When it comes to getting sandals on the ground, it’s hard to ignore Dubai and their amazing 20-year average annual arrivals growth rate of 12.7%.

Dubai is currently the seventh most visited destination in the world and is expected to break into the top three by 2020, perhaps even make it to the top slot. It’s easy to see what Dubai has been doing: building.

Building the world’s tallest building; building a new airport to accommodate it’s new planes and new routes; building a stunning mass-transit system; building the world most impressive shopping malls; building indoor skiing facilities; building world-class hotels; building amusement parks… even entire islands. In other words, they’ve invested heavily in developing their destination. How many Twitter followers does Dubai Tourism have? A little more than 15K.

“Our strategy continues to be positioning Dubai as the must-experience family destination. As such we are constantly diversifying our tourism offering and increasing our hotel portfolio to attract and cater to a broader market of visitors,” said Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing.

How about a growth leader from Europe? Birmingham, England had the fastest city growth in the world last year, according to a recent Expedia study. Does Birmingham have the top DMO social media in Europe? Or the UK? Or even in England? No, no and no.

They have a respectable 26K Twitter followers, but what they really have is a lot of destination development — a new 190 million pound library, loads of cool new architecture, a new central terminal under construction. Hundreds of millions of pounds in the sorts of city improvements that appeal to tourists.

How’s this investment playing in the media? The New York Times named Birmingham in a list of the top 20 hotspots of 2012 and New York Magazine went a step further with an article titled “Birmingham instead of London.”

Did Birmingham’s DMO have much to do with this success or did the city council just get lucky?

“I attend those city planning meetings now and play a participatory role,” said Marketing Birmingham’s Policy and Development Director, Tim Manson. “I voice what we think would be appealing to visitors at these meetings based on our research. And our involvement has been going on since the 1982 Highbury 1 think tank. It’s had a massive impact on our development and our recent growth success.

“We have 30 million visitors a year spending 5 billion pounds and we added 25 new hotels in the last 6 years. But we had to get the infrastructure right first, and that took about 25 years. You need a long-term approach.”

“It doesn’t work to rely on the same product,” said Mr Manson. “We can tweak vacant sites to adapt to the market or figure out a way to move visitors to certain areas. We try to adapt our destination to the changing market. We do that with funding, but also with data. An amusement park will add a new ride, but only if they get the research that says it will have a solid return on investment. So we try to provide that research so the city can adapt. Birmingham initially went after business meetings and conferences, then in about 2004 we saw that was fading and leisure visits were increasing so we shifted to the leisure market.”

Here’s example from North America. Michigan, as I mentioned in last week’s column, is a social media star that doesn’t have similarly impressive growth. But Grand Rapids, Michigan is a stand-out. Their hotel revenue is trending 8.8% increases over the past three years and they were even Lonely Planet’s pick for the top U.S. destination in 2014.

What’s happening in Grand Rapids? They have a $59 million new art museum, a hugely popular free outdoor urban art exhibit called ArtPrize and a slew of craft breweries (it was named “Beer City USA” in the last two years). Is it a social media powerhouse? With 60,500 Facebook fans and 13,500 Twitter followers, it has a respectable presence in this space, but it’s hardly earth shattering.

“I think our strength,” said Janet Korn, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Experience Grand Rapids, “is that we collaborate really well with the community. We are at the table with the private and public sector as things are evolving and can help position them so they become part of our destination message.

It’s not the sort of success that appears overnight. “We’ve been helping steer the investment in our cultural assets – buildings and events – for over 10 years,” Ms Korn said, “but 2009 was our tipping point. You need to get a critical mass of projects.”

Look at any other industry and it begins to make more sense. Apple spent $1.1 billion on ads in 2013 and $4.5 billion on R&D. Most experts consider Apple’s R&D budget (about 3% of net sales) to be frugal. Samsung, by comparison, spent $10.4 billion on R&D in the same period. What are most destinations spending on R&D? Typically nothing. At least, not in a coordinated way that targets tourism. Many cities are creating new things, but it’s left to chance if they’ll appeal to visitors (or international visitors) or align with the DMO’s branding. Oddly, very few DMOs are involved with the creation and development of their own product.

Such involvement is not a necessity. Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s late 19th century rennovation of Paris didn’t likely include meetings with tourism officials. Sir Christopher Wren wasn’t likely concerned if his look for London’s buildings was going to go over well with tourists.

But clearly, if tourism is a priority, this collaboration is the smarter way forward and the reason destination development is set to become the new frontier for any destination banking on the success of their tourism industry for years to come.

Doug Lansky is the Destinations Editor for Skift, an author and travel writer who has been published in dozens of major publications from The Guardian to National Geographic Traveler, an advisor for destinations, and an acclaimed keynote speaker at tourism conferences around the world. More at www.douglansky.com.

Photo Credit: Birmingham, England's new library. Neil Thompson / Flickr