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After Traveling To 40 Countries, Here's Why Dubai And Singapore Are My Least Favourite Travel Destinations

Updated: May 19

I remember when I was in college, being able to travel to Dubai or Singapore was a pipe dream.

It's probably due to the fact that as the Indian economy was growing, so was the middle class aspiration to travel abroad. And Dubai and Singapore were both well within reach. They were affordable and yet gave you the satisfaction of having been to a foreign country.

Additionally, since both countries have a large number of Indian expats, there was a lot of awareness on both. Sure enough, Singapore was the first country I ever went to as a part of a three country group tour to Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Dubai followed soon after.

Back then, as an 18-20 year old I might've been enamoured by both, but today 15 years and 40 countries later, I find Singapore and Dubai equally boring and overrated as travel destinations.

I don't mean to be a travel snob. In fact the whole point of having traveled extensively is to respect the differences and understand every place for what it is - which makes Dubai and Singapore both great, but when I see the hype around both as major travel destinations - in 2024 - I wonder why. (Don't believe me? Check out the massive share of "Singapore" and "Dubai travel packages" at any travel and tours site.)

There are so many places that cost half of Dubai or Singapore to travel to and offer so much more - nature, history, culture, and a sense of "real" that neither of them do.

Let's first talk about Dubai.

The common misconception abounds that Dubai is built on oil money, but that's only partially true. Dubai may be the only major gulf city which has managed to build itself almost independently of its sparse oil reserves. Dubai turned from a desert to a mega metropolis mainly due to foreign investments and then tourism money. To attract foreign investments in the country, the UAE government took billions in loans to create all these companies, make the country tax-free, and then build "attractions" to get the tourists. Flush with funds, Dubai's govt quickly got cracking - importing the top architects from the west and the labour mainly from the Indian subcontinent to build its world-famous infrastructure - the sky-high buildings, the 8-lane roads, the metro etc. In fact its spate of quick and over developments is its undoing.

So much development, so little soul

My main personal gripe with Dubai is its lack of colour, character and soul. Everywhere you look, there's tall buildings - all grey, glass and concrete. To some, it's the architectural genius of Dubai that may be its top attraction and well fair enough. For me, the artificialness of it all is too on the nose.

Ask anyone about "top things to do in Dubai", and their first response would be to "Shop", "mall hop", and visit the Burj Khalifa. I mean why's paying $125 to take an escalator to the top floor of a high building built on slave labour that can't even manage its own poo a thing? ("They decided not to build a sewage system because, at the time, it was not profitable. Dubai only decided to invest in things that would garner attention from all over the world.") I don't know about you, but hiking to a mountain in the Himalayas or Africa is a bigger high, both literally and figuratively.

And then there's all these other "Photo spots" that Instagram influencers would tell you about and the fact that they are those, complete with butterfly wings to pose with - is what makes the millennial traveler in me cringe.

Well to induce a sense of culture, there are the souks and the deras, but even those feel artificial and contrived when nestled amidst the concrete jungle. Even the odd camel you'll see in Dubai is performative and just a prop to "infuse the middle east flavour".

It's all about the money, honey.

Then, there's Dubai's obscene display of wealth. Everything's about the money, fast cars, condos, and malls. Heck, they (rather unironically) even have a Netflix show called "Dubai Bling" based on the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Dubai. And bling is what it is.

Sure the local Emirati women may be covered in Hijabs, but you'll have the most lavish lingerie stores in all the malls because conservative in the streets can be pretty naughty in the sheets. The Emirati men or the famous "Dubai Sheikhs" don nothing but white abayas (kind of robes) and Keffiyehs (a style of Middle-Eastern turbans), but they sure overcompensate with watches and sneakers that cost as much as an annual meal for their pet tiger.

Great to live tax free, not so great to see

Since Dubai is tax-free, it makes sense for anyone upwardly mobile to want to work there (I'd too) but I don't understand the attraction of travel to Dubai for travel's sake. In fact, thanks to its promise of a high pay and no tax for the 'locals', it passes on those costs to the travelers. So the local transport and food are really expensive and so are most of the things to see and do.

Not to mention, you can't not feel a sense of "murkiness" in Dubai since it's not uncommon to hear of some shady activities linked with the place (Think underworld dons, the mysterious "golden visa" system, high-ticket escorts, and the cases of human trafficking and bonded labour where the employers are known to confiscate the passport of the employees are not uncommon.)

Singapore, the Dubai of Southeast Asia

Now coming to Singapore, my reasons for disliking Singapore are almost the same as for Dubai but less intense. But then, Singapore is too small to be considered a real country -- easy for an island the size and population of London to be so well developed especially since it saw a huge influx of moneyed Chinese investors migrating into the country and building it up.

In fact, Singapore more than anything is really a Chinese outpost with a strong Indian influence thanks to all the IT folks that the Chinese billionaires needed to run companies back in the day, leading to third and second generation Singapore-Indians today.

Laundry list of manmade modern wonders

Just like Dubai, even traveling to Singapore offers the same laundry list of man-made wonders. A building here, a pool on top of a building there, some mall, a zoo (that's known to be cruel to orca dolphins), an artificially created garden with LED trees, and a famous all-night street food market that's an assault on your senses if you're a vegetarian or vegan.

Like Dubai, Singapore is a great country for most to get a high-paying job, live a posh and insulated life, save up and come back to the country of origin, but to travel? Naah!

If you need Chinese culture, travel to China. If you want Indian culture, go to India. if you want tall buildings and development, go to the US, where Industrial revolution and the tech industry originated and bloomed. Singapore is trying to be all and it ends not having any character of its own. Also, just like Dubai, the weather in Singapore is terrible most of the year. There's no real winter in either Dubai or Singapore. Dubai has no monsoons either, and Singapore may have too much. Its residents can be safely cocooned in the AC houses and malls everyday, but try being out and about in the open and see if you can walk for 10 minutes without breaking into a humid sweat. And so thanks to the weather, unlike Europe, there's almost no street culture in Singapore or Dubai.

Not to mention, its crazy rules ($1000 fine for even unintentionally throwing a wrapper on the street) and what have you. Sure, thanks to all these rules, Singapore is clean but to a point where it feels clinical and even almost dystopian.

Is it the Indian in me talking?

Now you might say, coming from India, I'm too used to the chaos, grime and litter. And while that may be sightly true, I'm positing India as a role model in any way.

In fact I'm not comparing Singapore or Dubai with India at all. (they can't be compared. India has thousands of years of history, a unique culture defined by its diversity, despite all its chaos, it's a real place, with real struggles and real achievements and of course real islands and natural wonders.) I'm just saying that if you have the time, money and the will to travel, the world is a large and diverse place with so much offer.

For a true-blue Southeast Asia experience, there's the beautifully diverse islands in Indonesia, the craziness and calm of Laos, the crazy of Thailand; for the the ancient history, deserts and tales of the Middle East and Orient, there's Egypt and Jordan, for the true "Europe Meets Asia" amalgam, there's Turkey, and for the man-made wonders and a unique and inspired culture, there's Japan the OG, and for a true history-meets-nature-meets-architecture, there's Europe. You get the point.

By all means travel to Dubai and Singapore, if someone else is paying (which was the case for my trip.) or you have too much money to care (like a rich business tycoon or a movie celeb), you have a visa-free layover and can get out for a few hours (which was the case for me on my second trip to both Dubai and Singapore) or you simply have nothing else remaining to see. But please, avoid spending your hard-earned money to travel to Dubai or Singapore for travel's sake, and even worse, buying one of those "Packaged tours" to see the top attractions. On second thoughts actually, the packaged tours are fine. Because if you remove the "top attractions', all you're left with is skyscrapers and malls without a story.

I'm not hating on the countries in general. Dubai and Singapore are great role models for what vision, wealth and quick development can do for their economy, but great travel destinations to open your mind, soak into real culture and history, and experience a real country is what they're not.


Get toknowme

 I (Monica) am a lifelong traveler, (40 countries), sustainability and veganism advocate, and a marketer by profession. I'm old school in that I still like to blog and document rather than shoot and post.

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