Dubai's modern wonders have solidified the Emirate's fixture on many a travel itinerary in recent years, and the awarding of Expo 2020 to the city is the icing on the cake.

Whether on a layover, business trip, or luxury getaway, Dubai's skyline has an unmistakable draw, crowned as it is by the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. And having established itself on the global tourism circuit, news that the city will play host to Expo 2020 has further invigorated spirits, with record numbers expected to descend on Dubai for the big event.

The numbers themselves are telling of Dubai's story; in 2013, guest arrivals rocketed up by 10.6% to reach over 11 million according to the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). Guest nights were also up 11% to 41.57 million, with occupancy rates pushing 80% at hotels and hotel apartments, figures that are indicative of the success Dubai has enjoyed in prolonging the length of stay of visitors, a key hallmark transforming any destination from a layover curiosity into a fully fledged terminus. Currently, the tourism sector contributes 20% to the Emirate's GDP.

The announcement from Paris on November 27, 2013 that Dubai had beaten competition from cities including Turkey's Izmir and Brazil's São Paulo has also added to the Emirate's already prominent panache, with a flurry of excitement almost visible across the business community. “One day after the announcement of Dubai as the host city, the real estate developers started to look at areas to develop, with many projects tourism related, including hotels, hotel apartments, and residences, not to mention the development of Al Maktoum International Airport," enthused Ali Z. Abu Monassar, Chairman of The Vision, a Dubai-based destination management firm.

And the beginning of the event will coincide with the culmination of Dubai Vision 2020, a tourism-sector focused program that foresees the number of arrivals reaching 20 million and the sector earning AED300 billion ($81.74 billion) annually. To achieve those goals, and as well as expanding room capacity, the government is keen to encourage the development of three- and four-star hotels, as well as expound the historical treasures to be found in Dubai, away from the trappings of modernity, such as the Al Fahidi Fort, Bastakiya district, and Sheikh Saeed House.


Guest arrivals of over 11 million put smiles on the faces of hoteliers and hotel apartment operators in 2013, bringing as they did revenues of AED21.84 billion ($5.95 billion), up 16.1% on the previous year. According to DTCM data, the top-10 source markets were Saudi Arabia, India, the UK, the US, Russia, Kuwait, Germany, Oman, Iran, and China. According to Gulf Business, however, it was Australia that posted the largest increase, up 39% to over 269,000 due to a partnership between Emirates and Qantas. At end-2013, there were 84,534 rooms and apartments across 611 establishments, up from 80,414 rooms and apartments across 599 establishments in 2012. By end-2016, another 141 hotels and apartments are expected to be added to the roster, boosting the number of rooms to 114,000. And on the road to 2020, a DTCM executive has been quoted as saying that up to 160,000 will be needed should targets be met. Although Dubai is known for its luxury flourish, the government is actively encouraging the development of three- and four-star hotels, with special concessions available to sweeten the deal. And the call has not gone unnoticed; Gerald Lawless, President and Group CEO of the Dubai-based hotel giant Jumeirah Group, told TBY that the firm will “certainly look at a four-star contemporary lifestyle brand."


While Dubai has become famous for a series of more audacious building projects, from the striking Burj Al Arab and the Palm Islands to the Burj Khalifa, taking a walk on the historic side is also a must. The area where Dubai now stands was the site of a series of fishing communities as far back as 4,000 years ago, and artifacts uncovered from the era, and much more, are today on display at Dubai Museum, itself housed within the Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1799. In use as a museum since 1993, this must-see item on Dubai's tourism menu allows visitors a unique peek back in time, before the petrodollar changed life in the Emirate forever. And for those interested in the family that has presided over so much change, Sheikh Saeed House, standing on the Dubai Creek, the city's historic waterway and center for trade flows, dates from 1896 and was the official residence of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, grandfather of the present Ruler, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Also on the must-see list is the historic Bastakiya quarter, an intense concentration of traditional courtyard houses with wind towers, once used to keep cool before the advent of air conditioning. And after a day of sightseeing, Dubai's nightlife scene, centered on a range of hotel bars, is often busy with Western expatriates, while retail opportunities abound for those interested in splashing the cash, from souk to shopping mall.

A concerted effort to widen Dubai's net and bring in more than just the highest spenders, as well as encourage more people to make Dubai a destination instead of a thoroughfare, seems to be paying off. With average stays lengthening and the announcement of a series of three- and four-star hotel developments, Dubai is becoming more accessible than ever. As we head toward 2020, when the Expo is to open its doors under the “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future" theme, a flurry of development will transform the tourism landscape and solidify the Emirate's place on the map.