Dubai never fails to amaze

Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building

Dubai is a wonderland of MICE facilities and attractions, reports Sydney Paulden

I have been visiting Dubai for over 25 years, but on every occasion I have been a newcomer. Dubai changes so much and so rapidly, that even residents can be bewildered, losing their bearings. It reminds me of the old joke: Question: ‘What’s that big building?” Answer: ‘I don’t know, it wasn’t there yesterday’. The Dubai Convention and Events Bureau, part of the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, along with many of the top hotels and visitor attractions, has just been kind enough to host ITCM on a destination updating visit, focussed primarily on MICE facilities.

It has led me to believe that Press Relations people in Dubai have one of the world’s easiest tasks. They don’t have to scratch their heads to come up with ideas of interest, because there is something fantastic and newsworthy round every corner. Their major challenge is deciding what to leave out of a crammed-full itinerary.

I was on the ground there, a member of a 100-strong Mega Fam Trip, for just three days and saw enough astonishing facilities to make up a dozen such trips for most other countries.

The agenda for one single afternoon illustrates the point. We went aboard a glass framed boat on the Dubai Creek and enjoyed a buffet lunch as we cruised between soaring skyscrapers. We disembarked to be driven to the Palm Jumeirah, that man-made palm-shaped island that is already home to 14 top hotel brands and scores of residential villas. There, alongside the massive outline of the Atlantis Hotel, we boarded helicopters and were given a 15-minute flight by Alpha Tours. In that time we were able to reach as far as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure in Downtown, Dubai’s new city district, and fly over The World. That is the name of the cluster of islands, representing the shapes of all the countries of the world, formed from sand dredged from the sea. We were able to look down on the first signs of construction on some of the shapes. The islands are available for sale, with a starting price, for the smallest, at around US$30m.

Back at the heliport we were driven into the city centre to visit one of the newest hotels, the Vida. There we were able to sample some of the delicacies from what the hotel calls a Picnic Spread. This array of food and drinks, with something to suit every taste and every diet, can be served to groups in a variety of picnic situations. We saw examples of different configurations, including sunbeds, lounge sofas or camping tables that event organisers can choose to best suit the ambiance they wish to create.

There is as yet only one Vida Hotel. It belongs to a group that will have a big future. A boutique property, it is a sister to the Armani and Address brands. There are two Armani Hotels, one in Milan and the other forming part of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, where we were entertained to dinner one evening. From the Armani I was able to look across the now world-famous dancing fountain display towards the Address Hotel, where I was staying. My suite in The 5-star Address gave me breathtaking views of the towering Burj Khalifa alongside the extreme contrast of a cluster of low-rise sandstone buildings in typical Gulf style.

Was our inspection of the Vida the end of that afternoon’s agenda? Not at all. The hotel provided us with Segways with tuition on how to ride them and we then zigzagged and weaved around an area outside the hotel, becoming all too confident in how to speed on them.

The big advantage of being hosted by an organisation such as Dubai Convention and Events Bureau is the opportunity it affords to go behind the scenes and see what the conventional visitor or tourist might never imagine. Our immediate transport needs and transfers were overseen by Arabian Adventures, a DMC that is very well-connected so it can assist groups to reach places others cannot reach.

One of these was in the iconic Burj Al Arab, still the only 7-star hotel in the world – and worth every one of them. Visitors to the property are instantly amazed when they enter the property to see that the walls of the atrium, alongside the moving staircases, comprise massive aquaria, providing a constantly changing mobile of colour and movement. What is not generally known is that literally behind this exotic scene is an area where highly qualified marine biologists work on a number of remarkable projects. One is the rehabilitation of injured and traumatised turtles. I saw several of these large creatures that were missing one or even two of their four flippers. They are rescued from around the world by the Burj Al Arab team, watched over and treated in highly scientific conditions and, when considered capable of leading a fairly normal natural life, released back into the sea.

This area of the Burj Al Arab is also where new stocks of tropical fish of all shapes, sizes and colours are kept in quarantine to ensure that they are in good condition and free from disease and fungal infections before being placed into the aquaria. I gazed into two of the observation tanks, each holding 1,500 assorted fish.

We were also privileged to be able to access the fast track route into the Burj Khalifa. Tourists are normally required to book tickets well in advance, as all the times of entry are heavily oversubscribed. On our arrival I noticed an illuminated list of visiting times and each had ‘Fully Booked’ alongside it. However, a visit to the Burj Khalifa is a ‘must’ for any incentive or leisure programme and organisers have to be sure that they have secured their slots. Again, this is where a knowledgeable, influential DMC has an important role to play.

Burj is the Arab term for Tower, whilst Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, the United Arab Emirates. He is also President of the whole country.

The ruler of the Emirate of Dubai is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. His presence is everywhere, with his portrait very much in evidence and many landmarks and facilities named after him.

The Burj Khalifa is reached through the Dubai Mall, a centre for shopping and entertainment like no other. It has not only many hundreds of shopping outlets of every kind, but also one of the world’s largest aquaria, referred to as an Underwater Zoo. Groups are able to walk through a glass tunnel within the aquaria, having the memorable experience of all kinds of fish, including huge sharks, swimming around them.

The Dubai Mall has shops arranged in avenues according to what they are selling. In the mall on the way to the Burj, a fellow journalist had no sooner mentioned that she was thinking of buying an extra suitcase, when we found we were passing not one, but about a dozen large shops, all specialising in luggage. One area of the mall is dedicated to jewellery, with 120 shops specialising in gold, diamonds and other previous stones. The Fashion Avenue has more fashion outlets under one roof than anywhere else in the world.

Once in the Burj Khalifa we walked by a series of video screenings that showed the whole process of its construction. From ground breaking to the finished article took only six years – and it consists of 160 storeys, rising 828 metres (2,716ft) into the sky. It has a highly organised viewing platform on Level 124, from which the neighbouring skyscrapers look like tiny toy Lego buildings.

Further reports from Sydney Paulden’s recent visit to Dubai will appear over the next days, covering a cultural centre, desert dinner and presentations by senior executives of the Dubai Convention and Events Bureau, Dubai World Trade Centre, Emirates Airline and Dubai’s airports