Dubai: For Dr Dahli Aspillera, a seasoned traveller, Dubai has been a revelation. "The Middle East was the remotest place in my travel itinerary," said Dr Aspillera, a professor and diplomat's wife who has been to more than 40 countries.
But "a few days [in Dubai]... I wanted to sell my two properties in Las Vegas to get one of those villas in the Palm Islands? start a life here and live happily ever after," she said.
"In general, the Middle East is off the beaten track for most Americans. It is rather misunderstood," said Aspillera.
It is less so for British tourists who spent $74 million in the UAE from June to August last year. Dubai had six million hotel room nights booked last year, compared to Singapore's 8.5 million and Hong Kong's 25 million.
Thanks to Emirates airline, Dubai now has direct air connections to 76 destinations from New York to Osaka.
The city is not resting on its laurels though, launching extensive promotions to stay on the radar screen of globe-trotters, said Mohammad Abdul Mannan, spokesperson for the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM).
"We take into account the competition's activity. When we see a growth potential, we go all out to grab the opportunity," he said.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has unveiled a series of major projects designed to attract more visitors. The capital has earmarked $1 billion annually for the next decade for tourism-related ventures.
Abu Dhabi's pitch to woo more tourists includes a new international airport, to be completed within five years, to handle 20 million passengers a year.
DTCM estimates Dubai's visitor traffic will hit three times that figure or about 60 million by 2010 after the present $4-billion airport expansion and the new Jebel Ali Airport are completed.
Abu Dhabi could compete on the cost front, however. Room rates in Dubai hotels soar sharply, especially during festivals and other major events.
By 2010, private investors plan to build another 40 hotels and resorts in Abu Dhabi, although this will not match Dubai's activity with more than 120 hotels in different stages of construction, according to research by The Consulting House.
Dubai already enjoys the world's highest hotel occupancy rate. From 167 hotels with 9,383 rooms in 1993, the number shot up to 272 hotels and more than doubled the number of rooms to 23,170 in 2002. Last year, almost all the 28,999 available rooms were booked due to the massive rise in visitor arrivals.
Abu Dhabi, by comparison, has about 8,000 hotel rooms and much lower occupancy rates.
However, Abu Dhabi has 200 natural islands. Bani Yas Island, for example, has become a magnet for nature lovers as it has been converted into a natural habitat for thousands of Arabian gazelles and oryxes, which were once endangered species.
Recently, the government opened the other island to private developers.
The chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), Shaikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, says tourism is helping the emirate diversify its economy away from oil.
On the international scene, both cities are actively promoting themselves.
The Dusit Dubai hotel. Dubai enjoys the world's highest hotel occupancy rate. From 167 hotels with 9,383 rooms in 1993 the number shot up to 272 hotels in 2002.