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Planning ahead for a not-so-rainy day

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A few years ago, I stumbled out of a Las Vegas casino into the blinding sunlight with a couple of friends, rueful of the day months earlier when a lack of good judgment and low airfares tempted me to fly to the desert for a few days of recklessness. The moment we stepped outside we began to wilt in the supernova heat. "It's like walking into a giant hair dryer," one of my friends muttered.

In early May, before the hot season had even begun in Qatar, I wished he was there for a stroll through Doha. I can imagine that he would pine for those cool Las Vegas afternoons and amend his earlier observation. I could almost hear him moan: "It's like walking into a giant blowtorch."

When it comes to heat, Vegas is a comfortable shadow compared with Doha.

But Las Vegas, unlike Doha and its desert neighbors, uses its pavement-buckling heat to its advantage. Casinos are cool and dimly lit for a reason. Offer an oasis to a thirsty pilgrim and he will drink deeply from the well of free beverages, while squandering the mortgage at the blackjack table.

But escape from the heat in Doha and you will find yourself in an office or a shopping mall—not exactly rare attractions in the modern world.

And so, I pondered while on a recent trip to the region, with little to distinguish it from the rest of the world aside from an abundance of hydrocarbons and half-finished skyscrapers, can the region succeed in its mad rush to develop a tourist market? And more importantly, can tourism become the stand-in that to keep the desert nations in high cotton after the oil dries up?

Dubai, at a disadvantage in the oil game because of its paucity of black gold, is racing ahead in the tourism stakes with such projects as a massive palm-shaped resort splayed into the ocean. The city already is home to the region's signature sail-shaped hotel as well as its silliest attraction—an indoor ski slope. And Nickelodeon is set to build a theme park within its borders.

In a recent article in a magazine promoting tourism in the region, the chief executive officer of a Dubai resort claimed that there is a "Dubai brand" that is now the "envy of the world." The details of the brand weren't too clear, leaving the reader to speculate that it could well be traffic, heat and construction noise, much the same as Las Vegas, but without the fun stuff.

In Bahrain, I read a local newspaper report of the kingdom's announcement that it will make tourism a pillar of the economy. In the same paper, a story outlined developers' plans to build 45 four- and five-star hotels. The game is on here, too.

Will it work, this rush to make the desert a world-class tourist stop? Some would say it already has—just look at the place. Its resorts are full, times are good and optimism gushes from every dusty corner.

For the cynical among us, though, maintaining tourism—particularly in the future when the oil boom is over—is going to be a tough row to hoe.

Who, the cynics ask, will want to zip from one desert nation to the next just to top off the tan? If you are a European or American hankering for a memorable mall experience, will it really be worth a trip to the Middle East?

And, even if tourism does blossom, there will remain the problem of what to do with all those office towers and apartments built during the heady days of petrol dollars. Can those structures stay filled when there's no more oil to chase or will they become a blight on the landscape?

If tourism is going to succeed in the Middle East, it's going to take some very clever marketing. It's not enough to build a big resort with great restaurants. Those are everywhere. Even if tourism is a regional succes, what will be the attraction that will lure a European onto a six-hour flight or an American from half a world away?

An indoor ski slope isn't going to cut it when you're competing with the Alps and the Rockies.