and we would like to share the same message with our biggest market in the Indian subcontinent. You can expect a lot of outdoor experiences in Dubai, things that are more scenic, things that are more cultural, more gastronomy, beaches and adventures. We strongly recommend agents and operators who are selling Dubai for years to look at the new things and revise their offerings to their customers. All the offerings follow the basic principles of sustainability and promote responsible tourism agenda to reduce the overall carbon footprints.

Since the vision is coming right from the top, the government sector is already in line and the kind of relationships private sectors enjoy with the government, they always make sure that they keep following government protocols on top of their agenda. With these collective efforts, we continue to build ourselves as a responsible affordable luxury destination.

As you mentioned, it is true that not only Dubai, in fact, every tourism destination is trying to put its best foot forward towards being sustainable and responsible, but that can only become a success with the active participation of the visiting travellers as well. Unless they become a part of your initiative right from landing at Dubai airport, the goal won’t be achieved.

Right, thankfully as a destination historically Dubai has been perceived as a clean destination, in terms of infrastructure, facilities and overall city outlook which is a USP for us. People coming to Dubai, find the city very orderly, extremely neat and beautiful which are the fundamentals we have built over a long period of time. So obviously, that education continues locally in terms of tourism and when a lot of tourists come and engage with our different attractions and hotels, the same narrative is also pushed by the hotels and attractions to keep the places clean. The standard protocols and measures are imbibed within all the touch points through which our tourists would typically go. So, today, if you are staying in a hotel, somewhere, somebody might tell you automatically what the sustainable initiative they're taking is to keep the place clean and green. We keep our measures in place, for example, if you go across to any of our public parks or any key attractions, you will find little water containers to refill your water bottles to get filtered drinking water.

Apart from that we are always on social media and doing the right kind of media interviews like this telling the global audience that Dubai now wants to focus on this direction and we want the tourists as well to follow those principles for good. We want the practice to become a habit rather than performed in expectation of some incentives. The culture of zero waste should be our second nature and considered a common goal and sign of responsible tourists than a mechanism to allure them for some brownie points. These best practices should come naturally to all of us as we all live on one planet.

On this point of spreading the correct narrative about any destination, do you agree with The Asian Footprints that travel agents and tour operators are the best influencers?

That’s a very good question again and yes, I do think that travel agents and tour operators have always been our ambassadors. They're the people who influence at the first step and probably at every step. They're the people who convert the business, but I think the responsibility just doesn't end there. We work closely with them, and despite the digital advancements, people will continue to have that personal relationship with travel agents.

I also agree that the real test for the destination is to engage with them as soon as they land, so the whole airport journey, the taxis, the transport infrastructure, the concierge service at the hotel, and how the people are being treated at the restaurants – the whole ecosystem begins from the moment when you actually fly into the place and travel agents is your go-to person with a lot of responsibility for that if anything goes wrong. So definitely the bottom line is that the travel agents have a huge role to play to influence their clients to form opinions before and after travel as well. We have to keep empowering them with all the knowledge we have and not only packages available for the destination to sell. That’s why we do a lot of fam trips throughout the year and road shows. It is actually the same place they are going to many times, but continuing this updated dialogue with them is important for us to influence the larger audience. Fundamentally, when anyone comes to a destination, having all the live experiences, when they go back, they all become influencers to their immediate communities.

The social media influencers, we prefer to call key opinion leaders (KOL). As they stay online for a longer time to engage with more people than others and talk about a particular area, in our case, broadly travel, food, shopping etc, we think they form opinions in the subconscious among their communities about various destinations. As they are not exclusive to anyone, you can’t associate either of them with any particular destination unless some celebrity is a brand ambassador of a destination. But these key opinion leaders keep the idea of the destination floating in the market.

In the recent marketing campaigns, it is coming out that Dubai is trying to break the stereotype about its tourism image. The message is to let the world know that there is more to Dubai than Burj Khalifa, gold shopping and desert safari. The most striking of it is to position it as a winter destination as well. Tell us more.

We truly take pride in being a diverse destination and it is a melting pot of global nationalities. We have 85 per cent of the population who are ex-pats; hence the Emirati population happens to be just over 11 to 12 per cent and that truly tells you how hospitable we are. Earlier, especially for the visitors from South Asia, the choice was very clear and straightforward, to buy gold and to do high-end shopping, it was Dubai! Also, desert safari has been the poster boy for many years, we would like to push that image a bit further and go beyond. It is just not dune-bashing or belly-dancing that we are offering and we don’t want to shy away from it either. We want to add new experiences for our visitors to try.

Historically, Dubai was always a fun destination for families, with people spending their major holidays. But with so many efforts given from our side to make it a year-round destination, that narrative has changed over the last couple of years, in particular over the last two years of the pandemic. Now we are seeing a lot of Westerners and Indians asking what’s new. We are now showcasing our Arab culture, Emirati cuisine, design districts, and modern art galleries along with the ever-growing state-of-the-art entertainment and theme park segments.

For example, the beautiful traditions combine with modern designs at the charming Al Seef Creek showcase the city’s blend between its proud past and bright future. Al Seef celebrates Dubai Creek’s beginnings as the famous coastal pearl diving base. Even the global gastronomy experience is also scaling a new height in Dubai from food trucks to Michelin Stars. We are widening the spectrum that Dubai is now much more beyond the skyscrapers, expensive cars and over-the-top luxury.

Essentially being a desert destination, we have built an eco-system to give the perfect experience one expects in a winter destination or a beach destination. You can expect all the adrenaline-pumping adventure sports from sky-diving to deep-water dip. La Mer or Kite Beach are just not beachfronts by the Arabia Sea, but whole new promenade experiences by the beach for all ages to enjoy. But I would also like to mention that ever since Dubai opened its door post-pandemic, it has remained constant on its stand on its requirements for entry to Dubai. We have not shifted our stand to confuse our visitors as we believe in resilience.

Dubai also plays a role to become inclusive to other emirates as tourists come to Dubai and club other emirates in their itineraries. It is a win-win for all.

Of course, nowadays, as you know from Dubai airport all emirates are reasonably within a comfortable driving distance, and people take the advantage of the fascinating and myriad experiences other emirates offer. While planning their trip to Dubai, it is now a common trend to add Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm Al Quwain. Some cultural event, book fair, art festival, shopping carnival or music concert is happening throughout the seven emirates round the year. We are always looking at increasing the average length of stay as well as improving the quality of experience for the visitors. With each Emirate having its own flavour to offer, travellers are spoilt with choices, yet they get a feel of the same cultural essence throughout the land.

Today’s travel trend goes beyond destinations and landmarks and focuses on experiences which are incomplete without interaction with the locals. Now understanding the local culture is not only a Bedouin tour or buying dry fruits. Please tell us Dubai’s local stories.

Many thanks for asking this question. When we talk about our culture, and our heritage, we are not talking about skyscrapers or luxury yachts. We are talking about our Emirati people. Many people are showing interest to know how we live in our home, what we eat, why we wear our dresses this way, what about our marriages, our rituals, what is the difference between green, black, and white, and what do our households look like.

Dubai Tourism has initiated a programme called ‘Meet the Locals’ where you will be guided by a local throughout your journey to have all your questions answered and have a first-hand experience of an Emirati lifestyle.

Understanding the need to reach out and educate expatriates, visitors and tourists on the traditions and customs of the United Arab Emirates, The Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) was established in 1998. Located in a beautifully restored wind tower house in the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood in Bur Dubai, the centre offers a range of activities, from traditional cuisine to conversations with local Emiratis. With its motto, Open Doors, Open Minds, all questions, no matter how sensitive, are welcome and answered. One can sign up for a traditional Emirati breakfast, lunch, or dinner and start with a guided walking tour of the historic neighbourhood followed by comfortable seating on Bedouin-style carpets and pillows and enjoy a selection of traditional dishes while the local host answers questions about life in the emirate.

We also encourage you to embark on new adventures in HATTA surrounded by the Hajar mountains, where you experience from taming the rough terrain on a mountain bike to tackling the teal waters by kayak and spending a quiet time in this mountain town.

Visit the Green Planet and meet over 3,000 species of fascinating plants, animals and birds in Dubai's own tropical rainforest which takes visitors of all ages through a glass bio-dome to another world. These are the new images of Dubai we are keen to project. We want travellers visiting Dubai to experience and capture these new experiences and share them with their friends and families back home to feel enticed to Visit Dubai.

Photo Credit : Dubai Tourism

Title Credit : "Desert Rose" by Sting

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