It’s easier than ever to get to Dubai. With flights on Emirates carrying passengers there from every part of the U.S., and in style, it’s no wonder that American curiosity about this destination is growing. But now, Visit Dubai CEO Issam Kazim is looking to show travelers a different side of this destination — namely, that it’s not just for business travelers, or for the ultra-wealthy. We caught up with Kazim recently and spoke to him about Dubai’s efforts to shift perceptions about the city. Here’s what we learned.
Laura Motta: What’s the number one thing that keeps U.S. travelers from booking a vacation in Dubai?
Issam Kazim: There are a few things. They don’t always understand that Dubai is warm, welcoming, and safe. The last thing is key, especially when they have kids traveling with them. There are also misconceptions that women have to dress in a certain way or act in a certain way. It’s only when they get to Dubai that they realize that it’s an easygoing, relaxed place.
LM: What do you tell people who are on the fence about Dubai as a destination?
IK: People know the luxury association with Dubai, and they automatically think you have to have a certain level of income in order to enjoy it, which is not true. Dubai does cater to high-end travelers, but it’s good for all budgets as well, and we’re making sure that people know about our varied hotel offerings. Same thing with restaurants. Yes, we’ve got Nobu and Zuma, but we also have these little hole-in-the-wall, corner shops where people love to go. Western expats and business professionals frequent those places for lunch because they’re unique. With retail, it’s the same thing. You’ve got the big brands for shopping, but we have gold souks and spice markets and textile markets that were established 40 years ago — and have always been run by the same individuals.
LM: This seems like a big shift.
IK: To be honest, as a native Emirati, I’m as much to blame as anybody else. I would always showcase what was new and flashy and not highlight the cultural heritage of Dubai. Now, obviously, it’s becoming much more important for all of us.
LM: What’s a good way for someone to learn about Emirati culture once they’re in Dubai?
IK: There’s something called SMCCU, which is the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. We’ve had people of many different nationalities come to Dubai, and they’re sometimes afraid to ask what might be a sensitive cultural question. This center has some great speakers who will actually ask and answer those questions for you, so you don’t have to. I’ve seen very reserved individuals come out laughing. They get an education within an hour that they would have never had otherwise. At the center, they end the day by having traditional food, and sitting on the ground as it was done in the past, and really enjoying that experience.
LM: Recommend some places where you love to eat in Dubai.
IK: In terms of high-end dining, Le Petit Maison is perfect in terms of its central location, and the food is really good. Qubara is amazing because it’s homegrown, as is Omnia. The chef of Omnia, Silvena Rowe, is actually from the U.K., but she’s been in Dubai for a long time. She works only with local produce and does fusion Emirati cuisine. A really authentic place that’s great is Alfanar. The owner has put a lot of effort into creating an accurate recreation of how kitchens used to be in Dubai in the 1960s; even the plates and the cutlery are accurate to those days.