The gimmicks to attract attention and passengers — a $1 million raffle, a chance to win a Porsche 911, or a monthlong shopping festival — are still there but are hardly needed anymore. Travelers from around the world no longer need to be lured to this parched former trading post on the edge of the Persian Gulf.
From its humble beginning as a refueling stop for travelers with no desire to linger in an inhospitable corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Dubai's airport has recently overtaken Heathrow Airport in London as the world's busiest international air travel hub. Just a decade ago, Dubai ranked as the 45th-largest international hub.
Dubai's rise as a modern crossroads connecting East and West — with the name of its hometown airline, Emirates, adorning the jerseys of the world's best soccer teams and sponsoring Formula One car racing and the United States Open — is a tale of globalization and ambition, and an audacious bet on the future of air travel.
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Now, families from India and European backpackers roam through the airport's soaring terminals, with water cascades and fake palm trees, duty-free stores and high-end boutiques, as athletes from Iran and tourists from Russia look for their next flight in this cosmopolitan oasis.
With few natural resources, barely any oil of its own, only 168,000 Emiratis and average temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit from May to September, Dubai has taken on a hazardous gambit.
But what Dubai lacked in climate it more than made up in geography. Situated within eight flying hours of two-thirds of the world's population, Dubai has set up a global hub that can connect virtually any two cities in the world with just one stop. And despite the last economic downturn, it has stuck with grand plans to build a second airport that will eventually dwarf its existing one in the next decade.
Since the 1980s, when its rulers decided to turn the city into a tourist destination, Dubai's biggest developments include two of the world's largest shopping malls — one with a huge aquarium, another with an indoor ski slope — the world's tallest tower, Burj Khalifa, measuring 2,717 feet, and artificial palm-shaped islands that can be seen from outer space.
But the cornerstone of the strategy was creating a new airline and building an aviation infrastructure around it to support its growth.
"The airline is the linchpin of Dubai's success," said Jim Krane, a Gulf expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, and the author of "City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism." "Air travel can make or break Dubai, and its economy is wholly dependent on it."
Dubai received 67.3 million passengers in the 12 months through February, according to the Airports Council International, jumping for the first time ahead of Heathrow's 66.9 million international travelers, and Hong Kong's 59.9 million. It trails Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and its 95 million passengers, though many of those are domestic passengers. Given Dubai's growth rate, it should also overtake Atlanta within a few years.
Runway repairs have temporarily slowed traffic at Dubai's airport, but it should cement its lead over Heathrow by next year.
Emirates was set up in 1985 with a $10 million grant from the government of Dubai and a pair of Boeing 727 planes. The catalyst was a decision by Gulf Air, the region's main carrier at the time, to cut back on weekly flights between the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan because of a dispute over traffic rights.
The carrier grew rapidly thanks to open skies policies that favored the development of the aviation sector and a business-friendly environment for foreigners.
It helped too that the chairman and chief executive of Emirates, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, is also chairman of Dubai Airports, president of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, and chairman of Flydubai, a low-cost carrier. He is also the uncle of the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
To attract tourists, Dubai created a monthlong shopping festival offering discounts and deals on global brands and cheaper fares and hotel rooms.