Dubai Shopping Festival: Economic Diversity in the Emirates

The Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) celebrated its 20th anniversary during its month-long run in January 2015. The festival, led by the Dubai Festivals and Retail Sector Promotions Establishment (DFRSPE), welcomed over 4.4 million visitors from all over the world and included a full calendar of more than 150 entertainment events complemented by fireworks, live music from regional stars, and widespread, tax-free sales. New for 2015 was a Celebrity Pop-Up Shop that featured American fashion star Nicole Richie among others, and it offered the opportunity to win a piece of the ‘Dubai Celebration Chain’ – a 5.5 km long, 256 kilo heavy gold chain fashioned as the world’s longest handmade gold chain. This was just the latest installment in a festival that, in two decades of existence, has drawn in over $39 billion in revenues for the travel, retail, hospitality, and entertainment sectors.

In the face of the DSF’s opulent success, it is hard to comprehend that, forty years ago, Dubai was consid- ered one of the least-developed regions in the world. The transformation of Dubai into one of the world’s top tourist attractions is a testament to its success in leaving behind developing-nation status to become an internationally renowned economic center, all in just a few short decades. The DSF serves as an exemplary case study in which the previously oil-centric emirate diversified its economy by capitalizing on the intersection of retail and tourism—creating thereby the profitable tool of “shopping tourism.”

In the early 1980s, oil production in Dubai accounted for two thirds of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), effectively carrying the emirate’s economy. However, the volatility of oil resources spurred Dubai to take significant steps to increase non-oil sectors’ economic contribution by the year 2030. Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) now reports that tourism accounts for 22.6% of the emirate’s gross domestic product, leaving oil to account for only 7%. This shift places tourist-centric events like the DSF at the forefront of Dubai’s economic stage.

This article will address the DSF’s distinct impact in the four subsections that follow. The first will supply an overview of Dubai’s oil-driven rise from develop- ing nation to advanced economic center, providing context to the emirate’s ability to facilitate mass tourism. The second will look at Dubai’s focused efforts to diversify its economy—by way of robust retail and tourism industries—through particular projects and initiatives. The third will explain the specific lengths to which the government has gone to facilitate this economically advantageous national event, and shed light on the shopper’s experience within the event. The fourth will conclude by assessing the utility of the festival model in advancing tourism industry progress by evaluating its effect on Dubai’s economy as a whole. This article utilizes data from official sources within the Dubai government, such as the Dubai Economic Council and the Dubai Statistics Center for tourism, retail, and economic statistics. It also incorporates Arab press coverage of the DSF as well as findings from previous research on subjects from experiential marketing models to the historical economic development of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)...

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