Editor’s Note: Skift has started a new series of interviews with CEOs of destination marketing organizations where we discuss the future of their organizations and the evolving strategies for attracting visitors. Read all the interviews as they come out here.


This continues our series of CEO interviews that began with online travel CEOs in Future of Travel Booking (now an e-book), and continued with hotel CEOs in the Future of the Guest Experience series.

Dubai is a relatively new player on the global tourism map. It doesn’t have the historical architecture of Rome or the cultural significance of Paris; it’s built its reputation as a global mega-city with enough “world’s largest” attractions to back it up.

The city, however, is looking to broaden its appeal as it marches towards 2020, a year when it’s promised itself to reach 20 million tourism arrivals and host the six-month World Expo.

With 80 percent of its tourism still coming from the leisure market, Dubai is investing heavily in family-friendly attractions such as theme parks and outdoor activities. It is also incentivizing hoteliers to build up the three-star and four-star hotels needed to expand its business travel sector.

The city-state wants to slightly shift its global perception from the iconic superlatives that it’s known for to a cultural hub where 200 nationalities live in peace, locals boast about their hometown, and visitors realize that there’s more than the world’s largest mall to experience.

Skift recently sat down with Issam Kazim, the CEO of the Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing, to talk about his organizations’ strategies to marketing Dubai, its challenges in shifting potential visitors’ perceptions, and the digital tools needed to do both.

An edited version of the interview can be read below:

Skift: What are the most important marketing channels that you’re using today?

Issam Kazim: Many channels have played a significant role in putting Dubai on the map. Look at what Emirates Airlines has done, how local products like Jumeirah Hotels has worked hard to create the destination, and the private developers with landmarks such as the Burj Al Arab, Burj Khalifa, and Palm Islands. They’re each in their own silos but they really created Dubai and put it on the map.

Traditional media also played a big role. Many of the publicity stunts that we did on the glitz and glamour side of things, like the opening of the Atlantis with celebrities and fireworks, were a huge success story. In a way, I think it overshadowed the depth of Dubai’s offering as well.

It’s very important that we quickly track back and now say, “Okay, let’s continue to build on the success that we have, but at the same time not forget the great work that’s been done on the cultural and the arts side of things.”

It’s so also important to highlight the fact that we have a cosmopolitan makeup. We have 200 nationalities living in total harmony side by side. How do we capitalize on that?

Traditional media served its purpose to a certain point. Going forward, digital has come into the forefront of helping people decide their next destination. Social media is the main source of not just information but also communicating with the world. Eighty percent of people living in Dubai are non-native. Some of them recently moved here, some of them have lived here for almost all of their life. They can start communicating and sharing their experience and perspective of Dubai with the world. We obviously need to make sure that the traditions are not ignored, but that we also quickly capitalize on the new trends that are arising.

Skift: Dubai has been perceived as the Disney of the Middle East, with its larger than life buildings, hotels, malls and attractions. But once you get here, you see that there is also an emerging arts culture where people are going to local food markets or small independent restaurants. What does the next phase of Dubai tourism look like? Are you going to say come immerse yourself in our local culture?

Kazim: I’ll share some historical context first. We announced our 2012 arrival figures in March 2013 and it was the first time that we broke into the ten-million visitor mark, which was quite significant for Dubai. By May 2013, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed announced the Vision 2020 for Dubai. Vision 2020 is often confused with the Expo 2020 but they are completely separate and it was announced before winning the bid.

It includes being the number one most visited city in the world by international travelers. For that we’re trying to cater to families because you get bigger arrival numbers and can create more opportunities. The second goal was to double the number of visitors from 10 million to 20 million by 2020. The third thing was to triple the economic impact. In order to do that, we obviously need to extend the length of stay by bringing in more visitors and creating more opportunities for them to spend time in Dubai and realize that there’s more to Dubai’s offering.

In order to do this, we looked at what data was available online since travelers are researching Dubai online. We looked at key markets and found that information was either dated or inaccurate. People were building their impressions on Dubai based on what they heard or had seen in pictures. They think it’s just about being bigger and better and that’s it. There’s no spirit, no soul.

The first task was to find people who are talking about Dubai then bring them to Dubai and let them explore and discover what it’s about. With that, we start getting user-generated content that’s accurate. At the end of the day, they all have their own opinions and that’s fair enough. We know that the majority of the time, people come to Dubai once and realize that there’s much more to the city to come back for.

We’re filling the calendar with events and festivals, trying to nurture scenes such as the underground arts scene which is now bubbling up. People are starting to go to warehouse areas where galleries are popping up. This goes back to something His Highness has said about the Expo, that it’s not an expo for Dubai or for the UAE but for the region.

It’s an opportunity for the world to see that it’s not only negative news coming out of this region, there’s so much positive. The area is buzzing with energy. We want Dubai to be that platform where everyone can come and experience what the region has to offer.

We’ve identified pillars that we need to communicate about Dubai. Gastronomy is one of them, the beach and adventure side of that, a strong arts heritage and culture, the outdoors, architecture, the souks and retail.

Skift: How do you communicate all of that to potential visitors?

Kazim: By leveraging the people who live here and the people visiting. In everything that we communicate about Dubai now, we make sure to leverage as many relevant pillars as possible and throw in one or two that could be an eye-opener. We need to be creative in the way that we approach things.

There is no one size fits all. I can’t say that we can crack a model that applies across all demographics or source markets. We definitely believe that Dubai has something to offer everyone.

Skift: A trend that we’ve seen is that research and planning is moving in-market and many travelers today are using their mobile devices after they book, when they’re on the plane, once they arrive here. How are you communicating with travelers once they’re in Dubai?

Kazim: Although we understand that not everybody planning to visit Dubai will come to our website, we hope that it makes the decision process much easier. Visitors can start building an itinerary on the website and transfer it to the mobile app.

If they have a data package or are within a Wi-Fi zone then information relevant to their interests will also appear in the app. It will say, “Why don’t you try this restaurant?” We just launched the app last year so we’re still developing and enhancing it so it becomes a kind of tour guide for an individual visitor.

We’re also creating content, not just for our app or website because we know that more than 90 percent of visitors already have their favorite app or website. We want our content to be readily available across all platforms. We are working with TripAdvisor to create models where we can give them content.

Skift: When we speak to a lot of tourism boards, funding and dealing with the government are at the top of many organization’s challenges. It doesn’t seem like that’s an issue for Dubai tourism.

Kazim: Even for us to do new things, it needs to be thought out, planned, and presented. It’s like any other business even though we’re a semi-government organization in order to give us some more agility. At the same time, we’re given the creative license to come up with opportunities to increase tourism seeing as it’s the number one export.

The biggest driver for us is the fact that we have 100-percent transparency between us and the ruling family. Our director general has direct access with Sheikh Mohammed so if there’s something that they need a decision on today, they can meet and get things going right then and there. This is the main reason why Dubai has been successful so far.

Sometimes they come up with ideas and tell us what Dubai should be focusing on tomorrow. If we want something to happen then we pitch that idea, but once we’ve convinced them then His Highness will make sure that everyone is aligned to support that initiative.

Skift: Like the#MyDubai campaign?

Kazim: The social media campaign was actually started by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and then adopted by Dubai Tourism.

We thought it was a great idea but we never imagined how successful it would be, to the extent that even tourists who come to Dubai want to share their experience as well.

Another example of this is hotels. Our hotels have enjoyed some of the highest occupancy rates in the world and in order to keep pace with growth, we need hotel rooms. If we continue pushing the way that we’re pushing then a lot of that investment goes towards five-star hotels. We decided that we needed to encourage investment towards three-star and four-star hotels so a decision was made to incentivize the three-star and four-star sector by waiving fees for the first five years. Between March when the announcement was made and November, we had more than fifty applications for three-star and four-star hotels. In order to active that, we needed a decision from His Highness.

It just shows you the agility and flexibility that we need in order for us to meet these targets. The ruling family knows that we need that kind of creative license and accessibility and they’ve been very accommodating in that sense.

Skift: How do you measure the impact of marketing campaigns and social initiatives like #MyDubai?

Kazim: #MyDubai started off just being an initiative for local residents to share their experiences and the agenda was simple: to create an autobiography of a city through the eyes of its residents. The power of it made people realize that to really see what Dubai is like, they could go to the hashtag #MyDubai.

It goes beyond the suites of Burj Al Arab and the downtown area of Burj Khalifah. There was no better tool and it’s something that we’re not controlling at all.

The fact that tourists are using it and we can see where they’re been with the IP address, it shows you that it’s a great return on what this platform was created for. Now we’re trying to capitalize on it and we’ve been in touch with the Crown Prince to ask, “Would you allow us to create a bigger story out of it?”

Skift: What destinations do you look to as a role model when you think about tourism development and marketing?

Kazim: There are a lot of nations and global capitals like New York, London, Paris that have done a great job. For us, it’s learning from what has been done in the past and being humble enough to understand how that applies to us. We then take that as a challenge to compete with that and take the next step forward. It’s that competitive edge that’s really been pushed from the top down.

Taking a quote from His Highness’ book: “The impossible does not exist in our lexicon.” This is the mentality that’s been bred into every single person who lives in Dubai. When I speak to the team, I say, “This is our opportunity.” If we were to take a step back maybe a hundred years, we could see what London or New York did that made them what they are today. In the next few years that’s where Dubai will be and we’ll play a role in creating that.

Skift: How do you deflect concerns that visitors might have about coming to Dubai whether it’s because of political instability, humanitarian rights concerns, or equality issues in the region?

Kazim: I would like to say that it can be done quite easily and quickly but in all honestly, it needs a lot of planning and work. The good thing is that people still come to Dubai. The numbers prove that year-on-year tourism is growing. The one thing that we know about Dubai is that we don’t rest on our laurels. We try to focus on how we can maintain our strength in the regions where we are already strong and venture into new markets.

Some areas need more in-depth education. They are already comfortable with Dubai so we just need to make them aware of everything that Dubai has to offer so they come back again and again. One other end of the spectrum, where we have a lot more work to be done, is where people are aware of Dubai and have seen the Burj Al Arab or Burj Khalifa. They think that they’ll come eventually or in the next 20 years but we want them to decide to come now. We realize that there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done.

Advertising doesn’t really do that; you need people to understand the stories of individuals who have visited Dubai and influential people who can actually share that story.

The U.S. is one of those markets where the awareness aspect, especially in terms of safety and security, is quite important. Will Smith came to Dubai with his family at the end of 2013 and was later the first guest on Jimmy Fallon’s first episode of The Late Night Show. He genuinely spoke about his experience in Dubai and how much he loved it. Will Smith is a family man and so many people listen to him.

These are the little seeds that we need to sow and then build on again and again and again. It’s not endorsing it. It’s about that person genuinely being an advocate because they enjoyed that experience.

I think it is too early to discount traditional advertising; it is too early to discount TV. I think we should make sure that we are relevant across all platforms and we should be leveraging every opportunity that’s available to us.

Photo Credit: Dubai Tourism CEO Issam Kazim opens an event. Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing