Sustainability & Responsible Tourism in Dubai

Subject: Tourism
Pages: 25
Words: 7014
Reading time:
24 min
Study level: Undergraduate


Sustainable tourism has become the latest buzzword in the tourism and hospitality sector with its clearly defined mission to protect sightseeing destinations from the hazardous impact of unconcerned tourists. It’s a form of tourism which appeals to socially and ecologically conscious individuals, the primary aim being to produce low impact on the natural environment and indigenous culture of a destination thereby promoting values such as cross-cultural understanding, respect for diversity and conservation of natural resources.

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The aim of this dissertation is to present a schematic analysis of sustainable tourism for the case study hotspot Dubai (UAE) with the following objective, “Are tourists keeping cultural and environmental impact to a minimum in Dubai?” In doing so, the author aspires to explore a range of interconnected issues: religion (Islam), culture, beaches, alcoholism, prostitution and human trafficking. This case study will demonstrate that the magnitude of intervention posed by conscious tourists has a significant bearing on the larger picture of meeting the goals of preserving the uniqueness of a tourist destination.


The emergence of sustainable tourism is an offshoot of tourists’ code of behaviour, education and increasing sensitivity towards host environment. This report presents an incisive take on the implications of sustainable tourism in Dubai, one of the most prolific hotspots for international tourism. Ever since its humble beginnings in the late 1960’s, Dubai has metamorphosed into a glittering extravaganza of urbanisation and splendour attracting tourists, business magnets and entrepreneurs from distant corners of the world. Through its abundance of seven star hotels, international sporting events, high-rise buildings, malls, etc., Dubai exists as a panoramic vision of modernity in an erstwhile nomadic heartland. Indeed, due to its remarkable pace of development, critics have argued the city is losing its cultural bearings with grave implications for the future (Hammond, 2004; David M Kennedy Centre for International Studies, 2001; Lewis, 2005).

The rapid pace of urbanisation in Dubai has met with a corresponding influx of migrants from the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) and other Asian/African countries putting considerable strain on city resources. This problem has been further compounded due to initiation of events such as the Dubai Shopping Festival which has ever since firmly established the city’s image as one of the most important retail destinations in the world leading to nearly five million tourist footfalls in the year 2007 (Carter & Dunston, 2006). The construction of mammoth supertalls such as the 321-metre high Burj-Al-Arab hotel has established Dubai’s worldwide reputation for excellence in architecture. Compared to most of its sister cities in the Arabian peninsula, Dubai is generally considered a Westernised tourist destination because of its tolerance for non-Islamic cultural norms – relaxed laws on alcohol consumption, loose Western attire, free mixing between both sexes etc. It’s a general belief among the masses here that such liberal surroundings have a fall-out on social/ethical issues which are in direct conflict with conservative social mores of the Arab world e.g. drunken driving, indecency in beaches, hotels and nightclubs, prostitution and human trafficking etc (Hammond, 2004; David M Kennedy Centre for International Studies, 2001; Lewis, 2005). Caught in its own iconic web of cultural contrasts, Dubai is struggling hard to retain its soul and indigenous character despite a continuous striving to project the city as an international hub of tourism and commerce.

Theoretical framework

The aim of this section is to expand the literature of sustainable tourism as a compulsory requirement for 21st century tourism industry. For all nations in the world, the rapid pace of globalisation in recent decades has rendered the socio-cultural fabric of its people in a fluid state. In all its essence, it can be argued that “identity” issues which used to be central to a nation’s collective imagination even recently have suddenly lost their appeal in the increasing wake of external forces driven by consumerist agencies of wealth, technology and uneven pace of development.

In order to establish the rationale of sustainable tourism as a prerequisite of answering our central query in this report, “Are tourists keeping cultural and environmental impact to a minimum in Dubai?”, we must provide prima facie evidence from the organized body of literature for sustainable tourism in order to corroborate later findings for the specific case study of Dubai. The validation of theoretical findings presented in this section will aid in understanding issues relevant to the implementation of sustainable tourism. First, the definition.

According to the conceptual definition adopted by the World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism should include the following criteria:

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  1. Making optimal use of environmental issues as a major feature of overall tourism policy (Weaver, 2005).
  2. Respecting the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserving their existing cultural heritage and traditional values while at the same time, contributing to intercultural tolerance and respect (Weaver, 2005; Bramwell, 2004)
  3. Ensuring long-term economic activities, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed and contributing to intercultural understanding and tolerance (Weaver, 2005; Bramwell, 2004).
  4. Maintaining a high degree of satisfaction for tourists ensuring a memorable pleasant experience, raising awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices in the long run (Weaver, 2005, Fennell, 1999).

Butler (1980), discussed in his “Destination Life Cycle model” for tourist destinations that unregulated tourism eventually undermines the very foundation assets that support the growth of a tourist destination in the first place. It is explained by an S-curve with four evolutionary stages: growth, consolidation, stagnation and decline (Butler, 1980). The very factors which led to promotion and fame of a given tourist destination can lead to its complete destruction when it loses those very values it stands for (Butler, 1980).

The historical development of Sustainable tourism can be attributed to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit which referred relevant issues to the Production and Consumption unit of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) (Forsyth, 1997). A successful tourist destination must constantly reinvent itself and at the same time, hold on to characteristics that made it popular among tourists (Butler, 1980). ). It is therefore argued here that for a destination to retain uninhibited tourist flow, the government and tourism bodies should compulsorily intervene in all manners possible. That’s where the following agencies come into picture.

  1. Organisation for Economic cooperation and Development (OECD): The task of OEDS tourism committee is to enhance the task and capacity of OECD governments (UAE included) to adjust their policies and actions to support sustainable tourism in the long run (Weaver, 2005).
  2. Regional Organisations’ role: At a regional level, various governments have to appoint tourism committees to ensure the smooth functioning of OECD task initiatives (Forsyth, 1997). For Dubai city, Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) is responsible for ensuring sustainable tourism development practice as an integral feature of its overall tourism policy. In its core essence, regional organisations facilitate “cultural” aspects of sustainable tourism by creating awareness about a destination’s intrinsic cultural values which are of enormous interest to tourists.
  3. Environmental Organisations: Various environmental organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Conservation Internation (CI) have a vital role to in the development of sustainable tourism for a given tourist destination.

Having understood the scope, definition and boundaries of sustainable tourism, we must evaluate its different constituents the application of which is tested for our given case study of Dubai World Heritage city. Each and every aspect discussed here has relevance to our prior definition of sustainable tourism.

Urban environment: For a urban tourist destination like Dubai, urban environments are vulnerable to pressures from increased tourist presence – the influx of millions of tourists has a huge impact on the ecological and hydrological systems of cities (Page 1995, p. 147) which leads to long-term problems such as alteration of land use, water/electricity shortage and makeover of the socio-cultural fabric for the city (Savage, Huang & Chang, 2004). For historical destinations (Dubai included), the issues related to urban environment have a double negative impact because on one hand, the very rationale of preserving historical sites is to attract global tourists and on the other hand, increased tourist activity coupled with development of malls and modern infrastructure leads to deterioration of heritage value for the given historic site (Page 1995, p.147).

It is thus obvious that sustainable tourism in the context of an urban environment must consider the “green effect” of such tourist destinations (Savage, Huang & Chang, 2004). Cultural preservation and conservation of natural resources are the other necessary attributes (Mowforth & Munt, 1998). In order to discuss the theoretical parameters of sustainable tourism as applied to an urban destination, an example will clear things better. For the purpose of understanding this concept, the Singapore River thematic zone study is hereby discussed. Both Singapore and Dubai are self-contained island destinations renowned for similar properties such as being the centres of service industry, commerce, shopping, entertainment and both cities are home to huge expat populations.

One of the salient features of the city is the Singapore river on which it is named. During the city’s urban expansion, the river’s watershed gradually started encasing hotels and resorts, shopping plazas, amusement parks, etc. (Savage et al, 2004). This led to considerable sediment and chemical pollution, putrid smells, floating jetsam of material life and lack of aquatic life (Savage et al, 2004). Increased tourist flow into Singapore directly created environmental concerns for the city and immediate action was justified.

The rectifying measure proposed by Singapore Tourism Board (STB) was the immediate development of “thematic zones” which would offset some of the negative impact due to effluents generated by the river (Savage et al, 2004). For a small-sized city, this meant setting up “zones of tourism” on the riverfront which necessitating measures to keep the river pollution-free and aesthetically pleasing (Savage et al, 2004). The waters were cleaned and infrastructure development proceeded along the riverfront to incorporate dining restaurants, al fresco bars and other entertainment venues (Savage et al, 2004). The development of quays and embankments further led to the creation of water zones for canoeing and water-sport activities (Savage et al, 2004). Each of the 11 thematic zones earmarked by STB led to further development of tourist hotspots such as botanic gardens, zoos, ecological parks, Chinatown, pub areas and amusement areas to cover up the entire urban expanse on the riverfront (Savage et al, 2004). Each and every thematic park represented a unique socio-cultural aspect of Singapore – the sum total of these individual units in turn created the modern city as we see today.

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The concept of dividing the urban environment into suitable-sized sectors for “thematic” development thereby preserving the unique socio-cultural and ecological aspects of the city is recommended by urban planners because it gives business houses the scope and opportunity to invest in urban development projects as they can be directly measured with respect to the returns generated. Even for Dubai, we shall discuss a similar methodology wherein the city is converted into a range of “thematic areas” towards addressing issues of sustainable development.

Cultural heritage and traditional values: According to established wisdom, the local inhabitants of a given tourist destination must have a say in deciding aspects of tourism which relate to their identity (Richards & Hall, 2000). This relates to their sense of community participation and identity for the city and should be taken into account before proceeding with the development of tourist hotspots in their residential premise. The objective here is not to offend the “cultural, visual and aesthetic perceptions” of the local population – a subjective parameter which depends on the unique characteristics of a given destination – its history, cultural norms, social mores, moral prerequisites etc. (Richard & Hall, 2000). In order to understand the cultural heritage and traditional values of host culture, we shall discuss two analytical frameworks as given below.

I Development by state agendas and resource control (Top-down approach) – This envisages pursuing of development policies by the Government and a national-level tourism committee (Richard & Hall, 2000). Also, called the top-down approach, it essentially favours an emphasis on policy-making at a central level where the government sets up different parameters which reflect a city’s traditional aspects and unique culture (Richard & Hall, 2000).

II Development by community participation (Bottom-up approach) – Between the two frameworks discussed here, the bottom-up approach of “community participation” is promoted as the more accepted criterion for development of a local tourism hotspot (Richard & Hall, 2000). There are several reasons for these: first, local involvement in development processes is likely to assist the formulation of more “appropriate decisions” and to generate increased “motivation levels” for the development of tourism (Richard & Hall, 2000). Second, support for environment conservation efforts is likely to be greater (Richard & Hall, 2000).Third, it allows “goodwill” between local communities and tourists (Richard & Hall, 2000). Finally, visitor satisfaction is always greater when the hosts take “pride” in their tourism (Richard & Hall, 2000). In its core essence, the very principle of sustainable tourism is to achieve the goodwill of local inhabitants.

A shared community within a tourist spot (locals + visitors) allows for greater notions of special contiguity, social interaction, reflexivity, notions of shared aspirations and values and “equal” power relations between tourists and hosts (Richard & Hall, 2000). The objective of sustainable tourism is to ensure both tourists and hosts complement each other in the preservation of local environment thereby ensuring no one party suffers due to demands posed by the other. Like an eco-system, a shared community participation initiative offers equal opportunity for development of tourist destinations and preserving local environment.

Ensuring long-term economic activities leading to preservation of local culture while at the same time, creating jobs and other economic opportunities for the host city. No definition of sustainable tourism is complete without incorporating measures to promote jobs and economic opportunities for host city. “Tourism-led development” is considered an integral aspect of overall tourism policy in many countries and the development of such initiatives leads to better sense of social cohesion between tourists and hosts (Binns, 2002). The local government is entrusted with the task of prioritising community-based development for a range of initiated projects, the most common ventures being as follows (Binns, 2002):

  1. Public works programmes: Sustainable tourism practices should ensure tourist money is used to finance community programmes such as schools, street cleaning, maintenance of parks, water fountains etc.
  2. Local Procurement and small business development strategies: Sustainable tourism should ensure there is a window of opportunity for small-time traders to enjoy the fruits of increased tourist footfalls. Local handicrafts, pottery and other cottage industries could be promoted by arriving tourists through “cultural awareness and training” (Binns, 2002).
  3. Support for both formal and informal business: Tourists concerned with sustainable development can invest their money in supporting auxiliary businesses such as local transport mechanisms, indigenous restaurants, local shopping etc. (Binns, 2002).
  4. Efforts to encourage tourism-based development: It goes without saying that tourist revenue is “ready cash” towards financing local development projects (Binns, 2002).

Maintaining a high degree of satisfaction for tourists and creating awareness about sustainable tourism: It has to be stated that no definition of sustainable tourism is complete without measuring the satisfaction of tourists promoting sustainable destinations. This is done in a variety of ways:

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  1. Informing tourists about their positive contribution towards the sustainability of a given tourist destination (Smith & Duffy, 2003). This takes shape in different forms –for example, a thank you note for their choice of an expensive “eco-hotel”. The objective here is to increase tourist delight so that they revisit the destination.
  2. Ensuring good quality – Like any other tourist attraction, sustainable tourism also dwells on pronounced benefits from maintaining good quality in all manners of service e.g. cleanliness in hotels, promptness and efficiency of tourist staff etc. (Smith & Duffy, 2003)
  3. Promoting Independence in travel – Most tourists promoting sustainable destinations tend to be mature, adventurous, thrill-seeking and independent (Olsen, 2005). Marketers will do good by cashing in on such tourist characteristics. Independence in travel can be promoted through challenging promos, advertisements and pamphlets.
  4. Moral Relativism – This is the most important aspect of cultural awareness for a given tourist destination (Olsen, 2005). What may be wrong and unacceptable in one culture, may be tolerated in the other. Conversely, what is considered acceptable in one culture may not be tolerated in the other. In relation to our specific case study example, this parameter becomes all the more important because contrasting an Islamic culture (UAE) with Western culture leads to several conflicting questions on moral relativism which is going to be discussed in our application stage of this dissertation.

With an elaboration of four definition parameters of sustainable tourism, we wind up our theoretical discussions on this subject. These four parameters will be evaluated for their specific utility in Dubai’s sustainable tourism initiatives.

Media Projections of Sustainable Tourism (1-2 pages)

Despite its recurrent popularity with culturally-sensitive tourists even in the distant past, the concept of sustainable tourism gathered steam only recently. It was in 1992 during the Rio Earth summit that worldwide tourism representatives decided to draft a long-term blueprint for action, called Agenda 21 (Mastny, 2002). It consists of typical policy guidelines/directives which seek to address the issues related to uncontrolled tourism development.

  1. Restructuring management and operations along environmental lines including reducing consumption of energy, water etc. and handling waste (Mastny, 2002).
  2. Accelerating the transfer of environmentally-sound technologies, practices and management tools to the developing world especially when it comes to water-saving systems, renewable energy sources and ecological chemical management policies (Mastny, 2002).
  3. Developing voluntary “codes of conduct” to regulate the environmental and social impacts of staff and clients, and ensuring that compliance with these codes is adequately monitored (Mastny, 2002).
  4. Developing regulations and policies to support smaller-scale tourism initiatives that are actively planned and managed by local communities (Mastny, 2002). For example, governments can boost local land and resource ownership and market access by offering incentives like tax breaks, special interest rates, or micro-enterprise loans, providing low-cost licensing, or offering training in languages, small business development, and marketing (Mastny, 2002).

It’s worth discussing the manner in which global media especially that of developing countries has handled the subject of sustainable tourism over the years. There is scarcely a doubt over the adulation it receives due to promises delivered:

  1. In Jamaica, sustainable tourism practices have enabled 29 five-star hotels to compete for the Green Globe Certification. This in addition to “Community Tourism Practices” which showcase Jamaica’s indigenous culture to foreign tourists in addition to its reputation as a fun-filled destination have won rave reviews from different sections of Caribbean industry and government (Bowe, 2005).
  2. In Philippines, local tourism committee ever since the 90’s have enthusiastically supported specific framework plans for the sustainable development of natural tourist attractions in the archipelago (“Manila Bulletin”, 2005). For example, the Tagaatay-Taal Master plan which allows more than 70% of land area in 13 municipalities in the Tagaatay-Taal region to be promoted as an eco-tourism destination (“Manila Bulletin”, 2005).
  3. The Organisation of American States (OAS) representing different tourism destinations in Central and Latin America started a project in 1992 (closely following the Rio Summit) with the goal of implementing specific development initiatives tallied with sustainable tourism (“Americas”, 1992). One of the salient features includes an unequivocal decision by member states not to import toxic wastes from developed countries (“Americas”, 1992).
  4. Many celebrities have also come out openly in favour of sustainable tourism development and/or acted as brand ambassador for its promulgation. Anita Roddick, the co-founder of the Body Shop is an outspoken and active supporter of responsible sustainable tourism initiatives (Amodeo, 2002).
  5. Dubai’s recent success in sustainable tourism initiatives (discussed in length in this paper) have been received with good amount of appreciation from international media sources such as the National Geographic Magazine which recently ran a full-featured article on the city tourism department DTCM winning the World Legacy Award for sustainable tourism development.

Showcasing media projections of sustainable tourism practices in different parts of the world allows us to understand relevant applications for the present scenario of sustainable tourism in Dubai. This is being discussed in following section.

Application of Sustainable Tourism theories in Dubai Case Study

Sustainable tourism has become a hot topic of discussion for DTCM’s policy measures to spread awareness on relevant issues connected with the Emirate’s heritage, culture and environment. The push for these practices has recently come from highly-placed sources which now call for the universal adoption of principles synergising the environment, economics and socio-cultural development aspects of tourism in Dubai (IBLF, 2006). In this section, we shall discuss the application of sustainable tourism in all environmental and socio-cultural aspects of Dubai. The purpose of understanding relevant theories in previous sections (especially the comprehensive definition of sustainable tourism in terms of miscellaneous parameters: urban environment, cultural heritage and traditional values, socio-economic activities and measuring tourist satisfaction and increasing tourist awareness on sustainable tourism development). The applications are fully illustrated with examples keeping in mind principles mentioned in theoretical framework.

Urban Environment: Recalling the concept of dividing urban environment into suitable-sized sectors for “thematic” development thereby preserving the unique socio-cultural and ecological aspects of a city, we present a few flagship developments in Dubai which have achieved sustainable tourism goals with a renewed focus and commitment to saving the environment, minimising waste and conserving resources in the long run. Considering that the Emirate of Dubai is spread over a vast expanse of land with a thriving industrial sector, it should be understood it is not possible to implement Singapore-styled thematic development for the entire region. Despite Dubai’s overstretching of land resources due to immigration problems, several solutions have come up in recent years.

DubaiLand: DubaiLand is one of the largest chains of hotels and resorts in Dubai which has sought to address global warming concerns using green globe certification standards (as discussed in previous section for Jamaica’s hospitality industry) (DubaiLand, 2008). Equipped with hotels, theme parks, culture and art exhibitions, planetariums, sports facilities (including a golf course which needs one million gallons of water daily), shopping malls, health clinics and restaurants, DubaiLand is one of the largest infrastructure projects endeavoring to use green measures (DubaiLand, 2008) in promoting tourism development. The mammoth project consists of 60,000 guest rooms across 51 hotels, urban planners managed to save considerable time and energy using the following innovative strategies:

  1. A monorail which spreads across a 40-km track thereby cutting down on car usage (DubaiLand, 2008).
  2. Recycling water used in “Aqua Dunya” the major water park in the city (DubaiLand, 2008). Also, many projects run on electricity derived from petroleum consumption.

Al-Maha Desert Resort and Spa: Al Maha in the outskirts of the city is a major desert resort in Dubai with its double reputation as a national park (Al Maha, 2008). Surrounded by indigenous flora and cascading water features, and offering panoramic views of the desert and the distant Hajar Mountains, Al Maha’s Jamilah Spa & Leisure Centre boasts state-of-the-art ‘LifeFitness’ equipment, a sauna, steam room, interior jacuzzi and ice-cold plunge pool (Al Maha, 2008). In order to protect its natural beauty, the resort undertook the mission of conserving 45% of land resources available in its exterior allowing it to entertain only a “finite” number of tourists in peak season therefore producing low environmental impact (Al Maha, 2008). The resort chain also utilises renewable sources of energy such as solar power, hydroelectricity, wind farm equipment and bio-fuels in its endeavour to cut down on wasteful energy (Al Maha, 2008).

In light of its sustainable tourism development initiatives, the whole resort of Al Maha which is spread across an area of 4.8 km2, the resort chain has won a number of sustainable tourism recognitions from prestigious global agencies. These awards are listed to highlight the success of tourism efforts backed by engineering sustainable urban planning :

The Conde Nast Traveller 2007 Gold List for Africa, Middle East and Indian Ocean Islands; the Conde Nast Traveller’s UK Gold List 2006, World Legacy Award 2004 (Nature Travel) from National Geographic Traveler & Conservation International; First Prize winner for the 2005 Arab Cities Organisation Award. (A prestigious architectural project award established to preserve the Arab heritage and receives much recognition in the Middle East); Leaders Club Guest Recognition Award for Highest Achievements 2003; from Leading Hotels of the World; WTM Environmental Recognition Award; World Travel Market, London, 2003, nominated by readers of Middle East Travel magazine; Preservation and Conservation Award, presented at the Architecture Cityscape Awards 2003; “Design for a new world”, Best Suite in the Middle East, awarded to Al Maha’s Emirates or Owner’s Suite as part of The Elite Traveller’s “Pure Decadence” listing, 2002; Best Overseas Leisure Hotel (Africa & Middle East) 2002, voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveller magazine, UK; Best New Gulf Hotel and Best Environmentally-friendly Hotel, from Hotel Intelligence Middle East, 2001; Joint second Best Resort in Europe, Middle East & Africa, voted by readers of Gallivanter’s Guide, 2001; Best New Hotel, voted among the top four by readers of Gallivanter’s Guide, 1999; Editor’s Choice Award, nominated by Gallivanter’s Guide, 1999. (Al Maha, 2008).

Above certifications indicate a new “awareness” in Dubai’s sustainable tourism development industry which now seeks to compete with global benchmarks as far as responsible tourism is concerned. Al Maha has established a unique brand reputation for the legendary stories associated with its natural environment. As its tourist website proudly proclaims, the “legend” foretells of an “Arabian dream where water flows from a rock, springs fed by underground lakes, birds gathering in the dense trees, gazelles hiding from the shimmering heat under matted palms, and the occasional, hardened, elusive, Arabian leopard seen in the distant mountains” (Al Maha, 2008). The objective of developing a fairy-tale fascination model for the tourism resort goes with its proud, chivalric Arabian culture promoting attributes such as “honour, tradition and martial qualities” (Al Maha, 2008).

Al Maha resort chains represents the pinnacle of sustainable tourism development initiatives conveying a lasting impression on the minds of tourists who are keen to explore the bounties of nature given the privilege of contributing to its active conservation efforts. Many tourists in the resort are encouraged to abide by the natural rules common to Bedouin travellers from a bygone era: minimising consumption of water, fuel and basic necessities in the pursuit of a nomadic existence appeal to vast sections of tourists sensitive to urban development problems (Al Maha, 2008). According to tourism office sources, 43% of overseas tourists visiting the resort in 2007 actively contributed to its natural conservation efforts by minimising consumption of water, fuel and basic necessities (Al Maha, 2008). This translates into a high degree of awareness for sustainable tourism among repeat visitors to the resort.

The thematic park model of Al-Maha resorts can be contrasted to many other architectural projects in the city which do not contribute to urban conservation efforts. If Dubai has to save itself from becoming a concrete jungle in the near future, town planners should step forward and encourage more initiatives which promulgate urban sustainability efforts. Tourist awareness can be created by showcasing visitors the “authentic sand-dune Arabian experience” which is something appreciated worldwide for its mythical folklore (Al Maha, 2008).

Cultural Heritage and Traditional Values: The United Arab Emirates is an Islamic country with values deeply rooted in a culture which derives its significant bearings from Islam. Many tourists (especially Westerners) lack the essential conceptualisation (and respect for) of non-Western cultures. For the UAE, Islam coupled with centuries-old Arabian Bedouin heritage has left behind a cultural legacy which makes its citizens proud about their identity. In order to ensure the right message goes across potential tourists, the following cultural quirks have been identified in this paper. These deal with issues common to both Western and UAE governments. Since, an essential feature of sustainable tourism is the preservation of traditional values in the host nation, these cultural aspects are a significant component of tourism efforts in the UAE and reflect the present-day problems faced by the country.

  1. Alcoholism: Unlike its more conservative neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain and even within the country where “dry laws” are the norm in Sharjah and Ras-Al-Khaymah, Dubai has relaxed laws in comparison when it comes to alcohol consumption for non-Muslims (Grapeshisha, 2008). Most luxury hotels and nightclubs within Dubai city limits are permitted to serve alcohol on board. There are also licensed liquor stores selling alcohol to similar customers (Grapeshisha, 2008). In order to ensure Western norms of alcohol consumption do not impact the traditional way of life in the Emirate, the following cultural norms are accepted:
    1. Drinking and driving carries heavy fines and/or prison sentence (Grapeshisha, 2008)
    2. It is forbidden to offer liquor to Muslims in places of convergence such as bars and nightclubs (Grapeshisha, 2008). Although, these laws are sometimes openly flouted, cultural norms dictate a more rigorous message. Also, alcohol sale and consumption may be restricted in the light of events of religious significance for example, the holy month of Ramadhan.
  2. Code of modesty: Despite its liberal leanings due to huge immigration population, Dubai at its core is very sensitive about the issues of modesty especially when it comes to clothing, morals, etiquette and behaviour. Although, Western clothing is common everywhere (including for women), culturally-sensitive visitors take great care in understanding the Emirate’s clothing norms as a function of its unique Islamic culture (Carter & Dunston, 2006). Most Emiri men wear the Dishdasha, a white loose-fitting garment which is comfortable in the hot weather. Emiri women are expected to wear a black, flowing garment called the abaya which is further adorned by a face mask called the burqa (Carter & Dunston, 2006). It goes without saying that any departure from the norm is frowned on by the host population and should be taken into account by culturally-sensitive and pluralistic tourists.
  3. Moral behaviour: Since, conservative Islamic norms dictate the common vestiges of culture in Dubai, culturally-sensitive tourists take great care in familiarising themselves with moral etiquette common to conservative Emiri norms. Nudity, public display of intimacy and licentious behaviour is deemed objectionable by a significantly large number of Emiris (Carter & Dunston, 2006). Many Western tourists may not have the slightest comprehension of the differences between acceptable behaviour and vulgarity as applies to the unique culture representing Dubai (Carter & Dunston, 2006).

A recent incident involving a British woman who was sentenced to six years in prison for having sex on a Dubai beach reflects the sharp contrasts between the moral perceptions considered “normal” in Western countries and in Dubai. Culturally-aware tourists take great care in understanding social norms peculiar to a given country and normally wouldn’t commit grave errors like these. If Dubai wants to protect its traditional cultural heritage, it must strongly emphasise its need to create awareness on issues which can create cultural rift between hosts and visitors. According to basic definitions of sustainable tourism, both hosts and tourists in a given living environment must develop tolerance and mutual respect for each other. This can be achieved when tourists are made aware of practices which will offend the host population.

Dubai should emulate the example of Jamaica mentioned in this report and promote “community culture centres” which showcase tourists the indigenous culture of the Emirates.

  1. Issues such as Prostitution and Human Trafficking: In recent decades, thanks to its thriving dependence on overseas tourists (and a huge migrant population), Dubai has earned the ill-reputation for being the source, transit and destination for prostitutes from the former CIS countries (Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and is causing great embarrassment in a traditionally-Islamic country which frowns on these activities (Muslim Media, 2008). Called by their demeaning sobriquet “night butterflies”, these women arrive on tourist visas which arranged by unscrupulous agents who then confiscate their passports and force them to “work” in order to pay for the airfare and accommodation (Muslim Media, 2008). This gradually leads to a debt-trap situation and the prostitutes are forced to solicit sex in places such as the beachfront, hotels and bars and even public thoroughfares (Muslim Media, 2008).

In addition to prostitution, another human trafficking related to child “camel jockeys” from the Indian subcontinent has raised eyebrows in the Western/local media (Muslim Media, 2008). Hundreds of children, some as young as five, are starved and strapped to the backs of camels on which huge sums are gambled in desert races (Muslim Media, 2008). This apparent perversion has recently caught the attention of Dubai authorities and local NGO’s who are fighting hard to improve the cultural image of the country (Muslim Media, 2008). It is under the action of these pressure groups that the UAE, in agreement with the UNICEF in 2005, banned the practice of child jockeys in the country (Helping Camel Jockeys Foundation, 2008). This development is attributed to the “increased awareness” of the issue among culturally-sensitive Western tourists (Helping Camel Jockeys Foundation, 2008) and is widely seen as a positive impact of tourist footfalls on the indigenous cultural environment of Dubai.

Thus, so far, we have seen the complete cultural package which manifests in the form of vital interactions between tourists and local populations in Dubai. It is observed here that most tourists visiting the country do make positive efforts to understand its unique cultural heritage and are actively contributing to sustainable tourism initiatives. Since, Dubai plans to increase its tourist footfalls to fifteen million by 2015 (from five million now), it must invest more money in promoting awareness of traditional aspects of its culture among visitors.

Ensuring long-term economic activities and providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders: The issues related to sustainable tourism development cannot be seen in isolation from a tourist point of view. The other stakeholders, namely the local population must have an active presence in affairs which govern their interactions with tourists and thus, creates valuable opportunities such as jobs and economic well-being. For example, both resorts discussed in our case study on urban sustainability (DubaiLand and Al Maha) have created combined direct employment in the range of 6000-8000 (DubaiLand, 2008), allowed indigenous artisans to sell their products and creating a bonhomie environment for all stakeholders concerned (Carter & Dunston, 2006).

The true impact of tourist footfalls translating into economic benefits can only be realised when one examines the dynamics under which hosts and tourists connect with each other (Carter & Dunston, 2006). Dubai’s towering vision to be projected as a much-appreciated tourism destination in the future has a lot to do with its present potential in harnessing the talents of its indigenous population. Sustainable tourism is seen as a win-win for all stakeholders connected with the city. Dubai’s tryst with sustainable tourism can be appreciated in future only in terms of the positive net impact delivered by the tourism industry.

Measuring Tourist Satisfaction and Creating Tourism Awareness: As discussed previously, tourist satisfaction for culturally and ecologically-aware tourists is measured using attributes which reflect the host culture’s sensitivity towards socio-environmental values (Fennell, 1999). In examples containing Al Maha resort discussed in this dissertation, tourist satisfaction is been measured using a list of “satisfaction” surveys which would allow UAE tourist spots to increasingly compete in the global market for sustainable tourism recognition. Al Maha also has unique “awareness” sessions which encourage visitors to conserve natural resources such as water, fuel and electricity and as discussed previously, visitors to the resort displayed a 43% interest in sustainable tourism efforts.

Findings and Conclusion

The aim of this report was to present a schematic analysis of sustainable tourism for the case study hotspot Dubai (UAE) with the following objective in mind, “Are tourists keeping cultural and environmental impact to a minimum in Dubai?” In answering given objectives, we uncover a number of theoretical/case study findings which are summarised here:

Theoretical Findings: 1. According to the conceptual definition adopted by the World Tourism Organisation (and other tourist bodies), sustainable tourism encompasses the following factors: environmental impact especially where it concerns urban development, cultural and traditional issues associated with host, socio-economic benefits ascribed to tourism development and measuring tourist satisfaction as a result of sustainable tourism activities.

The salient features of sustainable tourism associated with above definition were further attached to the following literature evidences:

  1. Urban development is at its finest when the city/planning area is divided into suitable “thematic” parks for concentrated development. The example of Singapore City’s river restoration project was discussed here.
  2. The best way of preserving a country’s unique culture is by following a “bottom-up” approach which thrives on an “eco-system” connecting tourists with host society. Such interactions are built upon tolerance and mutual respect.
  3. Tourists engaged in sustainable tourism efforts can promote public works programmes, promotion of local businesses and investment efforts in community development – the ultimate objective of such measures is to create more jobs in the host country.
  4. Tourist satisfaction in sustainable tourism efforts have been discussed in detail.

Media projections: Media awareness of sustainable tourism efforts have been described in detail. This mostly regards to Article 21 put forward in the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio – an event which gave true impetus to the sustainable tourism culture worldwide. Other media sources used in this report project the apparent benefits of sustainable tourism in countries such as Jamaica, Central and Latin America and Philippines.

Case Study Applications

Applying theoretical findings summarised from literature evidence, the case study takes a closer look into how Dubai measures up to expectations in this regard. The following studies have been presented here:

  1. Urban development: The specific examples of DubaiLand and Al Maha resorts have been described in detail to explain the importance of “thematic parks” in ensuring urban development efforts for a given city.
  2. Cultural and Traditional values: In deference to the Emirates’ unique culture/environment focused around Islam and Arabian traditions, the following issues that can be addressed by sustainable tourism have been discussed: alcoholism, dress code, morality including prostitution and human trafficking.


The final verdict on our main research question, “are tourists keeping environmental and cultural impact to a minimum in Dubai?”, it can be answered in evidence to the sheer impact of sustainable tourism in changing the vision of the country. From historic apathy to present marvels such as Al Maha discussed in this report, there is hope that sustainable tourism efforts are witnessing a huge turnaround in Dubai and should be encouraged in future.

Limitations of Research

  1. This report was limited in its focus of presenting sustainable tourism efforts as applied to Dubai. Real examples which have demonstrated a high degree of successful implementation of such projects are few and far between. Since, the subject is still in its infancy, there is scope for wider speculation from media sources.
  2. Lack of primary research including interviews, surveys and focus group efforts.
  3. Validity of sources: Most sources are literature evidence derived from books by recognised authors and/or peer-reviewed journals. The same cannot be said about internet articles which were needed to update latest information concerning the case study.


Carter, T. & Dunston, L., 2006, Dubai, Lonely Planet Publications.

David M. Kennedy Centre for International Studies, 2001, Culturegrams: St.Edition, Milenial Star Network and Brigham Young University.

Fennell, D.A., 1999, Ecotourism: an Introduction, Routledge, London.

Hammond, A., 2004, Pop Culture: Arab World! Media, Arts and Lifestyle, ABC-CLIO.

Harris, R., Griffin, T.& Williams, P., 2002, Sustainable Tourism: A Global Perspective, Butterworth-Heinenmann.

Lewis, R.D, 2005, When Cultures Collide, Nicholas Brealey Publishing Mowforth, M. & Munt, I., 1998, Tourism and Sustainability: new Tourism in the Third World, Routledge, London.

Page, S., 1995, Urban Tourism, Routledge, London.

Richards, G. & Hall, D., Tourism and Sustainable Community Development, Routledge, London.

Smith, M. & Duffy, R., 2003, The Ethics of Tourism Development, Routledge, London.

Weaver, D., 2005, Sustainable Tourism: Theory and Practice, Butterworth-Heinenmann.


Binns, T., 2002, “Tourism as a Local Development Strategy in South Africa”, The Geographical Journal, Vol.168.

Bramwell, B., 2004, “The Development of Sustainable Tourism”, The Geographical Journal, Vol.170.

Butler, R., 1980, “The Concept of Tourist Area Cycle of Evolution: Implication for Management of Resources”, The Canadian Geographer, 24(1), 5-12.

Forsyth, T., 1997, “Environmental Responsibility and Business Regulation: The Case of Sustainable Tourism”, The Geographical Journal, Vol.163.

Olsen, D.H., 2005, The Ethics of Tourism Development”, The Canadian Geographer, Vol.49.

Savage, V.R., Huang, S. & Chang, T.C., 2004, “The Singapore River Thematic Zone: Sustainable Tourism in an Urban Context”, The Geographical Journal, Vol.170.

Magazine articles

Americas, July-August 1992, “Sustainable Tourism”, Magazine article by Questia Media America, Vol.44.

Amodeo. C., December 2002, “New Horizons: Anita Roddick, co-founder of the Body Shop, is an outspoken and active supporter of responsible travel and sustainable tourism initiatives”, Geographical, Vol.74.

Bowe, Feb 2005, “Red Stripe, Yellow Curry and Green Hotels: Sustainable Tourism in Jamaica”, Magazine article by Questia Media America, E.Vol 16.


Manila Bulletin, 2005, “Tourism and Sustainable Development”.

Times Online, 2008, “British Woman Faces Six Years for Sex on Dubai Beach”, Times Online UK, Web.

Internet articles

Grapeshisha, 2008, Web.

Mastny, L., 2002, “From Rio to Johannesburg: New Paths for International Tourism”, Worldwatch Institute, Web.

IBLF, 2006, “Sustainable Development to be Hot Topic at Dubai Hotel Conference”, IBLF Online. Web.

Muslim Media, 2008, “Prostitution in Dubai: an Affront to Islam’s Holiest Places”. Web.

Suggested Reading (based on footnotes)

Edgell, D.L. & Edgell, D.L. (Senior), 2006, Managing Sustainable Tourism, Haworth Press.

Helping Camel Jockeys Foundation, 2008, “Official Website”, Web.

Pineda, F.D. & Brebbia, C.A., 2004, Sustainable Tourism, WIT Press.

National Geographic, 2008, “World Legacy Awards”, Web.

Times Online, 2008, “British Woman Faces Six Years for Sex on Dubai Beach”, Times Online UK, Web.


Al-Maha, 2008, Web.

DubaiLand, 2008, Web.

Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) Official Website.