Dubai: A city surrounded by mountains of gleaming emerald green in spring and glistening white in winter. Such a charming pitch, posted on a government website, can easily lure the avid traveller.

But when the message being put out relates to visiting Kabul, it gives one cause to pause. The only images the Afghan capital conjures up relate to bleak misery, poverty, sudden death and terrorists.

Yet, the war-ravaged city is beginning to attract more visitors, and if air passenger traffic was to be considered, it would seem that Kabul is now one of the top destinations from Dubai.

MasterCard recently studied international arrival patterns, airline schedules and UN expenditure figures to understand the dynamic flow of global commerce.

Its collated data showed that outbound passengers from Dubai to Kabul rose from 80,396 in 2009 to 261,063 in 2010.

This year, Kabul is expected to attract 390,041 air passengers from Dubai, making it the emirate's third ranking destination following Kuwait and Doha, and ahead of London.

Numbers surprise

"It's a bit of a puzzle, but that's what the number is," said MasterCard Worldwide's global economic adviser Dr. Yuwa Hedrick-Wong, when he presented the Worldwide Index of Global Destination Cities in Dubai recently.

The index gives visitor and passenger growth forecasts for 2011.

Wong said the trend can be partly attributed to the reopening of air traffic between Dubai and Kabul.

"We'll do some research to know what's going on," said Hedrick-Wong.

"All we know is that the air connection was restarted only two years ago. There could be a lot of pent-up demand from the very large expatriate Afghan community living overseas. So now they can go and visit their country for the first time.

"On the other hand, there are a lot of big business projects and construction going on in Afghanistan, so a lot of businesses based here could very well be bidding for projects in Kabul. These are just some of the hypotheses that we will examine further."

Of the Dubai passengers expected to fly to Kabul this year, 31.1 per cent will be on business trips. Weekly flight frequency between the two cities is, likewise, expected to increase from 53 in 2010 to 66 this year.

The numbers did not surprise Premjit Bangara, travel manager of Dubai-based Sharaf Travels.

"We have clients travelling on business who are booking through us," he said.

"There's also a huge Afghan community here, so people are going back to visit relatives. Besides, there are so many contractors involved there."

But Bangara doesn't think the majority of Kabul-bound passengers are Dubai residents.

"At least based on the bookings we've processed, many of the visitors are actually using Dubai as a transit hub," he added.

"They come from other parts of the world like the US, Europe and some parts of the Middle East like Turkey."

Top destinations

Kuwait will attract nearly half a million travellers from Dubai this year, with nearly 40 per cent being business travellers, according to MasterCard's Worldwide Index of Global Destination Cities.

Doha is likely to receive 413,597 passengers, with 41.6 per cent travelling on business. London, Dubai's fourth top destination after Kabul, will attract 359,349 travellers. About 31 per cent of them will be business travellers.

Bahrain, the fifth leading destination, is predicted to draw 276,945, about 41 per cent of which will be travelling on business.

For Abu Dhabi's outbound traffic the top destination city this year will be Bahrain with 256,914 passengers. Doha follows with 161,704 passengers. Muscat with 156,828, Cairo with 130,376 and Amman with 117,424 are next.

Dubai's Top Ten destination cities for 2011 according to MasterCard:

  • Arrival city  Outbound passengers
  • Kuwait           477,759
  • Doha             413,597
  • Kabul            390,041
  • London        359,349
  • Bahrain        276,945
  • Cairo            254,481
  • Tehran         249,577
  • Muscat          232,226
  • Kuala Lumpur  204,129
  • Damascus    199,715