Tourists asked to honour customs

Western tourists and residents are asked to learn more about local customs after two high-profile incidents.

ABU DHABI.April 28th 2008.THE CLUB UNDER THREAT. Members enjoying the sunshine on the beach at The Club, Abu Dhabi, Monday, April 27th. Stephen Lock  /  The National.  *** Local Caption *** SL-club-005.jpg
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ABU DHABI // Western tourists and residents are being asked to learn more about local customs after two high-profile incidents involving drunkenness attracted publicity abroad. Cases such as that of Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors, who are facing court after being caught allegedly behaving indecently on Jumeirah Beach, are rare; but westerners can often be seen holding hands, exchanging kisses, wearing revealing clothing or being drunk in public.

Eli Abi Rashed, the head of cultural orientation programmes offered at the Eton Institute of Languages in Dubai, says that while the UAE has developed enclaves friendly to western expatriates and tourists, too many of them were forgetting they were in a Muslim country with stricter laws governing drink, dress and behaviour. "You would be surprised how few people know what is offensive," he said. "If you live in a place like the Dubai Marina, it's very sheltered. They can easily be fooled about living in an Islamic county. People drift away from the reality and often don't know, or forget, what could be considered disrespectful."

Embassies offer detailed advice on dress and behaviour but even veteran expatriates can forget themselves. Last week, Miss Palmer, who had worked in sales at a Dubai publishing company for three years, allegedly became so intoxicated after a bout of Friday brunches that she was caught with a man committing an indecent act on a public beach. After the police gave her and her partner a warning, they moved further down the beach where they were again said to have been found behaving indecently. After allegedly becoming abusive with the officer, Miss Palmer was arrested. "Especially in a field like advertising and sales here in Dubai; it's very cutthroat and there's a high turnover of people," said Mr Rashed. "Everyone is worried about deadlines and work, they're far more focused on that than on cultural sensitivity, which is unfortunate."

Last week, a drunken British passenger on a plane from Manchester got into a fight with a stewardess and allegedly made a bomb threat. The plane, which had already landed, was evacuated and the man was arrested. About one million UK residents visit Dubai every year and last year tourism accounted for 18 per cent of the emirate's Gross Domestic Product. To illustrate the Palmer story, the tabloid Sun newspaper in the UK published a picture of two Emirati women wearing abayas staring at a blonde woman in a short silver dress. The recent cases have raised hackles among expatriates and locals alike. As the population grows and Western standards become more customary it has become easy for visitors and residents to forget about laws and expectations forbidding public expressions of affection, drink and revealing dress.

As the weather becomes warmer it is not uncommon to see young women in malls and restaurants wearing short skirts and thin-strapped T-shirts. Earlier this year, malls in Dubai posted blue signs warning the public against immodest dress and public displays of affection. Mr Rashed says it is the responsibility of companies and their human-resources departments to educate their employees. "We teach expatriates about what they can expect from the community and about what the community expects from them," Mr Rashed said.

Yet schools are not the only institutions that can help to educate visitors about expectations; some responsibility falls on travel agents. Ian Scott, the director of Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing in the UK and Ireland, said the majority of tourists in Dubai came from the UK and the recent articles had helped to highlight the UAE's expectations of visitors' behaviour. His office provides information and training about Dubai to more than 5,000 travel agents. Unlike other destinations, most people who visit Dubai still book through an agent, rather than through the internet. It was the responsibility of the Dubai office to educate those agents about the destination, he said.

"If young people go into a travel agent saying they want to come to Dubai to have a good time, ask about the night clubs, the bars and the restaurants, we've trained our agents to say: 'If you go to Dubai, you will have a great time. The restaurants and bars are great. However, those bars are mostly confined to the hotels and you must be aware that there are rules that need to be understood in order to respect local culture'.

"It's a simple and frank conversation," he said. "We tell them to curb their behaviour if they go to a local club and to avoid drinking excessively." Mr Scott said travel agents should also warn elderly couples about the stricter regulations surrounding prescription medications. However, it was beyond the role of agents to warn visitors about the legal consequences of misbehaviour, although penalties for drunkenness and public affection are often much harsher than in Western countries.

"It's not their role to go into that level of detail," said Mr Scott. He added that, considering the millions of UK tourists who visited the country each year, incidents involving Britons were rare. Reema Baroudi, a spokesman for the Intercontinental Hotel, agreed. Only a small percentage of guests left the hotel dressed inappropriately, she said. If they approached the concierge for advice, he would suggest a change of clothing.

However, it was not the place of the hotelier to educate people about such things. The responsibility, she said, lay with the guest. "We're in the age of the internet and this information isn't a secret," she said. "There's no excuse for someone, when they come here, to be ignorant of how to act." comment, page a22