Hollywood, Bollywood, footballers and cricketers, Dubai has certainly built its lodging offering with the super-rich and world-famous in mind. But as the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) prepares the imminent launch of its new hotel classification system, it’s not the luxury sector that is being paid the majority of attention, it’s the opposite end of the spectrum.

Burj Al Arab Hotel
Burj Al Arab Hotel

Although DTCM says its new classification system will include budget categories, it is also quick to emphasise that Dubai remains very much a luxury destination. However, others would argue that budget travellers have been an integral part of the emirate’s hospitality sector for a long time.

Managing partner at Viability Management Consultants, Guy Wilkinson, said the “vast majority” of Dubai’s hotels already fall into the budget category. “They may not be the most high profile properties, but they are the ones that underpin the hotel sector,” he told “Literally millions of tourists already come to Dubai each year to stay in cheap non-branded properties.”

Throughout the year the DTCM has been releasing information as to the type of classification that will be put in place, having benchmarked systems in Australia, Spain, South Africa and the US.

The body has spent the last three years seeking stakeholder feedback and has used committees to formulate the new classification. Majid Al Marri, director DTCM – hotel classifications, has long been a proponent of benchmarking – a strategy Wilkinson agreed with.

“I believe the DTCM has always striven to benchmark against top international destinations,” he said. “I know the current classification system was based on extensive research into international best practice. However, it’s good that the categories will be extended to include the more modest types of lodging.”

New categories for budget hotels

Under the new ratings, five-star hotels will have three categories – Platinum, Gold and Silver. The criteria for other hotels categories, ranging from four- to one-star properties, have also been overhauled.

Hotel apartments will now be rated in three categories (Basic, Standard and Deluxe) instead of two. A Youth-Hostel category has also been created, described in the official classification as “a budget-orientated, social guest accommodation”.

Added to this will be a Student Campus category, accommodation that falls under the description of “student dormitories or bedrooms rented (sometimes with meals) to tourists or the general public by a college or university”.

But will this new acceptance and acknowledgment of the budget and alternative lodging sectors tarnish Dubai’s image as a ‘luxury destination’? Wilkinson doesn’t think so. “I can’t imagine that any real changes will result from simply identifying certain types of budget hotel,” he said.

“Dubai needs youth hostels like any other city. Self-catering accommodation has always existed in Dubai and many of the city’s almost 20,000 hotel apartments do so. I think this category will be aimed at formalising procedures when home owners want to rent out their flats or villas to tourists.”

Concerns about Dubai’s luxury reputation

General manager of Dubai Travel and Tour Agents Group (DTTAG) and managing partner of Gulfreps, Leo Fewtrell, concurred with Wilkinson, stating the new classification system “wouldn’t necessarily help nor hinder” the emirate in promoting the region. “Dubai has positioned itself really well over the years and spent big money promoting itself through DTCM, Emirates Airline, Dubai Duty Free etc.,” he said.

However, Fewtrell voiced concerns about the focus on budget accommodation as he believed it “would attract an even more bargain basement type of tourist to Dubai”.

“Goodness knows how standards have slipped over the years already,” he claimed. “However, if the criteria is to catch as many tourists as possible from any and all categories, then it may well be successful in the short term for Dubai. I would hate to see areas such as Hatta and pristine desert areas covered in tented accommodation and porta-loos.”

But Fewtrell added that Dubai had changed as any dynamic destination should. “Is Dubai still considered a luxury destination? Certainly at the top end of five-star plus brands it is, but now with more economy hotels being serviced by more budget airlines it is attracting more budget conscious tourists, many who are here looking for cheap shopping and many who are looking for a more guaranteed year-round suntan,” he said.

Despite the need to acknowledge new lodging sectors within Dubai, some have argued, including Fewtrell, that a single UAE system would be beneficial. Wilkinson believed the emirates’ semi-autonomy under the rules of the federation would likely see a continuation of the current emirate-specific tourism boards for some years yet.

“However, I understand that a federal tourism promotion body has already been created and inevitably it will come to be the dominant force in the sector at some point in the future,” he added.