The main inescapable problem of a press tour is that a press tour is inescapable. No matter your feelings on quid pro quo journalism – even if you declare outright that you will not cover activity X, still you may well be materially expected to participate in activity X to satisfy the entirely illusory expectations of the publicity client. Such is the case with my press tour in Dubai, where I must slog along to places I’ve already been in order to get to places I actually want to be. That’s not to say it’s all bad, and in the main, it’s good to be back to see how much has changed (or not changed) since I was here in 2006 at the height of the boom.
First on the itinerary is the Burj Al Arab – Dubai’s famous sail-shaped hotel that I once described as having been designed by aliens. Nothing has changed at the Burj, except that peons can no longer fork over $30 just to visit and gawk. It’s still the same palace of opulent madness as when I visited before. No mention is made of the received wisdom that institutional privacy concerns (no video recording!) are enforced to protect the discretion of regional sheikhs who use the hotel as a secure meeting place to entertain off-the-books mistresses.
But after that it’s off to Atlantis, the first major-league operational hotel on Dubai’s first artificial island chain, the Palm Jumeirah. The drive in seems to prove they’ve solved the rumored problems of crumbling shores and brackish seawater. Still, the nice-looking apartment blocks that populate the “trunk” of the Palm are oddly claustrophobic. They’re identical of course, and they crowd the road; the sense of precious little build-space makes it seem like they may intrude on the right-of-way at any moment just to maintain a steady footing.
One of my fellow journalists observes that Dubai hotels tend to be Vegas-like to degrees; the Burj al Arab is like the Wynn, given that it’s all gaudy ostentation. Other hotels hit or miss this “standard.” But the Atlantis isn’t Vegas — it’s Disney World, and not just in the emphasis on kid-friendly activity rooms. It’s a large, rambling place that aspires to the Disney methodology of themeless theme – that is, a vague organizing concept (water, undersea kingdoms, etc.) echoed by the name that doesn’t really mean anything and allows for a lot of creative interpretation. The Atlantis also doesn’t suffer the infuriating/typical Vegas structure of mazelike layout intended to frustrate easy navigation — another plus copied from the Disney repertoire.
We’re forced into an interminable press lunch at the Atlantis Italian restaurant — to give you an idea, a course of pizzas serves as the appetizer — and at the end of the ordeal, all anyone wants to do is sleep and/or digest. Our guide, a personable Russian who’s lived in Dubai for more than 20 years, offers to take us into the “old” city of Dubai (old in the sense that it dates from a little less than a century ago) only after much browbeating. Eager to see something a little less plastic, we agree.
But all we do is stop by a scenic creek-side boat put-in; I ask if we can actually visit the souks, which are super-touristy but at least local. The guide gets extremely testy but finally relents, and we spend a half-hour or so looking at bags of spices and shoploads of extremely crap gold jewelry. Out of spite (or so goes my theory), we’re limited to just 20 minutes, which is not nearly enough time to hunt down and haggle for anything good. Even the hawkers can barely be bothered to harangue us for designer bags and Rolex watches. The lesson here: Do not diverge from the program, chump. I consider at least buying cinnamon from the spice souk as an act of rebellion, but there’s no consensus on whether I’d be allowed to bring it through customs.
That “accomplished,” it’s time for the ultimate tourist safari – i.e. “dune bashing” in the desert. A healthy session of aggressive 4WDing through the sand ensues, and it’s actually a goddamn lark … sort of a waterless version of the 4WD mudddin’ from my home region down south. After a photo-op stop here and there, we debark to a faux Bedouin camp in the desert that’s hokey beyond belief … it’s a ring of tents erected in the middle of nowhere, complete with synth-powered Moroccan band, camel rides, henna tattoos, and a belly dancer who phones it in with barely concealed disinterest (and a far-too-concealed body).
We prevail on our guides to retire early and head back to our hotel. I scrub off in the shower and get dolled up for nightlife rounds. Tonight’s target is the new Cavalli Club in the Fairmont Hotel. Less a club than a restaurant (so I’m repeatedly assured), it captures the essence of New York models & bottles, circa 2002. In fact, I’m startled to discover they’ve taken it a step further; there’s an actual bar, with stool seating, that is bottle service only. Other than that, the club seems (to me) a disjointed mishmash of dripping chandeliers and purple lighting. Fellow journalists who visit later are more charitable, but they also stuck around to order the sushi with gold leaf.
I close the evening with the millionth attempt to coordinate with several acquantaince-of-aquaintance expats, but nothing comes of it. Either we can’t connect on the phone, or we’re too far removed from each other to suit my level of fatigue. Sadly, it appears I’ll never visit the alleged club whose door is exclusively controlled by a cadre of midgets.
On our third and final day, we do a round of round-table interviews. First up is Nigel Page of Emirates, the Dubai conglomerate which runs the eponymous airline and various other tourism-related concerns. A longtime Dubai expat Brit, the charming Page is, of course, bullish on the place. Only 2.5% of projects have been cancelled, 2008 saw a 2% rise in new residents as opposed to the rumored mass exodus, hotels average 80% occupancy despite only a 20-25% drop in rack rates, etc. Then it’s off to see Eyad Ali Abdul Rahman of Dubai Tourism, who also offers lots of happy stats: an 8% increase in visitors from 2008 over 2007, 15% increase in hotel revenue (hard to see how that gibes with Page’s drop in rack rates), 25% increase in American visitors, and so on. One assumes all these stats are getting spun or stepped on as needed to make the best case possible, as with any such presentation. But I doubt they’re total fabrications, as Dubai is a little too obsessed with business to invent such things whole cloth.
After an afternoon spent chatting up a few local biz folks, we have our final tour and meal at The Address, which shortly becomes my favorite new place in Dubai. It’s understated, in the Dubai sense of things — it would be over the top anywhere else, but here the lobby sculptures are only 15 feet high, for example. Of course, understatement goes out the window when you, er, look out the window at the Burj Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building. You can see this spiky edifice from most anywhere in town, but only up close to its base can you appreciate how staggeringly out-of-control huge it is. At 160 floors and 2,684 feet, it’s hard to even look at the Burj Dubai and not process the scene as fake. Unfortunately it’s not open till September, so we have no chance to go topside and check out the view.
After dinner — where conversation begins to lull as fatigue (present and anticipated) begins to clutch us all — we pack and head back the airport for a 2 a.m. departure. And I have to admit that the locals were right … the new Terminal 3 really does get mobbed during late hours, as opposed to the big empty we saw during the day. I look forward to several hours of bad movies and shallow sleep, and finally crashing out back home in New York. Next and last, I’ll have a few final big-picture thoughts, but now I just need to recalibrate my highly confused circadian rhythm. Stay tuned.