Dubai has the world's 2nd-largest mall with an aquarium and 1,200 stores – and it is not worth visiting
- Dubai has the world's second-largest mall: a gargantuan complex with 1,200 stores, an aquarium, a virtual-reality theme park, an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, and hundreds of restaurants.
- The mall has seen over 80 million visitors annually over the past four years, making it the most visited mall in the world.
- After spending a day wandering through the mall's many amenities, I understood why it's a necessary and appealing place for Dubai's residents, but I still cannot understand why any tourist would visit.
Dubai doesn't do anything small.
The desert city has the world's tallest building, palm-tree-shaped artificial islands that fan out along the coast, the world's largest indoor theme park, and, soon, the world's first rotating skyscraper.
And of course, who could forget the malls?
Dubai has about 65 malls in a city of just over 3 million people, with 10 more on the way. For some, the malls are the most iconic part of Dubai. And no mall is more iconic than The Dubai Mall.
To call it a mall is an understatement. Aside from more than 1,200 stores, the mall has its own neighbourhoods as well as hundreds of restaurants, movie theatres, a luxury hotel, an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, a virtual-reality theme park, and an aquarium. The entire megacomplex cost $20 billion (about R275 billion) to build.
Despite talk in the US of a "retail apocalypse" shutting down America's malls, no such danger appears to be in sight for Dubai. Emaar Malls, The Dubai Mall's developer, said recently that the property had seen over 80 million visitors annually for the past four years, making it the most visited mall in the world.
Dubai is climbing in the ranks of the most visited cities in the world - it's currently fourth, with a projected 16.7 million visitors this year, according to Mastercard's Global Destination Cities Index. And as US News & World Report named The Dubai Mall the No. 1 attraction in the city, that ranking is likely to climb.
All of which is to say: As a first-timer in Dubai, I had to visit. Here's what it was like.
At over 13 million square feet (about 1.2 million m²) in total size and with more than 5.9 million square feet (just shy of over 550,000m² ) of internal floor area, The Dubai Mall is immense. The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is part of the complex.
Though it's winter in Dubai, temperatures are still in the mid 20s with a punishing sun overhead. The Dubai Mall seemed like an easy way to get out of the heat, which is, I suspect, why so many residents visit.
But for those looking to find anything resembling Middle Eastern or Emirati culture, look elsewhere. There's a Texas Roadhouse ...
... a California Pizza Kitchen ...
... and a Pottery Barn. But it is cool inside. After I spent even half an hour outside in the midday heat, the mall was a welcome respite.
While there are several entrances, the one I came through brought me to the airy Star Atrium. The column in the centre is part of an eight-minute interactive show called Talisman by the founder of Cirque du Soleil.
Source: The Dubai Mall
A technician controls the installation from a booth upstairs.
Despite my tepidness about it, The Dubai Mall has been an unmitigated success for its developer, Emaar Malls, which also developed the Burj Khalifa.
Since the mall opened in 2008, the number of visitors each year has steadily grown. In 2009, it saw 39 million visitors. Last year, it saw over 80 million.
Source: Khaleej Times
I think a big reason it has that massive draw is that it's a mini-America for populations that don't get access to American brands. And I'm not just talking big brands like KFC and Pizza Hut.
There's a Magnolia Bakery and a Mighty Quinn's Barbeque: two smaller, high-end restaurants based in New York.
It would be easier to name the American brands that weren't represented than those that were.
There's even a location of the Cereal Killer Cafe, the cheeky hipster London café that started a mini-uproar over the price of its cereal bowls when it opened in 2014.
Of the 15.8 million people who visited Dubai last year, 2.1 million came from India.
Source: Gulf News
And Dubai's fastest-growing market is China, with 764,000 visitors last year. The number of Chinese visitors could top 1 million this year. (Note the Chinese characters on the signage.)
With 1,200 stores in the mall, there are, of course, some unique ones — like this art gallery and art supply store.
This one sells traditional Arabian rugs and carpets, lighting, and other knickknacks.
The mall feels like the retail version of an "Avengers" movie: overstuffed with blockbuster elements to the point where it's sensory overload. But there are some parts that amaze, like The Waterfall, a nearly 24 metre cascading art installation.
Source: Emirates 24/7
The Waterfall is adorned with fibreglass sculptures of divers.
The mall is so big that it even has its own neighbourhoods, like "The Village," which attempts to conjure a naturalistic streetscape with cafés, restaurants, and casual clothing stores. It was quiet when I went by.
One of the mall's main attractions is its Olympic-size ice-skating rink.
There are more than 300 spectator seats, as well as group lessons, private coaching sessions, and even "disco nights."
Source: Living in Dubai
You might not think people would be very good skaters, considering Dubai is in the desert and all, but I saw more than a few zipping around.
There's also a store that sells skating and ice-hockey merchandise. You're never too far from a store in the mall.
The mall is very easy to get lost in. There are maps around, but this is a true labyrinth of consumerism. Good luck getting out.
One of the more inspired parts of the mall is "The Souk," a neighbourhood that mimics a traditional marketplace seen in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Souk features several jewellery shops, traditional Arab handicrafts, and gold shops. But it's the architecture and design of the space that's most stunning.
At the centre of The Souk is the Grand Atrium, featuring a 155-million-year-old Diplodocus longus dinosaur fossil found in Wyoming.
Source: Gulf News
A highlight of my visit to the Dubai Mall was getting a cup of joe at % Arabica, a specialty coffee chain that started in Kyoto, Japan.
Source: % Arabica
After grabbing coffee, I strolled past the about 10 million litre tank that forms the centrepiece of the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
But with a ticket costing nearly $40 (R550), I was fine staying on the outside. I still got a glimpse of the sharks and stingrays in the tank.
The sun was starting to set, so I headed outside to get a look at the futuristic exterior of the mall and the rest of the Burj Khalifa complex. I wasn't the only one.
The Burj Khalifa towers over the area like some dystopian tower from "The Wizard of Oz."
The other buildings that flank the Dubai Mall aren't too shabby either.
The mall and the Burj Khalifa sit on the edge of a 12 hectare man-made lake.
Everyone seemed to be standing on the edge of the lake and either staring at the Burj Khalifa or taking selfies with it.
If you're wondering who has the storefront with the best view of the Burj Khalifa and the lake, I'll give you a hint: It's the most valuable company in the world.
That's right. Apple.
And if you want to hang out on Apple's picture-perfect balcony for the best Burj selfie, you have to wait on a long line, as if you're trying to buy the new iPhone.
If all that wasn't enough, The Dubai Mall just keeps getting bigger. Earlier this year, the mall opened its latest addition, "Fashion Avenue."
The area adds space for 150 luxury shops with expert personal shoppers and in-mall chauffeurs.
The area is meant to mimic Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
I'll be honest: It's a little out of my price range.
But there was a very cool exhibit showcasing a haute couture take on sneaker culture, including kicks from Dolce & Gabbana and others. EDM was blasting.
I liked this hanging light installation over the sneaker exhibit. The mall and its many designers seem to pay attention to the details.
The brands in Fashion Avenue include everything from Hermès and Valentino to Cartier ...
... and Prada.
The most fun part of the mall — for me, anyway — was one of its newest additions, a virtual-reality theme park of just shy of 7m².
The park, which opened earlier this year, already looked to be one of the more popular attractions in the mall.
When I saw the setup for Robocom VR, a space fighting game that straps you into a rotating chair, I knew I had to give it a try.
It was a ton of fun, if not exactly the hardest video game I've ever played. The VR attractions definitely felt like virtual reality 1.0 or 2.0 — they could still use more interactivity and better visuals.
But I'm a little scared for what these games will look like in 20 years. I did a "The Mummy" shooting game, and when the undead pop out in the game, it's freaky enough to make you jump in real life.
The weakest of the bunch was this "skydiving" simulator, which spins you up and down in a big carnival-ride-like machine while the VR goggles show you the Dubai skyline.
I left the mall around dinnertime, and it was getting even more packed. I get why so many Dubai residents come — the mall has everything a city dweller might want or need, all in one place.
But for tourists? There's nothing there that most couldn't get somewhere in their home country. If I were making a recommendation, I'd tell most people to skip it, unless there's some store or attraction you're dying to visit (like the VR park or Hermès).
But if you do end up making the trip, The Dubai Mall's team always seems to have a few surprises up its sleeve, like the $218 million Dubai Fountain, the world's largest choreographed fountain system.
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