Dispatch, Kuwait: Getting the lay of the land

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Dispatch, Kuwait

Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski is in Kuwait City, inspecting the new Hotel Missoni and investigating the country's potential as a stable tourism magnet in a strife-ridden Middle East. His dispatch follows.

I was bound for new luxury property the Hotel Missoni in Kuwait City -- opened by the Italian fashion house in cooperation with the Rezidor Hotel Group just this March -- but as I boarded my early morning Emirates Airline connecting flight to Kuwait in Dubai, nary a well-heeled Continental vacationer was in sight.

Most of my fellow, and overwhelmingly male, passengers appeared to be, instead, from the Subcontinent: Indian or Bangladeshi laborers weighed down with lots of bags, boxes and bundles. It hardly came as a surprise, as I'd read en route to Kuwait that 70% of the booming emirate's population of 3.1 million is made up of foreign workers.

But the fact that I was on, basically, a commuter flight got me thinking about Kuwait's potential as a leisure destination and, for all its promised stylish charms, the Hotel Missoni's odds of attracting very many Western guests.

Hotel Missoni suite living room

The tiny country, wedged between Iraq and Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf, is not known as a tourist hotspot; businessmen and U.S. military personnel are more frequent visitors. There's no Taj Mahal, Great Pyramid or Petra here, no globally renowned landmarks beckoning across the ages to potential sightseers. And Kuwait, conservative and Muslim, is a country of (at least nominal) teetotalers, so there's no local equivalent of the mai tai or daiquiri -- and thus no nightlife to speak of, outside of coffeehouses and restaurants.

Finally, given its neighborhood -- comprising countries that either actively discourage tourism, apart from Islamic pilgrimages (i.e., Saudi Arabia); are perceived as unwelcoming to Americans (read: Iran); or are in various stages of instability due to recent war or ongoing uprisings (e.g., Iraq and a good part of the rest of the Middle East) -- Kuwait, if it hopes to attract tourists, has its promotional work cut out for it.

If indeed that's the plan. I hope to get some answers over the next few days here in Kuwait City, as I've arranged interviews with officials from both the Hotel Missoni and Kuwait Tourism Services, the country's official inbound operator. (I assume something's in the works, as some 25 hotels and resorts -- from international brands such as Hilton, Four Seasons, Jumeirah and InterContinental -- have opened, are being built or are planned.)

In the meantime, I'm spending my first two, first-ever days in Kuwait getting the lay of both the land and my accommodations. First impressions: Kuwait City, at first glance a forest of futuristic skyscrapers under construction, is exotic, well-to-do, welcoming, easy-going and largely easy on the eye.

The same can be said of the Hotel Missoni. A part of the exclusive Symphony hotel, office and retail complex in Kuwait City's tony Salmiya shopping and entertainment district, the 18-story Missoni offers 106 rooms and 63 suites, three restaurants, a swimming pool with Persian Gulf views and several functions rooms -- all outfitted in the bold, colorful, highly patterned style of Missoni's creative director and founder, Rosita Missoni. There's also a lovely spa and fitness center, managed by Six Senses Resorts & Spas.

The luxury property's staff -- a cosmopolitan mix of non-Kuwaitis such as Italians, Lebanese, Indonesians and Indians -- is friendly and helpful; hence, despite its upscale Milanese pedigree, the hotel is devoid of a stuffy or snooty ambience. Guest units are expansive, with decor that's not only chic but also colorful and even playful (the toilet paper in my suite's bathrooms, for example, is a bright pink and smells of roses).

The most important suite fixture (to me, at least), my king-size bed, is sheer, squishy heaven. As was my 50-minute, De-Stress Massage at the spa, well worth the $108 or so Six Senses charges clients.

Speaking of prices, Kuwait's not cheap, as I discovered when I ventured out of the Hotel Missoni into Kuwait City proper. Costs look absurdly low, at first glance, thanks to an exchange rate of $3.60 to 1 Kuwaiti dinar. One-eighty for a grande iced latte at Starbucks? No problem, you think; but when you do the math, you realize that's almost $7. Similarly, post-lunch puffing on a grape-flavored "shisha," or water-pipe, at seaside Lebanese eatery Burj Al Hamam ran $15 a pop.

Old Souk

But there's some inexpensive or free diversion here, as well. A ride up to the "viewing sphere" of the iconic Kuwait Towers (400-plus feet high and nearly blasted to bits by an invading Saddam Hussein in 1990) costs just 1 dinar. Wandering the spice, produce, souvenir and clothing stalls of the labyrinthine Old Souk by the Grand Mosque, is, of course, free -- until, that is, you succumb to the salesmanship of its charming shopkeepers.

And then there's always people-watching along the verdant, waterfront Corniche, where most passersby sport exotic, traditional Kuwaiti dress: white dishdashas, sandals and checkerboard headscarves for gentlemen and black cloaks, or abayas, and in many cases veils, for the ladies -- all accessorized with the latest designer sunglasses and jewelry, to be sure.

Tomorrow, I head to the Tareq Rajab Museum and Al-Qurain Martyr's Museum to acquaint myself with Kuwait's past -- both distant and more recent, respectively -- before I investigate its future.

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