“Bye-Bye, Dubai”: The tarnish is showing on this once golden tourist destination

Dubai has been slapped down. Half of all construction projects are on hold, the stock market value has tumbled 70%, and banks aren't lending.

“Bye-Bye, Dubai”: The tarnish is showing on this once golden tourist destination

Dubai has been slapped down. Half of all construction projects are on hold, the stock market value has tumbled 70%, and banks aren’t lending. The government is doing everything it can to make the news seem less dire, but word has been flooding out.

We all knew a little about how bad things were there, but Dubai’s crash went mainstream a few week ago, when the New York Times ran a bruising story that showed the world a side of the United Arab Emirates that had been ignored during the hyper coverage of its ostentatious wealth. The paper reminded everyone that Dubai runs debtor’s prisons. Expats are so terrified of being locked up for owing money on their condos that they’re fleeing the crippled city in droves, some taping notes of apology to their Beemers in the airport parking lots as they fly for safety. With the country ending 55,000 residency visas in January alone, nearly twice the rate of a year ago, foreigners are given no choice but to run like hell.

Debtor’s prisons? What the Dickens?

Mainstream American observers were outraged and called for a boycott of such a draconian government while a major American tour operator, IsramWorld, which run trips to 56 countries pulled the plug on further tours to Dubai. A new mantra rose among tourism leaders: “Bye-bye, Dubai.”

Since then, Dubai’s tourism reputation has crumbled. The country refused to grant a visa to an Israeli tennis player who was booked for a major tournament sponsored by Barclays, setting off a firestorm of international criticism. A second Israeli player was offered a visa after the extent of the damage became clear and the Tennis Channel dropped its coverage, but now Dubai risks being fired as the host of the tournament in the future.

And the body slams continue. Dubai got some more bad press last week over a book fair, when literary luminary Margaret Atwood refused to attend its Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature because, she thought, a book depicting a gay sheik was banned. She has since agreed to appear by video link from Canada, but the damage had already been done to Dubai’s image.

The famous Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner, retired last year by Cunard, was supposed to become a floating luxury hotel, but now it looks like she may end up on the scrap heap instead of with a velvet rope around her. Plans for Dubai versions of four American theme parks, including a Busch Gardens and a SeaWorld to be built on an artificial island shaped like Shamu, are now on ice. The Palm Trump Hotel and Tower is dead, as are plans to construct a building that’s one kilometer tall. Dubai already has the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai, although it’s largely empty — a tombstone to the city’s high life.

Only Universal Studios is plowing ahead with its Dubailand plans, at least on paper, adding a sub-license with Sesame Street last week that promises three tie-in attractions. (In America, competitor SeaWorld contracts with those Muppets.) A completion date for the theme park, though, has been conspicuously absent from recent press releases.

It’s not like Dubai is a destination that works hard to help visitors immerse themselves in Arab culture. The principal attractions there are shopping malls and beaches, and if you’re traveling there to learn much about the place, you’ll be out of luck. So it’s not like striking Dubai off your wish list will deprive you of much culture. It’s also not going anywhere, at least not as long as it’s still got crude oil.

I was always dubious about Dubai. How you could build an insta-city in imitation of the world’s great ones if all you had for building blocks was extreme wealth and expensive tastes? Dubai always seemed to me like an urban version of Dorian Gray. It seemed to be an air-cooled, marbled shell, and now that it’s cracked, we’re finding out what its insides were really made of.

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