Dubai has dozens of identikit tour operators who pull in a regular supply of punters in search of the instant “Arabian” experience. The emphasis is firmly on stereotypical desert safaris and touristy dhow dinner cruises, although a few operators offer more unusual activities ranging from falconry displays to helicopter rides.
Top of most visitors’ wish lists is the chance to get out into the desert – although it’s worth bearing in mind that the sandy hinterlands of Dubai are regarded more as a kind of enormous adventure playground rather than as a natural spectacle, with the emphasis placed firmly on petrol- and adrenaline-fuelled activities. If you want to enjoy the sands in peace and quiet, rent your own vehicle and drive as far away from the tour groups as possible.
As well as the perennially popular dhow dinner cruises offered by pretty much every operator, there are also numerous city tours available, plus trips to neighbouring emirates. Some operators also offer various watersports, snorkelling and diving (although for diving it’s better to contact a specialist dive operator).
Prices can vary considerably from operator to operator, although you generally get what you pay for, and some of the cheaper operators cut more corners than you might be comfortable with. Most operators post the latest tariffs on their websites. It’s usually easiest to book by phone, since few places have conveniently located offices, although many hotels have an in-house tour desk (bear in mind, however, that they’ll most likely steer you in the direction of a particular operator).
Getting out on the waters of the Creek is one of the highlights of a visit to the city, either via the short abra ride across the Creek; by chartering your own abra or state-of-the-art water taxi; or by taking a dhow cruise.
A more leisurely alternative to the standard Creek crossing by abra is to charter your own boat, which costs 120dh for an hour-long ride: starting from somewhere in the city centre, in an hour you can probably get down to the Dubai Creek Golf Club and back. To find an abra for rent, head to the nearest abra station and ask around. The rate is officially set (and posted in writing at all abra stations) and is the same regardless of how many people use the abra, despite what the boat operator may say.
One thing that virtually every visitor to Dubai does at some point is go on a desert safari. The main attraction of these trips is the chance to see some of the desert scenery surrounding the city, and although virtually all tours put the emphasis firmly on cheap thrills and touristy gimmicks most people find the experience enjoyable, in a rather cheesy sort of way.
The vast majority of visitors opt for one of the endlessly popular half-day safaris (also known as “sunset safaris”). These are offered by every tour operator in town and cost from around 175dh up to 375dh. Whoever you decide to go with the basic ingredients remain the same. More expensive tours will also generally offer superior service, better-quality food and a wider range of entertainments at their “Bedouin camps”.
Tours are in large 4WDs holding around eight passengers. You’ll be picked up from your hotel between 3 and 4pm and then, once you’ve driven around town collecting the other passengers in your vehicle, you'll be driven out into the desert. The usual destination is an area 45 minutes’ drive out of town on the road to Hatta, opposite the massive dune popularly known as Big Red.
After a brief stop, during which your vehicle’s tyres will be partially deflated as a preparation for going off-road, you’ll be driven out into the dunes on the opposite side of the highway from Big Red for an hour or so to enjoy the traditional Emirati pastime of dune-bashing. This involves driving at high speed up and down increasingly precipitous dunes amid great sprays of sand while your vehicle slides, skids, bumps and occasionally takes off completely. Thrills apart, the dunes are magnificent, and very beautiful at sunset, and although it’s difficult to see much while you’re being bumped around inside the vehicle, your driver will probably stop near the highest point of the dunes so that you can get out, enjoy the scenery and take some photos. You might also be given the chance to try your hand at a brief bit of sand-skiing. Alternatively, some tour operators take you back to the main road, where you can go for a ride across the dunes on a quad bike – or “dune buggy” – generally for an additional fee.
As dusk falls, you’ll be driven off to one of the dozens of optimistically named “Bedouin camps” in the desert, usually with various tents rigged up around a sandy enclosure and belly-dancing stage. Wherever you’re taken you’ll find pretty much the same touristy fare on offer, all included in the tour price. These typically include (very short) camel rides, henna painting, dressing up in Gulf national costume, and having your photo taken with an Emirati falcon perched on your arm. A passable international buffet dinner is then served, after which a belly dancer performs for another half-hour or so, dragging likely-looking members of the audience up on stage with her (choose your seat carefully). It’s all good fun, although the belly dancer is more likely to be from Moscow than Muscat, and the floor tends to get rapidly swamped with jolly Indian businessmen. The whole thing winds up at around 9.30pm, after which you’ll be driven back to Dubai.
For those who want to get more of a feel for the desert, some tour operators offer the chance to extend the sunset safari into an overnight trip, sleeping out in tents before returning to Dubai after breakfast the following morning. This offers you a much better chance of getting some sense of the emptiness and grandeur of the landscape than during the belly-dancing free-for-all.
Some companies also offer full-day desert safaris. These usually include a mixture of general sightseeing combined with activities like dune-bashing, camel riding, sand-skiing and dune-buggy riding before returning to Dubai at dusk. These tours are also the best way to experience the popular pastime of wadi-bashing – driving through the rocky, dried-up riverbeds that score the eastern side of the UAE around the Hajar Mountains. Some operators also offer tours focusing exclusively on particular activities like sand-skiing, camel trekking and dune-buggy riding.