Luxury and Conservation at Dubai's Desert Haven

Updated November 19, 2004

On June 8 the Al Maha nature preserve and resort—profiled below—won the 2004 World Legacy Award for nature travel. A joint effort of National Geographic Traveler and Conservation International, the World Legacy program encourages sustainable tourism.

The doorway of my Bedouin tent frames a scene of primordial beauty. The tawny dunes of the Arabian Desert roll out nakedly to the horizon, dotted with firebush and shadowy acacia. At a nearby water hole a rare Arabian oryx leans over to drink, its horns gleaming like twin scimitars in the fierce sun.

To be perfectly honest, though, this is no rugged Lawrence of Arabia-style accommodation. My Bedouin tent is actually a five-star suite stylishly decorated like a nomad's dwelling, the water hole is my private pool, and I sit with a flute of Taittinger in hand. Yet the antique Bedouin camel bags and prayer rugs on the walls, the oryx, and the desert beyond are all perfectly real.

This is Al Maha, a world-class nature preserve and resort in Dubai. Conceived six years ago by members of the ruling Al-Maktoum family and shepherded into being by South African ecologist and game park veteran Tony Williams, Al Maha and its surrounding Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve faced huge obstacles: The emirate's constitution had to be amended, the idea of "national park" had to be made into a legal entity, and a huge 4.8 percent of the emirate's total land mass had to be set aside for conservation. Williams pushed relentlessly for action.

Thank God he did, for this seems the most sumptuous place possible to experience the intense colors and pure silences of wilderness Arabia. From the resort, I venture among the dunes, where guides show me everything from gazelles to geckos. I try age-old Arab skills like falconry and archery, and learn Bedouin lore. (Sheiks come here to show their children the desert as it once was, and elderly Dubai visitors share traditional secrets with the guides, who pass them on to local people through educational programs.)

I see the desert anew—not as a dead zone, but as a delicate ecosystem trembling with hidden life. Nor am I the only convert: Businessmen and conservationists from other Arab lands are studying Al Maha with an eye to similar projects.

And none too soon. Standing at the Al Maha fence line with conservation manager Greg Simkins, I see the grim alternative in a region where conservation is still in its infancy and the pace of modernization dizzying. Just across the line, ravenous camels have cropped all vegetation to the sand. The land is scarred by unregulated 4WD safaris.

Turning back into the reserve I see gazelles and oryx resting in the leafy shade of ghaf and Sodom apple plants, with the sand-colored awnings and cool greenery of Al Maha visible in the distance. Simkins is a hard-core conservationist, but looking at the luxury resort in the heart of his reserve, he cracks a rare smile. "That's what makes everything else possible."

The resort was the raison d'être of the park and helps fund his conservation work. But perhaps, too, he's thinking of the gourmet dinner that awaits us.

For more information, contact Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Tel: 011 971 4303 4222 (U.S. only); Web Site:

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.

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