Then and now: The world's most popular destinations before they were famous, from Dubai and Las Vegas

Couple kiss after getting married during "express" wedding ceremonies, in the 50's in Las Vegas, Nevada. - The city of Las Vegas is known as the "Marriage Capital of the World" because of the ease of acquiring a marriage license and the minimal costs involved. (Photo by Jean MANZON / AFP) (Photo by JEAN MANZON/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

They're some of the most famous tourist locations in the world; but just like celebrities, they also existed before they were famous.

Places like Disneyland which is now synonymous with Anaheim, along with the Empire State Building and the city it towers over.

Then there are cities like Dubai which essentially didn't even exist 50 years ago.

Popular tourist destinations before they were famous


Aerial view of the Disneyland amusement park, Anaheim, California, 1950s. (Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images/Orange County Archives

What is now known as 'The happiest place on Earth' was once a dry, abandoned piece of earth on the outskirts of 1950s Los Angeles.

In 1955, the park opened to international media for a special preview day. While just a few thousand members of the press attended, tens of thousands managed to get into the park using counterfeit tickets or by climbing the fence, taking the day's attendance to 28,000. 

In 2019, the park had an average of 51,000 daily visitors, making it the fifth most popular Disney park in the world behind Magic Kingdom, Shanghai Disney, Animal Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland.

Many things have changed at Disneyland in Anaheim over the past few decades, but that mouse hasn't aged a bit.

Eiffel Tower

FRANCE - 1888:  Construction of the Eiffel Tower. Paris, for the World Fair of 1889, April 15, 1888. RV-30353.  (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

One of the most amazing facts about this historic attraction is that it was only meant to be temporary.

It was constructed for the World Fair which was hosted in Paris in 1889. To get some perspective on height and history, the Eiffel Tower is 4m shorter than Auckland's Sky Tower, but was built more than 100 years before it.

Until its construction, there were no other structures in the world above 200m.

Now, it features on millions of postcards, just about every single movie set in Paris and countless Instagram posts. 

Empire State Building

Left: Building Empire State Right: Waldorf Hotel which was demolished to make way for the Empire State building to take its place.
Left: Building Empire State Right: Waldorf Hotel which was demolished to make way for the Empire State building to take its place. Photo credit: Getty Images

Just as there is no Paris without the Eiffel Tower, there would be no New York without the Empire State Building.

The building was completed in 1931, the same year as the Napier earthquake here in New Zealand.

It remained the world's tallest building until the 1970s.

The location of the Empire State Building is as interesting as the 443m high building itself.

The land it sits on was once owned by John Jacob Astor (the great grandson of John Jacob Astor IV who died on the Titanic).

Construction workers working on the mast of the Empire State Building.
Construction workers working on the mast of the Empire State Building. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Waldorf Hotel was built and occupied the location for about 30 years, before it was sold to developers.

The initial plan was for a 50 storey building, that was later increased to 60 and then 80.

Its history has been eventful. In 1945 a plane crashed into the side of the building, killing 14 people. In 2000, one of the building's elevators plummeted from the 44th floor to the fourth; luckily those inside only sustained minor injuries, but probably never set foot in a lift ever again.

But the building is most famous for an event which took place in 1933, when a giant gorilla called Kong scaled the outside of it, making its way to the very top.


Dubai in the 1950s.
Dubai in the 1950s. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Dubai of today and the Dubai of just 40 years ago are beyond comparison.

In 1950, the city had a population of just 20,000, a number you could easily fit inside the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai which boasts a height of 828m.

In 2021, its population was reported to be 3.5 million.

So, what changed?


Black gold was discovered in Dubai in 1966 which saw an instant jump in the number of people moving to the city.

Since then, Dubai has invested in constructing a modern hub for both business and aviation, owning one of the largest airlines in the world in Emirates.

Las Vegas

Left: Newly married couples in Las Vegas Right: Newly built Hotel Flamingo.
Left: Newly married couples in Las Vegas Right: Newly built Hotel Flamingo.

The history of Las Vegas is as scandalous as you'd expect for the City of Sin.

In 1931 (the same year the Empire State Building was constructed in New York), construction began on the nearby Hoover Dam. The desert town was inundated with young male labourers and within a short time theatres and casinos were built, reportedly run by the Mafia.

The Northern Club was the first establishment in the city to obtain a gambling licence. 

Now, the city has 152,000 hotel rooms catering for the more than 42 million people who visited the city in 2019.

In terms of locals, Vegas is certainly outnumbered by visitors, with a permanent population of around 650,000.

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