In less than a couple of decades, Dubai has managed to out-bling Vegas. Colour televisions were rare until the late 1970s, but now it boasts the tallest, longest, shiniest, biggest and newest of everything in a sprawling look-at-me metropolis.
The glass-and-steel city rising out of the desert beside the Persian Gulf has a way of inspiring superlatives. Even amid the global recession, from which Dubai has not been immune, barely a month goes by without yet another pronouncement of the grand opening of a mine's-bigger-than-yours structure. It makes a sport out of imitating, but then outdoing, themes and ideas based on iconic structures in some of the world's glitziest cities: Manhattan, Las Vegas, Disneyland, Hong Kong, and London.
The Dubai Fountain is just one eye-popping example. Fashioned after the Bellagio's fountain in Vegas, it is bigger - the size of two football fields, in fact. Then there's the 818-metre rocket-ship-like Burj Dubai, set to open Jan. 4, which will surpass by 40 per cent Singapore's Taipei 101 as the tallest building in the world.
In Dubai's wildly ambitious master plan is a theme park called Dubailand. It aims to be more than two times the size of Disney World and will include a London Eye-like wheel (albeit bigger), sports world, a Universal Studios and an underwater hotel, and three man-made islands. The audacious super-sized projects list goes on and on.
The word "meteoric" barely describes Dubai's rise in the past 20 years.
Not more than a couple of decades ago, it was a dusty, nondescript commercial port with the odd building jutting out of the sand. Now, it goes by monikers such as the "City of Gold" for its glimmering opulence or "mushroom city," for its rapid growth.
As the second-largest city in the United Arab Emirates, it's determined to become the ultimate tax-free tourism destination that has it all and then some: lavish architecture, shopping, dining and blockbuster sports and entertainment events and theme parks that, when done, will make Disney seem like miniatureland by comparison. In its master plan is a bid for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Dubai.
Even so, Las Vegas has a few features you won't find here: blackjack tables and the din of slot machines at hotels, or open liquor laws - all forbidden in a Muslim country where sharia law prevails.
Instead, the most visible excess here is conspicuous consumption. Rolls Royces, Bentleys and Lamborghinis line the front entrances of Dubai's lofty addresses, such as the Burj al-Arab, the world's tallest hotel, which resembles the unfurled sail of a boat. Or at the Moorish-styled Atlantis, where sheiks come to rent one of the hotel's $35,000-a-night suites that looks into the one-million-litre aquarium stocked with 14,000 fish.
Shopping is as much a sport as camel racing. With the world's two largest malls, Dubai and the Emirates offer nearly every label under the blistering sun, including designers Salvatore Ferragamo, Chanel, Bally and Burberry. Many tourists save their pent-up demand for the ultimate shopaholics buzz, known as the Dubai Shopping Festival, in January and February. More than two million people participate and it reportedly generates more than $1 billion in sales.
For East Indians and residents of the other six emirates, along with Britons and Germans, many of whom work here, Dubai is a holiday hot spot, but not so much for North Americans. Residents of the U.S. have been reluctant to embrace the city as a tourist destination, but Canadians have, especially since Emirates Airlines started direct flights three times a week on the A-380 from Toronto in June, with great success, says Mary Heron, Emirates airlines' manager in Canada.
Once those flights become daily, Heron says, the next planned gateways in Canada include Calgary and Vancouver.
"We are doing a lot behind the scenes, but it's anybody's guess as to when," Heron says, referring to the need for government approval. "It's definitely on our radar." Meanwhile, Europeans and those who've made the 13-hour flight from Canada come to kick back at the resort pools and beaches, indulge in the ultimate in retail therapy, fine dining and nightclubs, and explore the old-world-style souks (markets) in Deira, across Dubai Creek.
Amid the western-styled clothing worn by the expat population, who make up 80 per cent of Dubai's 1.7 million people, is the traditional dress worn by many of Arabic men and women. Men walk about in flowing white robes and checked head coverings and the women wear black abayas (floor-length robes) in public, some of them opting to cover everything but their beautifully made-up eyes. Children and nannies are often in tow, as families stroll about the malls, or at the souks, especially on Thursday nights, the night before the Muslim Sabbath.
A quick dhow ride from the new city across the creek, considered the lifeblood of the city, reveals what the city was like just a short time ago.
An international transportation hub, 40 per cent of Dubai's International Airport's business is in-transit to the Far East, India and Africa.
Whether you're en route to somewhere else, or visiting Dubai itself, it's a place you must see at least once, and there's plenty to keep you occupied for at least a few days. If you find there's something missing -say, a mega-sports arena or theme park - you can be certain it's either underway or in the master plan.