Cultural Tourism in the UAE – matter over mind?

Two recent articles in The National newspaper by Swan (07/07/15) and Hellyer  (06/07/15) highlight the vexed issue of tourism in the UAE.  For many tourists arriving here – either on a 1-3 day quick transit stop or a much longer stay with family who live and work in the country – the attraction of the UAE appears sometimes difficult to pin down.

There is no doubting the considerable importance of tourism and travel nationally – in 2014, 8.5 per cent of the UAE’s GDP came from tourism, adding a massive Dh122.6 billion ($US 33.3 billion) to the economy.

On one side, the allure of almost 365 days of sunshine is obvious, even in the sweltering summer months when the excessive heat offers an excuse to visit the many fabulous indoor shopping malls in the major emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The winter months provide a wonderful outdoor experience for tourists escaping the harsh wintry conditions in Europe – walking along the Abu Dhabi Corniche or Dubai’s The Beach, an English or Russian tourist is guaranteed to erase recent memories of removing ice from frozen car windscreens on dark and bitterly-cold mornings.

Besides abundant sunshine and world-class shopping malls, the country’s outstanding beaches, mountains, wadis, and desert additionally offer tourists very unique experiences, often quite dissimilar to home. Beaches on the Arabian Gulf are clean and safe, sometimes affording the opportunity to view traditional Arabian dhows silhouetted against a setting orange sun as they race each other back to Dubai.

For those more adventurous tourists, wadi-bashing, mountain hiking, and camel rides in the desert create strong, lasting memories for departing tourists.

On the other hand, the less obvious tourist locations – mosques, Arabic restaurants, heritage villages, and meeting local Emiratis – appear to be much less attractive as destinations in tourists’ minds.  Ms Swan’s article highlighted a survey by two Emirati students at Zayed University that reported that almost 50% of the 120 respondents (tourists, nationals and expatriates) felt that “Dubai should do more to promote culture and heritage.”

Hellyer’s article on the abandoned traditional mountain villages in Fujairah offers a tantalizing glimpse of an alternative tourist destination for those more keenly interested in finding the ‘true soul’ of Arabia.  He gives an example of a largely abandoned village near the fort at Wadi Hayl that might offer opportunities for local landowners and federal Government to jointly refurbish the properties, allowing tourists, expats and local Emiratis to experience something close to the kind of life before the discovery of oil in the 1950s.

Ali Al Saloom, the noted Emirati social commentator, believes that the UAE “combines in a very unique way, tradition and modernity.”  If the emphasis now is slanted more towards modernity, then the country needs to address this imbalance in the way its international marketing efforts influence tourists’ vision of this special place in the region.

It would appear that cultural tourism (a country or region’s culture, specifically the lifestyle of the people in those geographical areas, their history, art, architecture, religion, and social norms and behaviours) must firstly be defined at home, by the Emiratis themselves. Only then can it be marketed and offered to increasing numbers of potential tourists, eager to seek a deeper understanding of the region than that too readily obtained in the air-conditioned modern artifice of the shopping mall.