All That Glitters in Dubai

The Oriental hammam at Givency Spa Health and Beauty Insitute helps open the mind and spirit.
The Oriental hammam at Givency Spa Health and Beauty Insitute helps open the mind and spirit.
Photo courtesy of the Resident & Spa of One &Only Royal Mirage, Dubai

Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), has been experiencing a boom since the development of its oil and gas reserve in the 1960s, leading to a growth of exportation in the 1970s. The massive building and expansion in Dubai, as evidenced by some of the world’s tallest and most intricately designed skyscrapers, resort complexes and even man-made islands, continues today, and there is no doubt that the city is becoming a rising star in the spa world.

Divided in half by Dubai Creek, an inlet of the Persian Gulf,1 Dubai is the main port and commercial center of the UAE, and the principal shipping, trading and communications hub of the Persian Gulf region. Originally founded as a small fishing village around the end of the 18th century, by the 20th century it had become a major port and wealthy commercial town.

Dubai has a population of 1.37 million people,2 with 85% being expatriates.3 The majority of these expats are from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines; however, there also is a large number of professionals from Europe and Australasia.2 It is interesting to note that many native Middle Easterners migrated to Dubai because of war in their homeland, in addition to opportunities for employment. Professionals from other countries, namely Europe and Australasia, are attracted to Dubai because of its wealth of opportunity, as well. A staggering 78% of the population is said to be male and, with its population increasing at a 6% rate, it is clearly one of the fastest-growing urban areas on the globe.2

“Economical growth has stimulated extensive demographic growth,” says Daniella Russell, director of Wafi Health & Leisure Group in Dubai, which includes Cleopatra’s Spa. “Most educated and broad-minded people from all over the world started coming into Dubai with the desire to live and work here. Another strong factor influencing Dubai’s rapid development was that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are rich in oil and gas, which brings high disposable income to the residents and creates demand for luxury items and well-being experiences as the life habit. Massive volumes of tourism also contribute to our business success here.”

With projects such as The Atlantis resort and a spa on The Palm Jumeirah, which recently opened in September and was the first, and flagship, development on this artificial island created to cater to tourism, Dubai will surely continue its boom. The same holds true for its spa industry.

Growth potential

“The Middle East cosmetics and personal care sector has grown 12% annually during the past three years, with sales valued at $2.1 billion in 2007,” says Eckhard Pruy, CEO of Epoc Messe Frankfurt, an exhibition organizer. “The figures reveal that the society of the Middle East puts a premium on appearance, skin care and beauty, and grooming, areas that are increasingly an important concern for both women and men.”4

Beautyworld Middle East senior show manager Andrea Werner echoes that sentiment. “In fact, the consumption of cosmetics and perfumes in the region is ranked among the highest per capita worldwide, with an average purchase per head of around $334 annually, and the beauty market worth more than $408 million in retail sales,” she says.4

According to Intelligent Spas’ United Arab Emirates Spa Benchmark Report, the number of spa businesses in the UAE is forecast to grow by approximately 34% between 2008–2010. The report also states the total revenue generated by the spa industry in 2007 was estimated to be approximately $70 million, with average revenue per spa to be an estimated $1.1 million—a 13.2% growth from the previous year.

“New business environment changes for the past decade were influenced by the new social factors in the UAE: the local consumers have become more educated and open to international trends; personal grooming and well-being turned out to be an important and common factor of the modern generation of the country’s residents; and enormous growth of tourism in the region is another key reason to be mentioned,” says Russell. “These aspects lead the spa industry in Dubai to the growing trend of community spa and hotel and resort spas and private spas, driven by the growth of tourism and sophistication of the Middle Eastern lifestyle.”

Givenchy Spa and Oriental Hammam

Trying to shake off some serious jet lag after a good 15 hours crunched in an airplane, my first venture into the world of Dubai spas was the lovely Givenchy Spa Health and Beauty Institute and Oriental Hammam, located at the Residence & Spa of the One&Only Royal Mirage.

“One&Only Royal Mirage pays tribute to Arabian architecture and hospitality on a truly regal scale. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Health & Beauty Institute,” says Philippe Dupont, manager. “Housed within its towering domes, carved arches and intricate design is the Givenchy Spa, traditional Oriental Hammam, the Bastien Gonzalez Chiropody & Pedicure Centre, Zouari Hair Salon, and a state-of-the-art Fitness Centre.”

The Givenchy Spa, located on the upper level, includes 12 luxury treatment rooms and a dedicated Givenchy Boutique. The spa has a 30% male clientele, which was a bit against the norm from what we heard from other spas in Dubai, but much closer to the ratios found in American spas. Downstairs is the traditional hammam, or bath in Arabic, which is based on the traditional hammams of Istanbul, inspired by the country Jordan. “Here, you feel two emotions,” explains Dupont. “Givenchy is classical; the Hammam is cultural and ancient, holding in its design 1,000 years of experience.”

By tradition, a hammam purifies a person before going to the mosque, and opens both the spirit and the mind. This Hammam accounts for approximately 70% of the spa’s business, equaling about 1,250 treatments per month. Traditional Turkish towels are used, imported from Istanbul, and the dress, ingredients and techniques are all appealingly unique. “Everything here has to be true; we are creating a very wellness-oriented atmosphere,” states Dupont. “We are recreating the experience of 1,000 years; we have brought the present to the past. This is why it has worked.” Indeed, pride and passion are all found here.

In the future, the plan is to provide a further range of emotional encounters. “The spa encounter must be based on emotion and experience, not to mention choice,” states Dupont, who continues on to say 70% of the clients choose massage.“What can we gain from this? That the spa experience is all about well-being.”he says.

Softouch Spa

I was also curious to see how the Middle East treated ayurveda, as Dubai is much closer in proximity to the ancient therapy’s roots than the United States. Softouch Spa has been in the spa industry since 1997 and offers authentic ayurvedic treatments in addition to pampering spa treatments, according to V. L. Shyam, MD, regional director of Softouch Spa and also an ayurvedic doctor.

Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates recognized the scope and potential of ayurveda and chose Softouch as its ayurvedic ambassador. The literal meaning of the word ayurveda is “the science of life,” and ayurveda is considered a science dealing with treatment of some diseases, as well as a complete way of life. It draws its concepts and practices from vedas, or ancient scriptures.

Ayurveda is an integral part of lifestyle and culture within Softouch, and it is the nucleus of the spa, complemented by a luxurious blend of exotic treatments from around the world. Softouch functions as a medical spa, operated under the full-time supervision of Shyam, who integrates spa services, as well as traditional and alternative therapies, and all treatments are tailor-made, customizing each service and product selection.

Softouch defines health as purity of the body, mind and soul. “We are one of the first organizations that started the concept of ayurvedic spas into super luxury hotels, offering the pure and real ayurveda from the land of its origin, Kerala,” says Shyam. “Softouch ayurveda centers are graded as among the best in India. There are more than 20 qualified and well-trained ayurvedic doctors in Softouch’s expert panel supported by more than 100 trained ayurvedic therapists. Our research and development wing is in the process of more scientific research in cultivation and standardization of herbs and in the procedure of developing quality ayurvedic products.”

The spa has six treatment rooms, including two couples rooms and a relaxation area. In addition, it also offers a spa butler service, where therapists go to guests’ rooms for private services, an option found to be very popular with the Arabic clientele.

Of course, ayurveda is nothing new to the Arab culture. Many people from the Gulf area even visit ayurvedic hospitals in Kerala for curative purpose, according to Shyam. “The UAE Ministry of Health has commenced a wing of traditional, complementary and alternative medicine as a result of increasing interest and demand from the public for ayurveda and other alternative therapies,” he explains. “It has become increasingly clear, both to the medical establishment and to the general public in UAE, that complementary forms of medicine and therapies contribute to the health care system. It has also become obvious that no one system of medicine has the complete answer to all our health care requirements. We need to be aware of the value and efficacy of the various types of treatments, be they conventional or those that we have come to know as ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary.’

“As a result of increasing interest and as a duty to protect the public interest, the UAE Ministry of Health requires all ayurvedic physicians and practitioners to comply with professional, ethical and practice standards, and act as responsible agents for their patients, with the aim of keeping the dignity of ayurveda in the UAE. And to offer the best kind of ayurvedic service for the UAE public, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has implemented few licensing formalities,” Shyam explains. “The practice of ayurvedic medicine consists of the ethical application of a body of knowledge, principles and methods known as medical science, and these objective standards are the basis of medical licensure for any physician. Therefore no person shall practice ayurveda in the UAE without first being licensed by the MOH. Successfully passing of the traditional complementary and alternative medicine (TCAM) qualifying examination is a prerequisite for the evaluation and grant of TCAM practice license.”

An ongoing challenge heard from all spas I visited in Dubai is that of finding quality therapists. “I believe the spa industry itself has to take charge of quality control and should turn it into a positive force,” says Shyam. “It is estimated that approximately 80% of the UAE population are expatriates. This has resulted in a very young population and a very low number of individuals 60 or older. Consumer expectations are growing proportionately with the rising wealth of the population, resulting in strong societal pressure to adopt policies that satisfy heightened consumer expectations. Unfortunately, the development of structured quality assurance programs and the ongoing evaluation of the health outcomes of the spa industry has lagged behind, leaving limited information on outcomes available for decision-making by policy makers.”

The potential for a spa’s involvement in this movement in Dubai is very high. “There is a high per capita income here—the third highest—and these people have disposable income,” says Shyam, who continues to say that the number of spas is rising in Dubai, mainly via hotel and resort spas. In fact, this number is said to be 66% of all UAE spas, according to the Intelligent Spas United Arab Emirates Spa Benchmark Report. Having been at the spa since 2001, Shyam views Dubai’s spa industry as a mushroom. “There does not exist a minimum requirement and standardization for the term spa,” he explains. “You can even come across dental spas in Dubai. The mushrooming of so-called spas and massage parlors degrades this health care and wellness system into a mere massage system. It is nice to see the interest generated by the massage centers about body treatments among the public, but at the same time, it is causing many misbeliefs, also.

“Spas pop up without proper market studies and without having minimum requirements,” he goes on to explain. “I have witnessed many opening and closing down in a short period due to lack of business. As per available reports, there are currently around 100 spas in Dubai, and that is expected to grow to 200 by 2015, making it one of the top spa destinations in the world. The Middle East as a whole is expected to add 300 spas in the same period, with total ‘therapy’ and ‘beautician’ staffing estimated at 5,000–8,000.”

New market potential in Dubai is coming from the Generation Y group: 30-year-olds, which happens to also be the average age in Dubai, even though the typical American spa-goer is said to be between 35–50. “To give a little bit of history, around A.D. 400, there were more than 500 spas in Rome, both public and private. By the beginning of the 20th century, clinics were replacing spas and spas became destinations for the wealthy,” explains Shyam. “Now, it is coming back because of the need for healthy lifestyles and the need for wellness. If we keep this up, we will have a strong future.”

Russell agrees, stressing that total wellness and well-being are key. “Anti-aging is a major focus in treatments across the board,” she says. “Clients in this region understand the benefit and outcome of anti-aging. The Middle Eastern climate can prematurely age skin, and as a result, our clients take precautions. We do find that women share their experiences, so word on new facial or body treatments travels particularly fast in Dubai.”

Senso Spa

In the United States, four out of five spas are day spas; however, it is the resort and hotel spas in Dubai that are growing at an annual rate of 16%. The city’s spa-goers also have their choice of international themes, and because Asian spas are near and dear to my heart, I was anxious to visit Senso Spa. Located in the Radisson SAS Hotel in Dubai Media City, this Asian-style facility features five treatment rooms with themes based on different countries—India, China, Japan and Indonesia, with one room for facials. The staff of 14, including four full-time therapists, work nine- to 12-hour days six days per week, which I am told is not uncommon in Dubai.

The spa’s senior therapist, Sumanda Sitharage, echoes the sentiment that spas are a growing force in Dubai. “All hotels have a spa,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity, and very popular with the guests.”

This means competition in Dubai is fierce. According to the Intelligent Spas report, the number of spa businesses is forecast to grow by approximately 34% between 2008 and 2010, based on the spa projects identified during the study’s research. In addition, many more salons and spas are stand-alones. “In Dubai, the concepts are different at all spas regarding quality and training,” says Sitharage. The Radisson SAS’s business atmosphere brings in about 40% of guests from the hotel; the other 60% is local.

“It’s hard to find qualified therapists,” says Sitharage, mentioning that Senso Spa staff trains through its supplier, Dermalogica, as well as obtaining continuing education from Cleopatra, which offers Confederation of International Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology (CIBTEC) and Comité International Desthétique Et De Cosmétologie (CIDESCO) certification. “Competition is getting strong. Clients are dedicated to their therapists, so finding good therapists is key. Clients want results.”

RafflesAmrita Spa

Inspired by the great pyramids of Egypt, RafflesAmrita Spa, housed within Raffles Dubai, combines Middle Eastern and Asian decor. The name Amrita is derived from an ancient Sanskrit legend in which, from the dawn of time, deities searched for Amrita, an elixir that would grant the gift of living well. RafflesAmrita Spa at Raffles Dubai includes six treatment suites, including one for couples. The spa also offers a state-of-the-art gym, sauna, steam rooms, whirlpools, relaxation area, juice bar and access to the hotel’s outdoor swimming pool. “In addition, we have just opened the Raffles Botanical Garden Retreat, which is situated in the Raffles Botanical Garden,” says Lindsay Madden-Nadeau, spa manager. “This private venue can be used as a single or couples sanctuary.”

Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, RafflesAmrita Spa is a unique oasis of relaxation. This secluded facility is an ideal place for those seeking some nurturing time and features an exotic range of rejuvenating and pampering services inspired from the great traditions of Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“We currently are experimenting with treatments to see what is popular and what is not,” says Madden-Nadeau. “Traditional hot stone is becoming more and more popular, as are high-end facials and anti-aging facials. The ladies like the French Jewel. Really, everything relates to the product, and all of our treatments are cultured, refined luxury. Our new motto is, ‘The Gift of Living Well.’ We help to transform clients on their journey. We focus on private luxury and provide home care for our guests to ensure they carry on the therapeutic benefits at home.”

As with any spa in any country, staffing is a challenge, and Madden-Nadeau says, “Dubai is a difficult place to recruit staff of a high standard. You join together many different ethnic groups that have different training, and it is difficult to obtain the same high standards.” In Dubai, new spas appear on average of one per month, she says. “I’m looking forward to Dubai’s growth. It’s been hard to get our hands on quality products here.”

And as it is in the States, consistency of quality is also an issue. “Cleopatra Beauty Institute offers a great program not only for beauty therapy but spa management training as well,” says Madden-Nadeau. “Fairmont Raffles Hotels and Resorts hope to eventually begin a training school for all therapists working in its spas to help create consistency across the brand, as well as a highly trained and educated staff.”

The Spa at the Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai

With a name inspired by James Hilton’s legendary novel Lost Horizon, The Spa at the Shangri-La Hotel in Dubai offers Asian hospitality, serenity and caring service, as its name implies.

Housed within the Spa at Shangri-La, there is a Gents Salon, an Arabic tradition;, the Hair Salon for women; and two retail stores. The ladies’ salon even has a Lebanese celebrity hairstylist on staff. The mix is about 400 outside members, as well as residents and guests, with about 47% of the clientele being men. “The health club aspect helps,” says Mike Monsod, health club and spa manager.

The women’s locker rooms have cold, hot and warm plunge pools, as well as sauna and steam—the first spa I’ve been to that has all three. But that was only the beginning of the unique features this spa has to offer. Tibetan singing bowls, which neutralize energy, as well as the client and therapist, are used before every treatment—the vibration helps both therapist and client relax. It also is used at the conclusion of each service to gently wake the client back into reality.

“Everyone is trying to do something unique—gold, diamonds, caviar,” says Monsod of the spa’s treatment philosophy. “A lot of people, however, are looking for the basics. Not everyone has time for the frills. Spa treatments need to start with the basics, then go with what the client needs. Don’t lose touch of the people you are targeting the treatment for.”

According to Monsod, Dubai is more focused on what’s happening in Europe, but gets its studies from North America. “Dubai defies everything. There is no established trend here. Everything needs to be the next best thing. It is an erratic, but excellent, place to experiment,” he says. Monsod currently is working on introducing hilot, a traditional Filipino massage, to the spa’s clientele.

“The focus is of course on the guests,” stresses Monsod. “We grew with Dubai; we have the pulse of the market.” However, he does note that spa-goers in Dubai keep their eyes open, and therefore the spa needs to be sure it is reaching for the right target market. New communities are continuously being built, and Dubai has a high concentration of people. Here, knowing your target audience is key.

Cleopatra’s Spa

My final spa stop in Dubai was the legendary Cleopatra’s Spa I had been hearing so much about during my weeklong stay. Drawing inspiration from the style and elegance of the legendary ancient Egyptian queen of the same name, the spa captures the wonders of Arabia to present a beautiful experience. Said to be one of the largest day spas in Dubai, Cleopatra’s houses a total of 21 treatment rooms, plus a manicure-pedicure room, changing room and relaxation area. It also has a whirlpool, cold plunge pool and sauna room. However, the Rasul is the spa’s signature treatment, with a ceremonial ceramic room made just for this unique service.

Here, natural, healing ingredients are always popular, according to Russell. “We also find exotic and rare ingredients are very popular with our clients. Must-have ingredients at the moment include those that are extremely extravagant, such as diamond dust, gold leaf and caviar.

“Dubai is setting the trend in the Middle East for luxury, quality and a variety of offerings due to the openness of the country to all markets, including Asian, Western and Oriental,” continues Russell. “At Cleopatra’s Spa, we are setting new standards by transforming the spa from pampering to total wellness with the addition of a licensed ayurvedic doctor, a nutritionist, and combining all elements of well-being: skin care, body care, nutrition, grooming, fitness and leisure to the spa place.”

According to Russell, another highlighted trend is sleep and the quality of relaxation obtained from time in the spa. “Clients understand the physical and mental significance that quality sleep can have on the body, so as a result, a number of spas within the region have created sleep and relaxation rooms,” she states. “This trend may not seem revolutionary to Cleopatra’s spa members, as a dedicated Dream Room is made available in our Female Spa.”

Adapting trends

The Middle East has created treatments that have become internationally incorporated into the spa world, including Dead Sea scrubs, Rasul, Turkish baths and the hammam, and western techniques can be integrated with the trends being seen in the Middle East.

“Global spa trends are brought together through collective spa experiences, knowledge, awareness and demands of the spa-goers traveling all over the world,” says Russell. “At Cleopatra’s Spa, we maintain this diversity with a mix of Asian and Western treatments implemented through the world that provide proven results using leading spa brands. The same combination is enriching the spas around the world, and Dubai is widely attractive to all types of spa treatments.”






(All accessed Aug 6, 2008)

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