Dubai was recently ranked the best in the whole world when it came to hotels and shopping experiences, according to a survey conducted last month by popular travel review website, TripAdvisor. As such, Dubai has defeated long-standing champions such as London, New York and Paris as well as other international cities renowned for their shopping and hotel facilities. The survey included 54,000 respondents and the results were certainly in line with other awards and honors that have recently been bestowed upon Dubai, including its flagship seven-star hotel Burj Al Arab retaining the title of 'Best Hotel in the World' as per another recent poll among the readers of British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.
Given the emirate's massive investment and continuous effort towards developing tourism, the hotel business and shopping centers, such results certainly come as no surprise. However, what is also useful to take a look at is what distinguishes the winners in the other TripAdvisor categories and see what lessons can be learnt so that Dubai can improve as an overall destination. In this context, it is interesting to note that the Japanese capital Tokyo emerged as the top city for overall experience as it garnered the highest points in categories like cleanliness, friendliness, taxi and public transport services.
Upon reviewing these points, we would notice that Dubai is not far behind, especially that the infrastructure already exists -- even though it is still new and in some cases incomplete -- in fields like those of public transportation for instance.
However, the issue of public transportation should be taken seriously in any case, because the downside of Dubai's increasing popularity globally is that the city's population will only increase year after year. This will inevitably lead to traffic congestion if people continue to rely on almost nothing other than their private vehicles like the case is now. And while it is unfair to compare a young project such as the Dubai Metro to the 151-year-old London Underground (aka "The Tube"),it is useful to consider the latter as a model to emulate as it facilitates transportation to different places in London, while services on Dubai Metro remain limited to specific areas. Therefore, Dubai Metro is not yet a real alternative to private transport.
Meanwhile, complaints about taxis in Dubai have become commonplace and most of them are linked to the fact that some drivers are not fluent speakers of Arabic or English. This certainly limits communication. Not to mention that some drivers may have recently arrived in Dubai and they therefore are not familiar with all the different places in and around the city. (Obviously, this will pose a problem if the passenger is a tourist or a newcomer to Dubai who does not know the way!)
The TripAdvisor survey revealed another point, which is that Dubai was the city ranked lowest for culture. The top three cities for culture were Rome, Vienna and Paris. Although it is unfair to compare Dubai to these three cities, considering that they are an open museum par excellence, Dubai still has a lot of thinking and work to do to improve in terms of promoting local culture. I think this will be a real challenge since "culture" cannot be developed overnight. Culture is the result of accumulated experiences and legacies of hundreds or even thousands of years, as is the case in Rome. The tourists' cultural experience thus expands from visiting remarkable historical buildings, houses of worship, to attending the opera, to admiring sculptures and oil paintings, to enjoying traditional Italian dishes (which, may I emphasize, include way more than just the stereotypical menu of pizza and pasta). Modern Italian culture is also present as a tourist can pay a visit to Italian football clubs or, for that matter, run into an artist or a famous Italian designer in a public place or event.
Perhaps a more relevant and recent example worth investigating is the South Korean cultural experiment or what has now become known as the 'Korean Wave.' Indeed, in just two decades, the Korean culture has gone from being an underdog to being a global phenomenon. One only needs to remember that Psy's music video of the hit 'Gangnam Style' has now reached two billion views on YouTube and that there are Arabic television channels now dubbing Korean soap operas (K-Drama).
Arab culture, and certainly Emirati more specifically, is rich and encompasses music, dance, food and traditional crafts. However, we -- as Arabs -- have a long way to go before this can be developed and exported.
To conclude, I think the TripAdvisor categorization is fair. On one hand, it signifies that Dubai certainly leads the way globally in terms of services. While on the other hand, it also urges further development of its culture.
*This article was first published in Gulf News on June 16, 2014.