Ski Dubai " indoor turns on the Arabian Peninsula | AspenTimes.com

Ski Dubai " indoor turns on the Arabian Peninsula

Story and photos by Paul Hilts

Following the Thanksgiving Day tradition of getting at least a few runs on opening day, I felt the old excitement return as the quad chair scooped us up for the ride to the top and the start of another season. I noticed that the guy sitting next to me was wearing a Colorado Rockies baseball hat.

Bob was from Grand Junction and worked for a drilling supply company. We talked about the Rockies’ great run ” until the World Series, and how disappointing the Broncos were this season. Then I asked him if this was his first time skiing here, and he said yes.

“I talked to my wife in Junction last night and she said it was cold, but there was no snow in sight,” he said.

Four minutes later, we were dumped out at the top of the mountain for our first tracks of the 2007-08 season. Bob asked me to take a digital photo of him to e-mail to the folks back home. No one would believe him if he told them he was skiing Dubai.

Outside in the Arabian Desert it was approaching 90 degrees, but we were skiing in what could pass for chilly, overcast January weather. It was 25 degrees and there was a cold, blue cast to the indoor lighting at the Ski Dubai facility in the giant Mall of the Emirates. Dubai has one of just three indoor skiing facilities in the world and, like everything else in this sheikdom of excess, there are plans to build another one ” but this time the world’s largest.

Many view Aspen as a bit over the top, but it pales in comparison to Dubai. When my wife, Marjorie, and I decided to stop in Dubai for a few days, I half expected to see camels running the streets and public executions. Well, maybe not that primitive, but I certainly didn’t picture skiing.

Strangely, Dubai and Aspen, though worlds apart, share many similarities. Both cities began their modern careers in the 1800s. The nomadic Bedouin Al Maktoum family strolled into what was then a little Arabian Gulf fishing and pearl-diving village in the 1850s and set up camp. They liked it and installed themselves as rulers, not unlike the first white settlers who came to the Roaring Fork Valley in search of gold and silver.

As trade between the Middle East, Africa and India increased, Dubai became an important commercial hub for vessels moving goods between Africa and the Indian subcontinent. But instead of taxing the heck out of every boat that docked there, the Al Maktoums, savvy businessmen even in those days, made the decision to establish a tax-free port with no import or export duties. Business boomed. Traders and shippers came. The town grew and the Al Maktoums became very rich and very popular.

Oil and gas revenues fueled the latest round of expansion in the sheikdom in the 1970s, the family realized early on that their energy resources would not last forever. In fact it is estimated that there are reserves of only 20 years left. Accordingly, less than 10 percent of their current revenues come from oil and gas; the rest come from business, trade, banking, land development and tourism.

Tourism is the fastest-growing of these revenue streams. Dubai may sit on the Arabian Peninsula, right next to extremely conservative Saudi Arabia, but all of the seven Emirates along the eastern coast are nothing like their more conservative big brother to the west. More than 80 percent of Dubai’s population is foreign-born. Walking through the opulent shopping malls, Westerners dressed in shorts and tank tops outnumber locals by 4- or 5-to-1. At the beach, you would think you were on the French Riviera. Bikinis and Speedos rule.

Which brings us back to the skiing. Everyone wants to know how a ski resort works on the Arabian Peninsula.

The Ski Dubai complex sits at one end of the huge Mall of The Emirates on the south side of the city, a $10 taxi ride from downtown. I step up to the ticket window and a Gulf Arab, dressed in a long, white thobe (robe) and a red and white kafia (head covering), sells me a ticket for two hours for $46. Additional hours cost just $12, and your card can be recharged electronically at several locations inside the facility if you feel like making a few more turns. The cost includes all clothing except hats and gloves (for hygienic reasons), boots, skis or snowboards, and poles. I charge it to my credit card and I receive a swipe-card that will serve as my locker key and lift ticket.

Next it’s off to the clothing line for ski pants, jacket and socks. Then it’s over to the equipment line, where I pick up boots and skis (or a snowboard, depending on your preference). The kid working the line is from Morocco. I give him my shoe size and he returns in a minute with a pair of boots. I order up a pair of Rossignol rental skis and he takes one of my boots to fit the bindings. I’m told to step on the silver scale in front of the counter so he can get my exact measurements. He then references his chart for binding settings, grabs his screwdriver and with a few turns has me set up.

I head to the men’s locker room, change into my rented red and blue ski suit, store my street clothes (shorts, T-shirt and sandals) and swipe my card to lock the door before heading to the slopes.

Walking through the rotating glass doors I am transported from the hot, dry desert to the cold, crisp mountains in a mere three seconds. It is freezing in here. The cold glow from the dim lighting (a far cry from the warm glitz of the mall itself) and blue walls make it feel like Vermont in January. The hard-packed snow feels that way, too, but what the heck ” I’m skiing.

There is a midway station where you can unload for the short trip down, or stop at the St. Moritz Cafe. The runs themselves, as you can imagine, are short by Rocky Mountain standards. Several hundred vertical feet and about 1,300 linear feet of skiing from top to bottom. There is one so-called “Experts Only” run which is a bit steeper and narrower ” similar to the bottom pitch at Buttermilk.

The folks at Ski Dubai say they hoped for about a half-million skier-snowboarder visits in their first year, 2005. They ended the year at more than 850,000. That doesn’t exceed the Aspen Skiing Co.’s total numbers, but it’s more than the 769,570 at Snowmass last season. And Ski Dubai’s single-day record of more than 7,800 paying customers (on a Muslim holy day) comes pretty close to a good day at Snowmass.

The skiing doesn’t compare to Aspen, of course, but Dubai does have its advantages. It’s open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., so you can satisfy the urge for a few runs even on a hot and steamy July evening. Plus, there is nothing like skiing at low altitude “the highest “peak” sits at about 300 feet above sea level ” to make you feel like you could win a World Cup race.

I was curious about who might be skiing and working in Dubai, since it’s not the kind of place that would attract most ski bums. On my second trip up the lift I visited with a young lady named Adrianna who, after she whacked me in the head with the safety bar, told me she was from Poland. She was on a package tour for four days. She and her friends usually ski in France or Austria, and no one she knew had ever skied in Dubai.

I met a couple from Australia who were stopping over for a few days and decided to give it a try. “None of our friends at home will believe this,” they told me. I was told by the people at Ski Dubai that they see about a 50-50 split in their visitors between foreign tourists and people currently living in the Emirates.

Then there was an instructor, Hamdoun, from Morocco by way of France, who was shepherding two 12-year-old American girls and two German businessmen around the hill. And so it went. The staff itself is made up of people from 27 countries, most of whom are trained by an Austrian company.

Checking out the stars on skis is a sport in Dubai, as in Aspen. Tennis star Maria Sharapova, his air-ness Michael Jordan, former United Nations head Kofi Annan and pop idol Michael Jackson have all taken a few runs here while visiting the Gulf, or so I was told.

The area also includes a freestyle and halfpipe zone, plus a snow park for tubing or tobogganing near the bottom. When I visited, there was a group of 20-something Emirati men and women decked out in white thobes (for the men), black abayas (for the women), and calf-length down coats, who said they were experiencing snow for the first time. Like a group of little schoolchildren, they laughed wildly as one after another spun down the course until they would either flip or crash out at the bottom.

After a rough day on the slopes you can stop for a bite to eat at a huge array of restaurants, including everything from a McDonald’s (where the Big Mac Value Meal is cheaper than in Aspen) to fine dining that matches anything in Aspen. If it’s retail therapy you need, then the mall resembles a giant octopus of hallways, filled with every high-end boutique and shop imaginable.

And if you want to immerse yourself in the complete ski resort experience, then you can stay at the five-star, 400-room Kempinski Hotel, with its chalet-style lodging facing the slopes.

Of course, there is much more to Dubai than just skiing. Dubai has been retooling itself as a major tourist destination with unrivaled shopping, desert adventures and fabulous beaches. The Tiger Woods development and championship golf course is scheduled for completion in the next year or so. His smiling face adorns billboards throughout the city. There are currently eight golf courses in and around the city, with more planned. In 2008, the city host the world’s richest professional golf tournament, the European Tour’s Dubai Open, in which Woods has committed to play. And why not? He owns a home on the huge man-made Palm Island development.

Dubai also hosts the world’s richest day of thoroughbred horse racing, The Dubai World Cup, which is held in late March. It also has some of the richest purses in both men’s and women’s tennis, and the richest Formula 1 car race in the world.

Building projects abound. The city’s skyline is covered with construction cranes. Within a few years Dubai will be home to the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest hotel (more than 8,500 rooms) and the world’s largest shopping mall, in addition to the world’s largest indoor snow-skiing operation.

In the meantime, more European air carriers are scheduling nonstop flights from the Continent. We met two young ladies from Denmark who had flown down on SAS for five days of shopping, sightseeing and beach time to escape the dreary cold of Copenhagen.

Dubai is also moving to cement its position as the crossroads of the Middle East by building a new airport to handle the increasing flow of air traffic connecting Europe, Africa and the Middle East with the Indian subcontinent and Asia. The Dubai-based carrier Emirates Air recently purchased 91 new planes from Airbus and Boeing. Their order included 12 of Airbus’s super jumbo A380s (555 passengers). It is currently estimated that by 2010 Emirates Air will surpass British Airways as the airline flying the most international passenger seats per mile in the world.

There is, however, the nagging question of how all of this has been done. Foreign laborers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh work for a few dollars a day ” way more than what they might make at home, but still far less than the multinational companies who employ them generally pay. Prostitution is often tolerated as “being good for tourism,” though a crackdown around Thanksgiving netted more than 200 people, most of them Chinese prostitutes and pimps who will eventually be deported.

There are plenty of other things to do in Dubai to keep visitors busy for several days. The most interesting part of the city is the area around what is known as “The Creek,” an inlet off of the gulf that extends 14 kilometers inland. It was dredged in the 20th century to make it easier for trading vessels to reach more usable port areas. The area has several museums, including the former home of the Al Maktoum family. The museum houses an outstanding collection of old black-and-white photographs of Dubai, as well as a large number of photos of the various royal families dating back to the 1800s.

The old souks, or markets, still stand as a reminder of the old way of doing business and are located next to The Creek. There is also a spice souk and a gold souk, where sheiks, sheikas and tourists from around the world hunt for bargains in a market that dates its beginnings to illicit trade with the Indian subcontinent.

Most people consider Dubai to be very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of places to drop big money, but there are also reasonably priced accommodations and places to eat.

Hotels run the range from backpacker/local Arab hotels ($25 per night) to five-star mega hotels like the Burj al Arab (the one built in the shape of a giant Arab sailing ship), where rooms start at $2,000 a night. The Burj bills itself as the world’s only seven-star hotel, their own rating. We found a service apartment (a nice-sized studio with kitchen and living area, plus washer and dryer), of which there are many in Dubai, for less than $115 on Travelocity.

Taxis are relatively inexpensive and numerous. The city is currently building two mass-transit rail lines that will be operational by 2009 and will make getting around without a taxi much easier.

There are air connections to Dubai through virtually every major European city. Emirates Air now flies nonstop from New York and Houston, with the Houston flight running at 17 hours.

The best time to visit is October through March. Summer is extremely hot and not conducive to outdoor activities ” except, of course, for skiing.

Ski Dubai http://www.skidbx.com

Ski Club of Dubai http://www.dubaiskiclub.com

Mall Of The Emirates http://www.malloftheemirates.com

Burj al Arab Hotel http://www.burj-al-arab.com

Dubai Tourism http://www.dubaitourism.ae

Sheikh Maktoum website http://www.sheikhmohammed.ae


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