Dubai's rulers have set their sights on making the emirate the world's biggest tourist spot by 2025 - but experts say the city's hidden gems must be allowed to shine if the lofty goal is to be reached.
Dubai is currently the fourth most visited destination in the globe - trailing only Bangkok, London and Paris in a recent MasterCard poll - and plans are in place to take it right to the top.
The Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, has revealed plans to attract 25 million visitors a year by 2025.
While the shiny skyscrapers, sun-baked beaches and array of mega attractions will always prove a lure, tour operators say there is a need to go off the beaten track in order to sustain visitor numbers, year after year.
Hospitality industry expert John Podaras said due to the numbers the country attracts, varied options are required.
“Going back 20 years, one of the first unique selling points that Dubai offered was that exotic air of Arabia because people then were looking for something different and that spearheaded the start of the interest in the region as a major tourism destination,” said Mr Podaras, a partner at Hotel Development Resources, a body that provides advisory services for hotels and developments.
“This slowly went into the mainstream as more hotels attracted more tourism. We are now coming out of that cycle, especially as tourists become more sophisticated and more demanding, the destination has to offer a little bit more.
“Destinations like Dubai that are well established also have to cater for a wide range of tourists and activities.
“So we still have the high-end, the Jumeirah beach, Palm hotels and luxury destinations, but we will start to see more rarefied experiences with people seeking something a little more specialised. At the end of the day what the specialist tourist looks for is experiences rather than pampering.”
The country will continue to cater to big numbers with its ambitious tourism target in mind.
“It’s a fact of life that at the height of holiday season you will have people who come to the hotel, sit on beach and eat in the hotel restaurant. That is inescapable, those are your mass numbers.
“But the real quality and the ones that leave money behind, are the ones that become engaged with the destination and keep coming back. They are the special interest tourists. You appeal to them and tie them in to a place.”
Arva Ahmed, founder of Frying Pan Adventures, is helping to keep people engaged in the life of the city by allowing them to explore the culinary roots of the multicultural melting pot.
She says tourists are keen to join walking tour feasts that take them through the bustling lanes of Deira and Bur Dubai stopping at small Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi, Indian restaurants or sign up for an Emirati cooking demonstration and lunch.
“They want to make sure that the places they are going to are super local. Travellers even get excited when the servers may not speak English because they know it is catering to people who live here,” said Ms Ahmed, who takes visitors beyond the popular hummus, shawarma and butter chicken offerings.
On four-hour walkabouts, tourists break to eat at regular intervals and drop in at grocery stores where long-time residents shop for saffron, baklava, pomegranate syrup and masalas.
“There is real surprise and delight that places like this exist in Dubai. It is unusual for them to see the simple side of the city.”
“Mainstream tourists, who want to check off from a list, may not get too adventurous. But it is a growing trend and we get people from Europe, Australia and the US who want to discover new experiences. They want to do and eat where the locals go.
“They want to pick places connected to a community,” Ms Ahmed said.
Michael Camp, sales manager of Absolute Adventure, said a growing number of tourists want to get out of the city, do their research about outdoor activities and explore more of the UAE, even if from a Dubai base.
“People are interested in trekking partly because even with no prior experience anybody who can walk can do some level of trekking.
“There was less awareness before of the options outdoors,” he said, referring to treks in the wadis and mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and camping on beaches that the company offers.
“They are surprised how dramatic the mountains are here. They are blown away because it is really rugged for a part of the world that you might not have thought there were mountains.
“People may not come here specifically looking for adventure. There is more of a chance they come to see the city and grandness of Dubai, but they don’t want to do just that. They don’t want to spend a full week in a five star. They want to an opportunity to get to know a part of the country they wouldn’t normally get to know.”