HE Helal Saeed Almarri is a man with a mission: to implement the tourism vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai. For Almarri that means attracting 20 million visitors to the emirate by 2020, and trebling the economic contribution tourism makes to the city’s balance sheet; ambitious targets that were set even before Dubai won its bid to host the World Expo in 2020.

Over the last year, hotel guests visiting the city have soared to beyond the 11 million mark. Although the figures seem to be growing as fast as Dubai’s reputation as a destination – with the influential Trip Advisor recently voting Dubai No 1 in terms of hotels and shopping – there is still plenty of work to do to achieve the target. Nevertheless, the Director General of Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) is quietly confident.

The emergence of low-cost airlines and point- to-point travel are opening up new corridors: they are linking us together with cities that have not been served in the past

Almarri points out that many factors are now combining to make his ultimate target achievable. These range from the ongoing success of Emirates Airline, whose elevation onto the world stage has helped to drive the emirate’s growth, to the exceptional experience had by travellers using Dubai’s airports and the first class tourist offering of hotel operators like Jumeirah Group: together, aviation and tourism are spearheading the charge. Almarri also argues the case for less well-publicised contributions: for example the way the city, its departments and private sector partners work seamlessly together to make things happen.

Eighty percent of tourism in Dubai is currently leisure-related, with the balance travelling on business – either on independent business travel, to a show, or visiting one of the many big firms now operating from Dubai. “Since the downturn in 2008, a large number of major corporates have been expanding their operations in Dubai, as well as the footprint of their offices here, as they consolidate into fewer regions. We have been lucky enough to benefit.

emirate with new cities, Dubai’s international airport

By linking the emirate with new cities, Dubai’s international airport is opening up new tourist avenues to the emirate

“The core impact in Dubai is from business events, and we have a very impressive calendar of global congresses and exhibitions backed up by many corporate meetings and incentive programmes,” says Almarri. “These add a great deal to the GDP.”

Major events are also an important driver of leisure tourism to the emirate. “People love to travel for arts, culture and sports.” Almarri cites the Dubai Shopping Festival as a prime example, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this coming January, together with Dubai Summer Surprises and newer events like the Dubai Food Festival. Art Dubai is another popular attraction, now a regular in the annual calendar. And today the emirate is also a natural stopping off point for major music tours, with international musicians such as Lady Gaga and the world’s number one boy band, One Direction, who are both due to play in the near future.

Eighty percent of tourism in Dubai is currently leisure-related, with the balance travelling on business

Perhaps the biggest untapped tourism market of all for the emirate is already in the country: the millions of transit passengers currently passing through Dubai without leaving the airport. Dubai is working as one in making a special effort to persuade these passengers to stay awhile.

“Once people experience our city, our home, they inevitably fall in love with it and want to come back,” says Almarri. “There is no marketing or PR as good as seeing it for yourself. It’s a city where you can experience water activity in the morning, ski on snow at lunchtime and then have dinner in the desert! And it’s a place where your level of enjoyment and happiness, either as a resident or a visitor, is very high.”

According to Almarri there are also many other factors making a positive impact on the emirate’s rising visitor numbers. “The emergence of low-cost airlines and point- to-point travel are opening up new corridors. They are linking us together with cities that have not been served in the past. And as soon as you have air links, and ease of travel, there is an opportunity.”