Having developed some of the world’s most unthinkable attractions, like a ski resort amidst a desert and an archipelago resembling the map of the earth, Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a unique tourism destination in the past two decades (Henderson, 2006). Dubai is a coastal city, which offers sand, sea, and sun, with conservative Islamic and Arab traditions. Even though the rapid rise in the tourism sector has led to rapid growth of the economy, this growth is paired with various environmental as well as social and cultural impacts. The following essay discusses these impacts and what the reason behind these impacts is. Later, the notion of sustainable tourism is discussed and how Dubai can maintain sustainability of tourism as well as social, cultural, and environmental values.
A major factor in Dubai’s tourism growth has been the development of its major airline, Emirates. Emirates is listed amongst the world’s most luxurious airlines (Verdonck, 2007). All flights are via Dubai, which means one travelling by Emirates must stop in Dubai first. Every unit of currency spent in Dubai benefits its economy. Although beneficial to the economy and tourism industry, air travel is a leading factor of air pollution.
Dubai, since the mid 1990’s, has been practicing “rapid tourism focused development” (Rockwell, 2006). This is not only the construction of hotels, but also of state-of-the art malls and buildings, all of which are meant to attract tourists and international investment. The construction in Dubai increases by 34% per annum (Heyer, 2008), and is using a third of the world’s cranes to build hundreds of skyscrapers (Clarke, 2004), most of which can be attributed to the city’s willingness to increase tourism. Construction again has adverse environmental impacts. A lot of this construction for example that of the palm shaped island called The Palm Jumeirah requires a method of dredging and re-depositing where rocks are collected from the bottom of the sea and deposited where wanted. This unfortunately has lead to the once crystal clear waters to be filled with silt. Resultantly, given the self-destructive nature of tourism, diving enthusiasts have started looking for other areas with greater visibility in water (Butler, 2005).
The above mentioned method of construction has also destroyed marine life. For example, the Arabian Gulf’s second most bio-diverse marine system was handed over to the construction company Nakheel to build another palm shaped island on. Consequently because of such acts, the coral reefs and sea grass have been buried and killed under rock deposits. The oyster beds are known to have been buried two inches deep. Construction companies mention that they will build artificial structures under water, but ecologists argue that these new artificial structures will not support the original native species of the area, but they may attract foreign, destructive species (Butler, 2005).
The tourism lead construction in the sea has lead to many disruptions in the wave currents. The beaches of Dubai have thus started to erode away. Tourism, even though indirectly, has started to gradually diminish one of the reasons that it exists (Butler, 2005).
Other examples of tourism attractions in Dubai include a Tiger Wood’s golf course, which imported 30,000 mature trees, an 820 square metre refrigerated swimming pool and an artificially chilled beach to keep the sand cool (Hickman, 2008). Not to mention, Dubai, as mentioned by the United Nations, is the world’s most “water-imperilled” area. Enormous levels of Energy and desalinated water, which ultimately requires even more energy, have to be used to maintain such attractions. All of Dubai’s buildings, such as hotels and shopping malls, are air-conditioned which means that more electricity is needed and the emission of greenhouse gases exceeds that of the world average greatly. Dubai’s emission of greenhouse gases is 33.6 metric tons per capita, whereas the world average is at only 3.7 metric tons per capita (Saadeh, 2007). This not only negatively affects Dubai itself, but also affects the rest of the world. A hotel in Dubai produces about double the carbon emissions as compared to a European hotel (eTurboNews, 2009). Many environmentalists worldwide can possibly argue why the other nations of the world must suffer because of what is happening in Dubai. In a United Nations climate talk, UAE’s minister for Environment and Water spoke of nuclear power to desalinate the water which would have even worse affects on the environment (Hickman, 2008). Therefore one can easily interpret that Dubai’s tourism does not only have negative impacts on its own environment but possibly that of the world.
Tourism’s impacts in Dubai are not restricted to the environment. The residents, only of which a very small number are local citizens, have also had to go through some major changes in a very short period of time. As mentioned earlier, Dubai has one the most successful airlines in the world, and the Dubai Airport is evidently quite busy. The airport is located in the main city as seen from the map below:
Source: Google Maps
The airport operates 24 hours and thus it is easily assumable that the noise pollution is at high level. This affects all the residents in the surrounding areas.
There is a major clash between western culture and the Islamic culture that prevails in Dubai and its surroundings. To a westerner the idea of going to a beach fully clothed may seem quite pointless and hence tourists wear swimming attire at beaches. Dubai has faced some major problems in this regard. The average labour working class of Dubai is mostly of men from the Indian subcontinent where it is quite uncommon to see women on beaches wearing bikinis. For the above mentioned reasons, men of the working class had started to gather at beaches to stare at women and photograph them. There would be occasional instances when they would forcefully feel women in water. The Dubai police have approximately arrested 500 men because of this (Fattah, 2006).
Dubai’s western views are not normally accepted by the conservatives of the city. Regardless of that, the rulers have made a move forward. Dubai has tried to accommodate western culture which in the long-run could possibly end in the loss of Dubai’s own culture. In the past few years, late night parties as well as alcoholic drinks have become very popular and common, something which is not appreciated in the Arab culture. Dubai has numerous different kinds of nightclubs and bars to offer to its tourist population (Expat Forum, 2009), which could possibly change Dubai’s own population, and would be most influential on the youth. A New Year’s Eve party held on The Palm island had heavily intoxicated people dancing on the beaches in the nude (www.EscapeArtisit.com). Perhaps one can say that the people of Dubai have already started to lose their cultural, religious, and social responsibilities as a direct result of tourism.
Sex tourism has also immensely affected Dubai. The Dubai Information Site documentary clearly shows with a hidden camera that prostitution is only illegal on paper and is literally supervised by law enforcing authorities and also suggests that the government and secret agencies know all about it (www.Dubai-Information-Site.com). One possible reason thinkable is that Dubai actually wants to attract sex tourists so that money keeps pouring into the economy, but this theory is not evidenced. In some instances Dubai has been compared with Morocco and the Philippines at sex tourism level (www.Dubai-information-site.com). Streets of Dubai are filled with easily identifiable prostitutes, perhaps most of these women are there to attract local clients but many also end up attracting tourists. The more expensive prostitutes work at 5 star hotels where obviously tourists also stay, making the existence of sex tourism even more solid and believable. In an interview with a prostitute, she said “Most of my clients are Australian, Canadian, and local men” (Robson, 2009). An enormous increase in prostitution, especially when a large number are tourists are the clients, puts residents of Dubai at risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as Syphilis and HIV.
What one must consider is, is Dubai still a place where one can raise children with pre-existent social and cultural values?
THE MAIN REASONS FOR NEGATIVE IMPACTS
What has been the main reason for all these socio-cultural and environmental changes? As mentioned earlier, the government, or rulers, because Dubai is not a democracy, want to help the economy by introducing tourists. Dubai took a political stance in the mid 1990’s that because the oil was going to get exhausted they should switch their focus towards tourism. Investments in Dubai are mostly international and most of the flats in the residential skyscrapers built were sold to very rich foreigners. The prince of Monaco also bought an island in the archipelago ‘The World’ (Clarke, 2006). Therefore the ‘second home’ phenomena is also one which helps increase tourism in Dubai, and thus tourism impacts on Dubai even more greatly, as tourists will visit again and again. It was in this stance that Dubai’s rulers also decided to make many tourist attractions including the various hotels and bars. The CEO of Dubailand, the world’s largest theme park, is known to have said that “we want to make Dubai Venice of the Middle East” with flowing water canals (Heyer, 2008), which again is excessive use of water in a region where water is a precious resource. It was investments in such schemes that were followed by devastating environmental impacts. Not only is the running and maintaining of such attractions unhealthy for the environment, but it is also the construction which greatly affects it. The government of Dubai has been quite relentless in the construction of these attractions, so much that the already few environmentalist groups and NGOs in Dubai had to be made silent and were not allowed to interfere at all (Hickman, 2008). It would not have been difficult silencing these groups as Dubai is not a democracy system. NGOs’ and environmentalists’ only job is to educate school students about recycling (Hickman, 2008). The construction company Nakheel, responsible for the construction of the infamous Palm Islands, the land reclaimed ‘The World’ and many other environmentally harmful projects is owned by the ruler of Dubai himself, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Makhtoum (Clarke, 2006). Therefore we can easily say that the reason for the impacts is perhaps strict adherence to political and economic policy. Quite recently, given the 2008 economic slump, Dubai has started facing economic problems as well. In the recession, there was a considerable drop in tourism in Dubai (Walid, 2009). Unfortunately, the whole purpose for which Dubai had to suffer through socio-cultural and environmental impacts may be too volatile. Any country should never be too dependent on any one sector of the economy, especially a self-destructive one like tourism.
IS SUSTAINABLE TOURISM POSSIBLE?
Sustainable tourism as defined by the United Nation World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is ‘Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.’ (Bartlett, 2007)
Firstly, the adverse effects of tourism are lessened if the growth in tourist population is relatively slow (Cooper et al, 2008). This was not the case for Dubai. Dubai has seen an enormous growth in its tourism over the past 15 years. Thus the impacts on the environment and the people have been greater than they could have been. The residents of Dubai did not have much time to grow accustomed to the ways of the tourists. Like London and New York, where residents are already accustomed to an urban style of living with the presence of tourists (Cooper et al, 2008), Dubai’s residents are not.
Dubai has already started to implement sustainable tourism (Mustafa, 2007). A recent initiative by the earlier mentioned Nakheel is called Blue Communities (www.BlueCommunities.org). For example, at the Palm Island they have introduced a new air conditioning system which reduces energy usage by 35%. Such issues should not only be addressed by one construction company, but all construction companies. Dubai’s government is strong enough to implement such laws that will minimize the damage to the environment. Some hotels in Dubai have also started to take the environmental issues and hence their carbon emissions seriously. They have taken steps towards decreasing their environmental costs and realize the financial benefits that could be received by going ‘green’ (eTurboNews, 2005). Such initiatives can be very expensive to
Dubai can use the example of Egypt, which has similar social and cultural values and even perhaps related environmental issues. When the Red Sea started to grow as a tourist destination, the government took a similar approach to that of Dubai’s, based on construction of hotels. Later, they implemented management plans and introduced a “Sensitivity Map which rates resources in terms of their resilience to the impacts of use” (Bartlett, 2007). Moreover, Egyptian authorities have started providing incentives to be more sustainable (Bartlett, 2007). Dubai could take a similar approach.
After a case of two British nationals having sexual intercourse on a family beach, authorities have introduced some new guidelines for residents and tourists alike. Now, loud music, swearing, kissing, wearing skirts of inappropriate length, and even holding hands and hugging in public has been banned (www.News.com.au, 2009). Instead of being on the extreme end and banning the activities mentioned above, which are quite common in the tourists’ own countries, Dubai can take a similar “encourage, not discourage” approach (Bartlett, 2007). Dubai can mention the Arab and Muslim culture in any brochures and advertisements of the destination; otherwise, if tourists hear about such bans and limitation, they might want to visit an alternate destination. The same encouraging approach as that of Egypt can be taken towards construction companies, in which financial assets could be provided. Similarly, Emirates Airline could continue to purchase the new A-380 aircrafts as they are more environmentally friendly. Research shows that 45% British tourists are willing to spend more on vacation if environmental damages can be reversed, 67% Americans think it is important that they do not damage the destinations they visit, and 69% Danish tourists are willing to pay more for eco-labelled hotels (Bartlett, 2007). All three countries above generate high numbers of tourists. Thus government officials in Dubai can assume that if they want to fund in environmentally friendly activities, this will potentially attract more tourists.
Dubai’s government could possibly take another step towards sustainability. Random residents could be drafted, at their will, in large groups to be a part of a panel, similar to a marketing firm’s consumer panel, where they could be asked to comment on any new developments that have been thought of. This way the commonly held views of the community will be known and because a random drafting system is used many members of the community will feel more important and thus less resistant to changes. The implementation of such a system will be hard and tedious. It may also quite costly for the government.
Eco-tourism can be practiced although in a very unique way. Eco-tourism normally deals with naturally beautiful areas, but could also possibly involve the unique culture and traditions of a region (Bartlett, 2007). Dubai can advertise the rich Arabic traditions that prevail in the region and show how cultural and environmental values are in the city’s core. Eco-tourism would be difficult because of the notorious impacts on the local and global environment and the changes that have already occurred in its residents. Still, it is a very remote possibility in the long-run. If achieved, Dubai may be a possible eco-tourism destination which would ironically attract masses.
To achieve sustainable tourism, the differences between the residents and tourists must be reduced (Cooper et al, 2008). If Dubai’s people were to change and become like westerners, this would again end up in loss of identity and changes in culture. Instead, skilfully designed programs for schools and similarly designed advertisements aimed at Dubai’s adult population could teach them about the positive effects of tourism and adaptability. On the other hand, advertisements aimed at tourists from different countries could be made aware of Dubai’s cultural and religious values.
In the case of Dubai specifically, there should be aims made at reducing prostitution to make the social situation better. By making police authorities more efficient and taking a stance to stop human trafficking at the airport, so no prostitutes enter.
For Dubai’s tourism to grow sustainably a few of the mentioned methods must be used so that the interests of the people, tourists, and environment are satisfied, all the while the tourism industry thrives and grows. Although this is difficult as there is a clear trade-off between certain factors, for example construction of attractions leads to an increase in tourism but harms the environment. Therefore Dubai’s tourism sector needs a skilfully devised plan to practice sustainable tourism. It also needs the understanding that environmental and social systems are not two distinct theoretical simple systems, but are one complex real system and that humans are also a part of the environment. This system is therefore always evolving and changing with uncertainties and remains stable only for a short period of time (Fyall et al, 2005). As the system evolves, Dubai’s plans of sustainable tourism will also have to change, because the interests of all stakeholders are different at all times.
Dubai must involve and change the behaviour of all the stakeholders involved such as tourists, residents, environmentalists, and government officials. Only then can sustainable tourism and development be achieved and the negative impacts of tourism reduced.