From trained masseuses to folk dancers, the Arabian Travel Market 2009 (ATM) presented a talent-injected sales pitch to an audience of not only travel agents and investors but also a public hungry for any uplifting news. In sharp contrast to March’s Cityscape Abu Dhabi, engulfed by a sober reality [see Al Manakh report], ATM which ran from May 5th to 8th managed to deliver its visitors an optimism against economic crisis that has emotionally curdled the UAE for the past half year.
Upon arrival, one encountered a world of incredible decorated stalls, each offering a different corner of the world. In Thailand expensive orchids provided the backdrop to an exhibitor busy selling an Emirati medicinal flowers and spa treatments. In Malaysia, a masseur happily gave scalp massages to visitors, while his colleagues dressed in colorful folk dresses lured passers-by into the booth for a snapshot. In Japan less ornamentation was used and instead panel after panel of vivid images stopped visitors long enough in their tracks for a salesperson to approach them.
Spectacle and entertainment, however, were not the only purposes for this exhibition. Underneath seductive images and behind masseuse counters, one element remained common to all ATM exhibits: the cubicles.
Reminiscent of scenes from Jacques Tati’s ‘Play Time’, rows and rows of cubicles housed negotiations between agents and their counterparts. For tourism ministry representatives and hospitality and leisure providers, these semi-private meeting rooms provided the real theatre of deals being struck. Unlike Tati’s cubicles, there was something energizing about seeing the delicately partitioned busy-ness. Contrary to reports on all fronts that business has run dry in Dubai, there was indication here of an eager market. You couldn’t help but feel good for Dubai. It wasn’t, however, only bustle; there were voids in the exhibition hall that served as a reminder that not all sectors of the tourism market have been able to exhibit optimism. According to official numbers, the number of stands was down by 130. But sometimes it felt more were absent. Still there were enough goings-on for visitors, myself included, to enjoy optimism on display, undeterred.
Dubai’s palette of tourism experts took over a large space of Zabeel Hall. Here the show worked hard to convince. Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s 2015 Strategic Plan had once defined the emirate’s goal to attract 15 million tourists by 2015. Therefore, it was only logical that last year’s ATM witnessed the unveiling of an almost immeasurable amount of Dubai tourism-based developments. At this year’s ATM, the 15-million-person ambition seemed put on hold as Dubai unveiled fewer and smaller developments and focused more on services, including Dubai based Emirates Airline. A displayed cabin re-created one of its aircraft’s current First Class Suites.
Dubailand, out of the news for months, was back. The 3 billion square foot development has been marketed for the past several years as a purpose-built entertainment hub for family tourism in Dubai. After the onset of crisis panic, Dubailand’s participation in ATM 2009 was crucial. Khalid Al Malik, the CEO of Dubailand’s developer Tatweer agreed: “Our participation at the 2009 ATM not only allows us to showcase the variety of compelling attractions at DUBAILAND(r) but also confirms our commitment to Dubai’s Strategic Plan and positions the city as an international hub for tourism.” If one were expecting Dubailand to have had edited its ambitions, he would have left surprised. Dubailand was presented fully intact.
With free popcorn for everyone and demonstrations of UAE handicraft-making by Emirati women, Dubailand’s stand was cinematic hopefulness, divided into seventeen world-class attractions. One of these was Dubai Lifestyle City, a name which is hard to say without a smirk. Its representatives presented a Tuscany-inspired model, anchored by a JW Marriott estate made up of the hotel and a “high-end shopping strip” on one end and a community of serviced apartments and villas on its other end. When asked for whom the model was exhibited, a saleslady answered ‘for end users’ - a long way since last year when the only way to get attention at such a booth was to present yourself as a cash or bulk investor. Now, we were all being sold something as simple as a go-carting experience. Chuck E. Cheese was also there to remind visitors he would be serving pizza at Dubai Outlet Mall, an expressive sign that Dubai’s tourism ambitions were targeting all strata of incomes.
The true star of ATM 2009 had to be Abu Dhabi. At a time when most large-scale development projects have come to a screeching halt, Abu Dhabi showed it had never blinked an eye. It came as no surprise to find that its presence was the largest at ATM 2009. This was the place at the exhibition where brand new projects were actually being launched.
Abu Dhabi’s Al Gharbia (Western) region, previously hardly even known to UAE residents, was now targeting an International market by placing its eco-island project for Sir Bani Yas on the tourism map. A display map gave a hint of a squiggly island development off its coast. It was labeled ‘Desert Islands’.
Major hospitality projects will be developed in parallel to the Arabian Wildlife Park which will cover half of the island. What better representative of Gulf wildlife than the falcon — one was being handed from one person to the next for snapshots
There could not have been a better end to my visit than the sound of music and drumming summoning visitors to Qatar Airways’ exhibit. There stood an Indian drummer accompanied by two Indian girls. Only after the first number finished, a young Qatari man dressed in a ‘kandora’ and carrying a ‘tabl’ appeared. He began to drum along with the Indian drummer, as if to remind us how tightly these two cultures have been intertwined for centuries. The drumming eventually melted into one rhythm, and the Indian girls kept to the new fusion. My reading of the performance may have been too much; I asked a sales representative about the curious mixing of Indian and Qatari music. Her response “Oh, it is because of our new flight destination to Amritsar.” Our conversation was abruptly ended as a huge crowd descended upon her for free souvenirs. “I saw you, I saw you, I already gave you some!” she was having to tell members of the crowd. When the performance was over and the crowd began to dissipate I moved in more closely to hear what visitors were asking her: “Do you have any more of those free hats?” Courteously she replied, “I have a few left, but I need them to give out tomorrow”.
Finally, drained by the colorful stands and performances I had witnessed, I decided it was time to leave. Brought in by a feeling of nostalgia, I could not help but smile at the signs of optimism, whether witnessed in the pageantry of exhibits or the buzzing of business deals. I noticed the smile on my face reflected those of many others leaving the exhibition. Could we go on believing in the bustle?
Sara Kassa, May 2009