IT ALREADY has the world's most luxurious guesthouse, the biggest artificial island and the largest indoor ski resort. Now the tiny Arab state of Dubai has come up with another global first: an underwater hotel.
Work will begin later this year on constructing the 500-bedroom development 10 metres down in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf off the Dubai coast.
The watertight rooms, costing from 500 a night up to 3,000 for a suite, are aimed at wealthy travellers who want a unique holiday experience. Guests will disembark at a landing quay before heading below the surface to their watery boudoirs with views out into the open ocean.
Due to open in 2008, the 344m hotel will also have an underwater ballroom, spa and restaurants. If successful, sister establishments will be opened off Monaco, Oman and China with up to 2,000 rooms.
The hotel is being built by Crescent Hydropolis, a company that links Wall Street financier Mansoor Ijaz and the German construction and technology giant Siemens.
They want to exploit Dubai's growing reputation as the Middle East watering hole of the rich and famous. Tourism from Britain alone is booming, with daily direct flights from Glasgow carrying more than 160,000 passengers a year.
Ijaz believes an underwater hotel will expand tourism's frontiers. "Although the concept has been around in principle since 2000, it's only now a real project," he said. "The key about Dubai is turning vision into reality."
With safety a major consideration, Siemens is in charge of the technology. Everything from the kitchens, to fire extinguishers, to the oxygen system will be state of the art. The security system will also be a world leader, with project heads stressing it will be good enough to protect heads of state.
The hotel is another coup for the tiny United Arab Emirates state, the size of Luxembourg, which has a native population of just 150,000 swelled by more than 1.2 million migrant workers, including 110,000 Britons.
To make up for its lack of oil, the ruling Al-Maktoum family has decided that tourism is the route to riches, with Dubai strategically placed halfway between heavily populated Western Europe and the Far East.
Tourism experts believe Dubai has once again stolen a march on its global tourism rivals such as Hong Kong and Las Vegas. "People are always seeking a new sensation and they will want to come back and tell people that they stayed in an underwater hotel," said John Lennon, the professor of travel and tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University's Moffat Centre.
"It's unusual and they might think it is pushing out the box in the same way that bungee jumping was pushing out the box 10 years ago. But aquarium-style projects have been popular around the world and this is just an extension of that. Tourists now seem to want to get closer to the natural world."
Dubai has been very clever in developing iconic tourism projects such as the seven-star Burj-al-Arab hotel and the world islands project, Lennon added. "It has been successful because a lot of people don't realise that it is geographically quite close to a number of danger zones."
The iconic soaring "sail" of the Burj-al-Arab is now a globally recognised symbol of Dubai's naked pursuit of the luxury tourism market in what remains a scrubby strip of desert surrounding a less than inspiring creek.
The construction of what will become the world's tallest building, Burj Dubai - 800 metres high, costing 460m and containing the world's largest shopping mall - has already started.
Dubai-land, an 11bn theme park twice the size of Disneyworld in Florida, is at the planning stage, while an indoor Alpine ski resort which has the technology to make its own snow is already attracting huge crowds.
Dubai's long beach front now has numerous luxury hotels while the really wealthy intend to stay offshore, some on their own manmade islands. An astonishing collection, which will add 75 miles to the Dubai coastline, is under construction from rubble quarried from inland hills and sand vacuumed up from the Gulf floor.
The first, Palm Jumeirah, in the shape of a three-mile-wide palm tree, is accessed by an eight-lane throughway along its trunk. There will be 30 new hotels set along Venice-style canals as well as luxury townhouses. Those who have already bought properties include England captain David Beckham and his teammate Michael Owen.
A second "tree" island, The Palm Jebel Ali, will be completed in 2008, while a third development, an archipelago of 300 artificial islands, is at the planning stage. The world islands project will loosely reflect the map of the world, with outposts shaped like American states such as Florida. Prices will start at $7m.
Andrew Martin, a lecturer in tourism at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, is another academic who has been watching the Dubai tourism take-over unfold. "They constantly renew the wow factor, and an underwater hotel fits that perfectly," he said. "Dubai has the technology and the money, and at 344m will cost less than the Scottish Parliament."