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30 November 2023

Beyond business: Dubai emerges global centre of tourism and entertainment

By Bindu Suresh Rai

It was little over three years ago that Tom Cruise found himself dangling upside down from the world’s tallest building in a film that went on to make nearly $700 million at the global box office.

Now, years after Cruise made history by scaling the Burj Khalifa in ‘Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol’, Dubai has emerged as a leading entertainment hub with the last one year alone seeing world class names such as Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Shah Rukh Khan perform here, with the Bollywood star having also performed here with a bevy of other top Indian stars.

This open-door police to welcome top names and position the emirate as a leading entertainment hub has been part of the vision His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, with the aim of hosting world class events and courting international celebrities.

The city’s open-door policy and warm hospitality even had the stickler for perfection, Cruise himself uttered the first words when he was in the emirate for his film’s world premiere during the Dubai International Film Festival, thanking this country’s dynamic leader, saying: “I would like to thank Sheikh Mohammed for the hospitality that has been extended to us here.

“I have literally seen Dubai grow into this miraculous city that risen from the desert in a few short years. Today, I see it turning into an important film-making hub in the region.”

Lights, camera, action

In the past three months, ‘Happy New Year’, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and Abhishek Bachchan was filmed in its entirety at Atlantis The Palm, while last month saw John Abraham and Anil Kapoor shoot for ‘Welcome Back’ at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray.

Ten years ago, one would have hardly imagined Dubai as a hub for international filmmakers; while today, MI3’s turn in the spotlight is a milestone in a decade worth of hard work that saw movies such as Clooney’s award-winning ‘Syrianna’ and Jamie Foxx’s ‘The Kingdom’ and Jeremy Renner’s ‘The Bourne Legacy’ also being filmed here in the recent past.

At the tenth edition of the Dubai International Film Festival this past December, Jamal Al Sharif, Chairman of Dubai Film and TV Commission, spoke about the city’s growth as an entertainment centre for the world, while delivering a white paper on the occasion.

He said: “Dubai has become the regional trailblazer for the media industry in recent years, benefitting both the emirate and the UAE at large. The opening of the sound stages at Dubai Studio City and the inauguration of DFTC have been major achievements in recent years.”

Yet, as the events have grown bigger and bolder, the one constant that has remained through it all is Sheikh Mohammed’s own personal interest in ensuring standards are set to better themselves with each passing year.

Following such a vision, Al Sharif said in a statement: “We must always look to the future and to what comes next. Where successes have been achieved, it’s important to understand how they can be built on; and where challenges remain, it’s important to learn how we can address them.

“We acknowledge that gaps remain in areas such as the production of Arabic content, providing access to talent, and audience measurement, and steps are already being taken to improve these.

“Building talent and increasing Arabic content are major pillars of the Dubai Film and TV Commission’s mandate and so these areas will be a key focus for us moving forward.”

Even as Cruise’s words serve as a cherry on top for the changing landscape in the meetings and events arena over the last 10 years, which has seen world-class entertainment acts, international celebrities and business enterprises being courted by Dubai, the entertainment landscape has also seen the music industry’s biggest names take to the stage here in these past few years, with last year’s Bieber and Gomez, following in the footsteps of seasoned acts such as Kylie Minogue, Kanye West, Craig David, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion and many, many more.

Annual programmes such as the Dubai Jazz Festival simply add to the glam quotient that this emirate has been offering of late.

Reeling in tourism

In the white paper presented by the DFTC last month, the case studies captured the benefits of film-generated tourism, comparing the annual tourism rates before and after the release of a major film.

It stated: ‘Films that rely heavily on a country’s scenery, landscape, and culture may contribute to its positive image. In addition, the storyline, themes and characters can elicit associations and emotions toward a place, thereby enhancing its potential as a future travel destination’.

The paper further cited that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy generated a 40 per cent rise in the number of visitors to New Zealand.

The ‘Harry Potter’ series drove an increase of 50 per cent or more in each of its filmed locations. In fact, it is estimated that 10 per cent of annual foreign tourism into the UK (roughly US$3.2 BN of spend) is due to the UK film industry.

Dr Ahmad Belhoul, CEO, Strategy and Tourism Sector Development at DTCM, spoke about the correlation of filming and tourism growth in Dubai at a press conference for ‘Happy New Year’, saying: “The influence of film is incredibly important when it comes to travellers’ decision-making and the images people form of destinations.

“Bollywood in particular is key for Dubai with India being one of our top 10 guest source markets. We’ve already seen huge numbers of visitors from India this year and we’re confident this market will remain strong as we enter a busy period in our events programme – featuring many Indian music and cultural events.”

Helal Saeed Almarri, Director-General of DTCM commented on the same: “We are fortunate in Dubai that our visitors come from a broad range of markets from countries.

“The continual increase of guests from both India and China can be attributable both to the increasing propensity for people from these countries to travel overseas and from our focus on growing these high potential markets.

“The increase in visitors from Australia is thanks in no small part to the partnership between Emirates and Qantas which has significantly increased the accessibility between Australia and Dubai. To leverage this we have been increasing our marketing and promotional activities, in partnership with both airlines – for example bringing Masterchef Australia to film two episodes in Dubai last year.”

New locations on the plan

Location is the key factor in reeling in filmmakers and the tourists, with Sheikh Mohammed’s vision taking us into new projects that will change the landscape of the city and bring in the desired numbers.

In October, he announced the Dubai Water Channel project that will link Business Bay waters to the Arabian Gulf’s in a Dh2 billion construction.

The channel will be a touristic attraction for around 20m visitors with walkways and bicycle lanes, along with boasting a shopping mall, hotels and 450 restaurants.

Sheikh Mohammed tweeted: “The vision is clear, infrastructure is ready and confidence in our human resources is high. The future does not wait for those who hesitate.

“We’ll achieve this through three key areas of focus: family tourism, global events and attractions, and Dubai’s status as a business destination.”

As Dubai welcomed over 7.9 million visitors between January and September 2013, a 9.8 per cent year-on-year increase, the final visitor number results to be shortly announced by Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) can only suggest that future for Dubai as a global entertainment and tourism hub is now.