Destination UAE: are we there yet?

I HAVE lived in the UAE for quite a while. Let’s just say, my driving licence is due for renewal this autumn. When I first arrived, there was Dubai and then, well, there wasn’t really anything else of note. Tourists, if they did come, came to Dubai and rarely ventured further afield.

I remember attending my very first Arabian Travel Market (ATM) and marveling at the size of the Dubai stand, much smaller by today’s standards. The other emirates only had a token presence at the show.

Fast forward a few years and, my, how things have changed! Abu Dhabi has taken off big time and even acted as the main sponsor of the ATM a few years ago. Sharjah, quite rightly, managed to put its heritage and culture on the map, while Ras Al Khaimah attracts increasing attention of regional and international travellers. Fujairah is booming, too. Umm Al Quwain? Well, there’s Dreamland Waterpark.

In the more recent past, it seems to me as if tourism in the UAE has gone from zero to intense competition between all emirates. I’m looking forward to this year’s ATM and witnessing the seven emirates trying to outdo each other but I can’t help thinking that a more jointly planned and executed tourism plan would yield better results in the long run and represent a better way to spend the country’s tourism budget.

Yes, the country’s, for we do live in a country, not a random collection of emirates. So why are we still trying to outdo each other when it comes to wooing tourists to our shores? The state of tourism marketing in the UAE is still one of intense competition.

I cannot think of another country in this region or further afield that allows its different regions to appear so independently on the international tourism scene as the UAE. My home country, Germany, has 16 relatively autonomous states but tourism marketing is thoughtfully coordinated by the German National Tourist Board. Not the Bavarian Tourist Board or the Lower Saxony Tourist Board.

Incredible India? That’ll be the Indian Ministry of Tourism with the help of the clever people from Ogilvy & Mather. Malaysia, truly Asia? Yup, Tourism Malaysia, another government entity. It’s more fun in the Philippines. The Department of Tourism in Makati City. Google ‘UAE + Tourism Marketing’ and you get… Well, try it out and see for yourself.

The UAE has a lot to offer to travellers from near and far – Dubai, the country’s entertainment hub; Abu Dhabi’s islands, culture and grand buildings; Fujairah’s fine beaches; Sharjah’s multitude of museums; Ras Al Khaimah’s mountains; help me out here with Umm Al Quwain and Ajman… Numerous individual attractions, which would be so much better if marketed jointly rather than competitively against each other. Do we have to wait until every emirate has a gigantic waterpark or an artificial island shaped like, well, whatever you shape islands into these days?

I dare say that a more united approach to tourism marketing would help with keeping travellers in the country longer, allowing them to see more and, hopefully, return more often. It goes without saying too, that one gigantic stand at a tourism trade fair is cheaper than seven not quite-so-gigantic stands. It’s still up for grabs at the time of this column being written. Any takers?

Speaking Out

By Martin Kubler