20th anniversary of Dubai Shopping Festival will be ‘biggest party in town’

One of the biggest events on the international calendar, the Dubai Shopping Festival returns on Thursday, January 1. Here's a look at how it all started and what’s in store this year.
Shoppers at Dubai’s Al Ghurair Mall during the 2014 edition of DSF. Charles Crowell for The National
Shoppers at Dubai’s Al Ghurair Mall during the 2014 edition of DSF. Charles Crowell for The National

Long before the Burj Khalifa, The Dubai Mall and Atlantis the Palm, and the pyramid-like Raffles Hotel and its adjacent Wafi Mall were built, before the Dubai Metro was born and three years before the Burj Al Arab opened, there was the Dubai Shopping ­Festival.

Launched in February 1996, it is perhaps the city’s longest-­running event, an annual, ­billion-dollar shopping and entertainment extravaganza that is as integral to Dubai as its maritime industry.

Thursday brings up the 20th anniversary of the festival, which boasts the participation of more than 70 shopping malls and 3,000 retailers citywide, in public parks, beachfronts, shopping malls and more.

Originally conceived to position the emirate as a family destination, the month-long event is always held at the beginning of the year (save for a sombre period in 2006 when the festival was postponed following the death of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum) and has grown to become a behemoth on the Dubai social calendar, and a retail and entertainment hub for the entire ­region.

“When Dubai launched the first edition of the festival in 1996, it was a pioneering thing because no one at that time understood the importance of festivals towards the economy and tourism sectors,” says Laila Mohammed Suhail, the chief executive of Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment. “When we started, our aim was to boost Dubai’s position as a shopping and family tourism hub, and when we started, we only had around three or four malls and a couple of hundred retail shops participating.”

If you thought it was all about the discounts and bargains, you’re mistaken.

“DSF has matured; it’s a festival, not a sales season or discount season, not at all,” says Suhail. “From entertainment, to raffles, to prizes to be won offered by our thousands of retailers, to concerts, family events, fireworks, activities all over the city, it’s really a full, rounded experience of fun.”

The DSF story

Born out of a vision by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the Dubai Festivals & Retail Establishment is a government entity created solely to manage festivals across the city. Suhail recalls the early days when Sheikh Mohammed used to sit in on most of the meetings ahead of the launch of the DSF. “He was so involved in details; he used to discuss marketing plans PR plans, events, locations and logistics,” she says.

The Establishment, supported by the private sector, is responsible for seven festivals throughout the year, but DSF is considered the flagship, says Suhail. And no wonder. In the past four to five years alone, the DSF has grown so much so that it attracts up to 4.5 million visitors during the month of the festival.

The visitors

“The definition of a DSF visitor is anyone who has interacted with any of the events, whether the concerts, shopping or raffle draws,” says Suhail. “Usually we have around 30 per cent of those 4.5 million from outside the country. Some 70 per cent of the visitors to the festival come from within the UAE; the remaining 30 per cent are tourists flying into the country.”

The estimated expenditure? Usually, Dh14 billion to Dh15bn, so approximately US$1 billion is spent each week.

Suhail says: “This money goes to the shops, the hotels, the restaurants, the car-rental agencies, everything across the city, so the festival definitely has a huge effect on Dubai’s ­economy.” This year, she explains, the festival is all about “bigger and better”. The concert line-up features 20 of the biggest artists in the Arab world and a total of 35 international stars coming to “celebrate”.

“This 20th edition is the biggest party in town,” says Suhail. “People can enjoy the outdoor concerts, there’s free entertainment, plus 500 street entertainers across Dubai, so anywhere you go, you’ll find cause for celebration. Also, we’re decorating the entire city.”

Dubai Shopping Festival begins on Thursday and runs until Sunday, February 1. Visit www.mydsf.ae for more details of the events

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: December 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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