x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sting in the tail of a great summer

The fall in visitors from Europe and North America might prompt hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers to make the most out of those who do make the trip by marking everything up. If so, that is a bad long-term strategy.

Tyler Brûlé drives me mad. The jet-setting, hyper-hip know-it-all who writes the weekly "Fast Lane" column in the Financial Times, and is also founder of the utterly pretentious magazine Monocle, delivers his opinions on global issues - such as the size of a cappuccino on Capri or the cocktail list in some obscure boutique hotel in Tokyo - as though these trivialities mattered one bit outside the circle of super-smug, wealthy cosmopolites who really care about the number of zip pockets on a new piece of "iconic" hand luggage.

Compulsive reading, though, as a taster of how the monied business classes live. Mr Brûlé recently produced Monocle's latest "world livability index" - a list of what he and his fellow pseuds regard as the most civilized, efficient and fun cities. The winner was Zurich, followed by Copenhagen, Tokyo and Munich. New York and London were not in the top 25, great cities such as Shanghai, Mumbai and Sao Paulo did not get a mention, and there was no representative at all from the Middle East.

How Mr Brûlé and his team of experts can cover the globe without touching down in the Gulf escapes me, but the survey's results were consistent with his Eurocentric and small-town North American view of the world. The results kicked off a lively debate in the pages of the FT, with the columnist Michael Skapinker insisting that there was more to "livability" than the quality of the tram service or provision of cycle lanes.

The great metropolitan centres of the world have their own dynamic momentum. If you want to get on in the world, you have to be in New York, Moscow or Beijing. Vancouver - nice place though I'm sure it is - is optional. Owing to a combination of domestic circumstances and visiting family, for the past couple of weeks I have been seeing Dubai as I have not seen it since I arrived here in 2006 - through the eyes of a tourist outsider rather than a resident. The city regularly scores quite well - respectable middle rankings and usually close to the top of the Middle East section - in other world surveys such as those by Mercer Consulting and the Economist Intelligence Unit, and my couple of weeks of "research" confirmed that Dubai really does have everything to offer even the most sophisticated new Leonardo, such as Mr Brûlé.

Long-term residents take for granted the glut of five-star hotels, the splendid beaches and watersport facilities, the excellent restaurants, and the nightlife. Visitors see these with new eyes and are amazed by what they see. To watch my teenage visitors gaze in awe at the Dubai Fountain in the shadow of the world's tallest building, or see the sun set behind the Burj Al Arab before heading off for the exoticism of a whiff of shisha in a Lebanese café, was to see Dubai with a new innocence, that we hard-nosed residents have long lost. I genuinely liked what I saw, again.

And at present, with the season winding down as the temperature gets stuck around 40°C for most of the day, and with the summer exodus under way, travel around the city is comparatively easy and cheap, thanks to Dubai taxis. Mr Brûlé should visit the city at this time of year, if he ever gets round to it, rather than in the traditional high season winter months. What shocked me, however, was the cost of it all. As a resident, you rarely shell out for beach hotels or dinners in their posh restaurants, and now I can see why. Even a short stay at one of the big hotels around the Madinat Jumeirah area generated a bill that left me boggle-eyed at the check-out desk. If this is low season, I shudder to think what it would set you back between October and March.

It was the "incidentals" that did it. I negotiated a rate for our stay that seemed reasonable, and my credit card had that amount blocked off as pre-payment. But then the receptionist doubled the amount and blocked off the total to include "incidentals" - some beach drinks, snacks during the day, maybe some trinkets in the hotel shop. In the end, these trifles doubled my room rate, and more. A short "treat" turned into the cost of a full summer package holiday.

Most gob-smacking was the cost of an Indian dinner in one of the Madinat Souk restaurants. For three people (including two teenagers with hearty appetites) a one-course supper - with water and two bottles of beer - came to a staggering Dh700 (US$190). Again, it was "incidentals" - in this case naan bread, raita and aloo gobi. Maybe it can all be blamed on the recession. The fall in visitors from Europe and North America might prompt hoteliers, restaurateurs and retailers to make the most out of those who do make the trip by marking everything up. If so, that is a bad long-term strategy.

Tourism and its related industries of aviation and retailing are increasingly important revenue generators for Dubai as the global economic downturn restricts other streams. "If you build it, they will come," is the emirate's proud motto. But if they get stung the first time, they may not come back. fkane@thenational.ae