Why does 'the ugliest city in the world' attract so many visitors each year? Jim Eagles finds rich pickings in Dubai, but only if you're into bizarre-looking hotels and endless shopping malls.
Dubai is sort of Las Vegas meets Singapore. Like the wise guys in Vegas, the sheikhs in Dubai seem engaged in a competition to see who can produce the most extraordinary buildings.
Like Singapore, the place is simply bursting with shops and markets where you can buy absolutely anything. And, like Vegas and Singapore, Dubai has been created out of nothing. It is built on sand, with a scorching climate, no scenery, little history and not much water - and is now attracting 6 million tourists a year.
Following the example of Bugsy Siegel and Lee Kuan Yew, Dubai's ruling al-Maktoum family have successfully pursued a strategy to transform their tiny fishing village into the trade and tourism hub of the Middle East.
Their policies of free trade, few taxes, cheap imported labour, good port facilities and openness to western ideas - plus huge oil revenues - have, in a few decades, made Dubai one of the most spectacular and prosperous cities in the world.
Huts made from palm fronds and houses built of blocks of coral, stuck together with mud and lime, have been replaced with gleaming steel-and-glass skyscrapers of the most extraordinary design.
Inspired by the seemingly limitless funds, the world's architects have produced amazing buildings, with bizarre geometric shapes, unusual materials and extraordinary lighting effects.
A drive through the city carries the risk of a dislocated neck as you twist and turn to pick up all the sights. Office blocks look as though they have been split down the middle, twin towers are linked by a huge bridge, buildings have golden golf balls on top, skyscrapers are the shape of giant Ds or triangles, a yacht club is in the shape of a dhow's sails, a hotel is modelled on an old fort but with buildings linked by canals, and an airline building in the shape of - yes - an aircraft.
The most spectacular, which even appears on number plates, is the Burj al-Arab Hotel, which proclaims itself to be the only seven-star hotel in the world, built in the shape of a 320m tall sail and sitting on an artificial island.
But potential challengers are already under construction. Nearing completion is the first of two Palm Islands, artificial islands in the shape of a vast palm, with hotels, apartments and resorts that are being snapped up by wealthy jetsetters.
Further out to sea another island development aims to create a huge map of the world where investors will be able to buy Britain, say, or even New Zealand, which for ease of construction will apparently be the same size as Australia.
Then there's the US$500 million ($702) underwater Hydropolis Hotel due for completion in late 2006, where guests will gaze into an undersea park teeming with fish.
Back on land, Chess City is being planned, where each building will be the shape of a chess piece, and work has started on what is intended to be the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, planned to be 705m.
Filling up the spaces between these architectural curiosities are the shops. The traditional gold and spice souqs with their hundreds of tiny stalls and shops offer piles of exotic spices or mountains of golden bangles.
Huge modern stores sell everything from the latest electronic gadgets to the finest brands of haute couture.
And the giant malls under one roof offer a wider range of products than Newmarket and Parnell put together.
The emir of them all is the Mall of the Emirates, due to open late next year with 2.4 million sq m of space, 350 shops and some extraordinary attractions, including Ski Dubai, a 400m ski slope with 6000 tonnes of snow.
Of course, Dubai is more than that. The surrounding Sahara Desert is an attraction for rich young Arabs, who go to play with their quad bikes, and Dubai has some nice beaches and warm seas, and it virtually never rains.
It's a marvellously cosmopolitan city, where all races come to work. If you can survive the heat, a stroll down Dubai Creek to see goods from all over the globe being unloaded by hand from 1000 weather-beaten dhows is fascinating.
The Dubai Museum in an old fort gives an interesting insight into the history of the United Arab Emirates - and has the priceless advantage of being air-conditioned - and the nearby Heritage and Diving Villages give an idea how Dubai looked before the boom.
But, really, the main attractions are the posh hotels and the shops, and that isn't everyone's cup of thick sweet coffee.
Lynn Barber, travel writer for the
, described Dubai as "unquestionably the ugliest city in the world ... an expanse of dusty desert beside a greasy sea, sweltering under a pitiless sun [covered] with six-lane highways, flyovers, spaghetti junctions and all the nastiest buildings you have ever seen".
"And yet," she added in perplexed tones, "it is the third most popular long-haul destination (after Barbados and Mauritius) for British Airways Holidays. Why?"
Good question. How on Earth does "the ugliest city in the world" get three times the tourists New Zealand does? I asked our guides. The first, a mop-headed Moroccan, said, "It is because anything you want you can buy here". The second, a sophisticated Italian, thought it was because its hotels cater to all tastes.
For instance, she said, the Burj-al Arab "is popular with Russians. They like it because it is the most expensive [the cheapest suite is £1000 ($2600) a night]. These are the sorts of people who always order the most expensive item on the menu because they think it must be the best."
The Grand Hyatt - whose decor includes three wooden dhows made in New Zealand - "is popular with the Pakistanis and Indians because it has lots of gold".
But the biggest boom in tourist numbers, according to our Italian guide, is from Britain. "The British come here in the summer when it is hot and the rates are cheap because everyone else has gone away.
"They like it because they get service they cannot get at home, they can stay in a luxury hotel they cannot afford elsewhere, the staff call them sir, which they like, and the shopping is cheap."
That's pretty hard to argue with. If your idea of a great holiday is luxury accommodation and endless shopping, then head for Dubai.
But if, like me, you see a hotel as a place to stay and shopping as something you do only when you have to, then Dubai is a great place for a stopover before you carry on to Amman or Moscow or London ... or anywhere.
Currency: Dubai uses the dirham, which is pegged to the United States dollar. Credit cards and travellers' cheques are widely accepted.
Visas: Visa requirements are fairly flexible. For a stopover of less than 96 hours you may get a visa at no charge. For longer stays you may have to pay 100dm.
Getting there: United Travel has return flights from Auckland to Dubai starting at $2349 a person return (excluding taxes and surcharges) flying Singapore Airlines.
Getting around: Innovative Travel has a range of touring options in Dubai, all available through United Travel.
Jim Eagles and Alan Gibson travelled as guests of United Travel and Innovative Travel.