Think of Dubai and the first thing that comes to mind is probably not flamingos, but a far-reaching skyline, endless shopping and plenty of nightlife. The Burj Khalifa has held the "tallest building" title since 2010, while the Dubai Mall is the biggest retail space on the planet. The most spacious indoor theme park (IMG Worlds of Adventure), tallest Ferris wheel (the soon-to-be-completed Ain Dubai) and a host of other superlative structures call this wealthy emirate home. But stunning examples of nature do exist in this Persian Gulf city-state where desert bumps up against water, right alongside some of the world's largest man-made structures.
In fact, Dubai's Environment Department recently wrapped up a week-long promotion showcasing its eight nature preserves. Though some of these protected areas are relatively small, that's an impressive number for a place that covers only 1,500 square miles.
So how much nature is there to promote in a landscape dominated by desert?
More diverse than you might think
Dubai's deserts are well known for dune buggy riding and sand skiing. However, the emirate is made of more than sand and city. The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the eight nature preserves, is a wetland area within eyeshot of some of Dubai's tallest buildings. The modest-sized (2.2 square-mile) preserve is a major stop for thousands of migrating birds. This is where you'll find the flock of flamingos, the headline attraction for people who make their way to the park's two bird hides. You'll also find rarer species, including raptors, in winter.
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, located away from the urban area and coastline, covers about 5 percent of the emirate's total land area. It started in 1999 as a small conservation area around the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa. In 2003 it was expanded to become the largest protected area in the United Arab Emirates. Home to gazelles, Arabian oryx, monitor lizards, giant longhorn beetles and foxes, among other species, this site is popular with tourists who can come for a day trip or stay overnight, either in a tent or in the five-star spa resort.
Dubai's four other desert reserves are home to similar species, while the Hatta Mountains, near the border with Oman, provide a different set of landscapes ideal for climbing, hiking, mountain biking and even kayaking on a mountaintop reservoir. The Jebel Ali Marine Sanctuary, meanwhile, is important for its sea turtle conservation efforts, marine life and mangrove forests. A conservation area rather than a tourist attraction, the Gulf-side reserve is overseen by a nonprofit group that sometimes has public conservation events such as beach cleanups or mangrove planting.
Finding a balance
Construction never stops in Dubai. An unnamed skyscraper, which could take over the title of world's tallest building if it's completed before Saudi Arabia's kilometer-high Jeddah Tower, is in the works and the emirate's ever-expanding airport keeps growing and growing.
Though these projects get the headlines, there are others that point to a more environmentally friendly future. For example, a solar array project (the largest in the world) and a hydroelectric dam under construction will help Dubai reach its goal of generating 75 percent of its power from clean sources by 2050. Even the recent ecotourism promotion took place at Mirdif City Centre, a 430-store mall that has obtained LEED Gold certification, making it the first green-building certified mall in the region.
Dubai's ecotourism scene may not be as large as other destinations around the world, but it goes well beyond dune-buggy safaris. People who want to get past the standard tourist activities and see the Arabian Peninsula's nature for themselves will find plenty of opportunities here.