I did it -- which means they accomplished their objective: As I read about Dubai's proposed climate-controlled, domed Mall of the World, with its 100 hotels, theater district, wellness/medical tourism complex and enormous retail shopping area, I said, "Wow!" aloud.
The "wow!" was triggered in equal measure by the project's scale and its audacity. By announcing that the site is going to be twice the size of Monaco -- a country! -- Dubai's marketing community demonstrated that their mastery of hyperbole has not been dulled by the six-year development dormancy that commenced with the recession. (Monaco, incidentally, is about the size of New York's Central Park.)
I've visited Dubai three times. The first was in 2007, as it neared the crescendo of what I called its "era of superlatives." The tallest building in the world was nearing completion. Man-made, palm-shaped islands were extending the emirate's coastlines by a factor of 41. A six-mile strip of themed resorts, a la Las Vegas, were being mapped out. The Burj Al Arab hotel was considered to be the most luxurious in the world.
On that visit, I did hear grumbling from local businesspeople that marketing was way ahead of sales and that the palm-shaped island real estate was not moving as hoped. And I couldn't help but notice that many large office building complexes were "see-through" -- they didn't seem occupied.
But the pace of development was so rapid and the energy levels so high that one would seem churlish to question the optimism that fueled so many of the plans. And on the tourism front, hotel occupancy was above 90%, with very high daily rates.
When the recession hit, it hit Dubai hard. Plugs were pulled on many projects that were underway, with some simply abandoned to the harsh elements.
Dubai was rescued from collapse by fellow emirate Abu Dhabi, which, insulated from economic woes by large oil reserves, also subsequently stole Dubai's marketing and development thunder. I revisited both emirates last year, and was astounded by how Abu Dhabi had gone from a relatively low-key destination to one with unique and exciting attractions, an array of relatively flashy new hotels and shopping options and amusement parks (including Ferrari World, with the fastest roller coaster on Earth). Its museum and cultural offerings, still under construction, are highly anticipated.
When I went to Dubai on that same trip, I was surprised to see the silhouettes of a fair number of cranes. But when I inquired whether construction was starting up again, I was told the cranes simply hadn't been disassembled after the recession.
So, one reads about the new planned domed city with a bit of skepticism, despite the involuntary "wow!" Recent reports eerily echo Dubai's "era of superlatives," and even go them one better. The Mall of the World, reports said, would be "more than three times the size of Walt Disney World's Epcot and Magic Kingdom theme parks combined." Notes from my 2007 trip include an interview with an executive working to develop a theme park called "Dubailand," which would be "twice the size of all existing Disney parks put together."
(Construction on Dubailand halted in 2008, though work resumed on some components in 2013.)
While the scale and complexity of the Mall of the World project is unprecedented, Dubai had begun to show signs of revival last year with the unveiling of plans to build "Bluewaters Island," which would feature the world's largest Ferris wheel, 450 restaurants and a yacht harbor. Development of Water Discus, an underwater hotel, was also announced last year, and earlier this month, plans for an underwater theme park were presented.
The emirate asserts it will be the "world's most visited city" in six years (when it will host Expo 2020).
The Wall Street Journal notes, however, that some banks are taking a dim view of the hyper-ambitious Mall of the World, worried that Dubai is on a path to repeat its previous overheated expansion cycle.
As I have no skin in the game, I find the revival of Dubai's ambitions to be exciting. The city's developers like to use Disney comparisons primarily as a measurement of physical scale, but perhaps its plans are more analogous to a Fantasyland for grown-ups.
For most of us, the gee-whiz advancements of our age are miniaturized and handheld. I'm amazed by what I can do with my phone, but I'll travel far and wide to walk through the largest, stare up at (or down from) the tallest, ride the fastest and be dazzled by the best my senses can capture.
Perhaps the fairest assessment of the Mall of the World's likelihood for success will be whether global hospitality companies participate. The designers envision 100 hotels within the dome; most major hotel companies were, in varying degrees, burned by their post-recession exposure in Dubai.
The extent to which they're willing to participate in the destination's second era of superlatives will be, perhaps, the best indicator whether Dubai also has a foot firmly planted in Realityland.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.