Culinary tourism is another sector worth watching in Dubai. Here’s why

Take Skift

There’s more to Dubai than just mega-malls and gleaming hotels, and its burgeoning restaurant sector is proof of that.

—Josh Corder

Earlier this month, the third edition of the Michelin Guide Dubai was announced, a lavish, government-sponsored event that was meant to show the world that Dubai is serious about food. It took place at the One&Only One Za’abeel, a five-star government-owned hotel.

In fact, the entire Michelin in Dubai is essentially a government project. Dubai Tourism brought the Michelin Guide to the city in 2022 as the emirate sought to capitalize on gastronomic tourism for the first time.

This year’s guide features 106 restaurants, with 15 receiving one-star awards and four restaurants receiving two stars. Dubai has yet to receive its first three-Michelin-star restaurant.

The 106 restaurants have now become a great marketing tool for Dubai Tourism, which is looking for new ways to attract tourists to the city.

The UNWTO Second Global Report on Gastronomic Tourism suggests that culinary tourism should be considered “as a horizontal layer of … destination marketing and product development strategies, rather than a vertical one.” Ideally, the report suggests, culinary experiences should be integrated with other experiences, rather than “treated as a standalone product.”

Skift data from 2019 shows that 98% of U.S. respondents traveled for food purposes, and for 42%, food was the primary reason for their trip.

Gastronomic tourism is one of the newest travel industries in Dubai, and the city is very focused on developing it. Over the years, luxury hotels and high-end shops have captured the attention of travelers. Dubai restaurants have also recently appeared on Netflix.

Dubai boasts some 13,000 restaurants, and this year Time Out named it the ninth best city in the world for food. Dubai Tourism’s own Gastronomy Report calls Dubai the world’s food capital (of course), but the dataset was based on 2,000 people already living in Dubai.

A different approach to marketing

Importantly, while Michelin itself promotes upscale establishments, Dubai’s emphasis on gastronomic tourism as a whole shows that the city is maturing and moving away from promoting only luxury hotels and shopping malls to tourists.

As Issam Kazim, the city’s director-general of tourism, has said, “Dubai is a victim of its own success.” The emirate pushed hard in the 2000s and early 2010s to build some of the world’s most spectacular modern monuments: the Burj Al Arab, the Burj Khalifa, and Atlantis, to name a few.

At Skift India Summit 2024, Kazim said, “We are victims of our own success to some extent. Burj Al Arab made us a desirable destination, but people thought they couldn’t afford it. Yes, Dubai caters to the high end, but that doesn’t mean we don’t cater to all budgets.”

But these locations have led many to dismiss Dubai as an unaffordable, over-the-top luxury destination. In 2024, a wave of trendy new restaurants is changing the face of the city, introducing tourists and locals to culture without breaking the bank.

Local restaurant company EATX is one such company that wants to showcase Dubai through its eateries. EATX COO Nick Comaty told Skift, “I’ve worked in Miami, New York and a bit in Europe, but I think Dubai is the most competitive in terms of restaurants.”

“A lot of people who are new to Dubai or are moving here for the first time or visiting for the first time only have a superficial idea, but restaurants are so much more diverse now. Dubai itself is a multicultural city. A few years ago, a lot of people would just go to the malls in Dubai and think they had done it all. Now, restaurants add so many new experiences to the city.”

“Vegas Flair” in Dubai

According to Comaty, Dubai is a mix of many major US cities when it comes to its culinary scene, including a “Las Vegas vibe” found on the Strip.

He said: “Food is the driving force in Dubai now, people come here for the restaurants. It’s a mix of New York, Miami and Vegas. Dubai is fast-paced, there’s always something going on, like New York; then you have the beaches of Miami; and then you have that Vegas style in terms of entertainment.”

New image

Comaty concluded: “In many ways, Dubai is already a destination for gastronomic tourism. Dubai is in the top ten in the world for restaurants. I hope to be in the top three one day.”

“Dubai has many layers, and that’s what people need to know. It’s not just a bling-bling city. The rapid maturation of restaurants is helping to change that image.”

Photo source: Gastronomic tourism is one of the newest branches of tourism in Dubai.