Dubai Travel Guide: What to wear and other top tips for tourists

Compilation of Dubai stock images - Jumeriah beach, Burj Khalifa
Here's what you need to know. Photo credit: Getty Images

Dubai has become one of the world's most popular megacities: a destination where the desert dust meets man-made sand and abaya-clad women accessorise with designer handbags. 

It's a place where tradition, religion and culture are contrasted by glitz, glam and (very controlled) excess: it's a city quite unlike anything I've experienced before. 

Now a major business hub of the Middle East, oil revenue has developed Dubai from a small shipping port to an international powerhouse, attracting wealthy tourists, intrepid travellers, and celebrities alike.

Last month I visited Dubai for a few days, and was unsure what to expect. I was prepared to respect the culture and customs, but also eager to see first-hand the transformation from traditional Islamic emirate to modern metropolis.

Dubai may be one of the Middle East's more tolerant destinations, embracing a more magnanimous attitude to attract tourists and travellers, but its culture and customs are still deeply steeped in Islam - so it's not quite the same as a holiday in Australia. 

For novices to the Middle East (such as myself), it's important to do some research prior to your travels. Being prepared will save you from any slip-ups and ensure you're well versed in how to behave and respect the culture, which is very different to that in Aotearoa. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the local laws, too. 

Here's some tips to get you started ahead of your UAE adventure.

Do I need a visa to travel to Dubai?

No. If you hold a New Zealand passport, no advance visa arrangements are required to visit the UAE. When you arrive, head to immigration, where your passport will be stamped with a 30‑day visitor's visa free of charge. Australian, UK and US passports are also eligible for the free 30-day visa.

What can I wear in Dubai as a woman?

While the UAE is a Muslim country, it's not as conservative as other areas of the Middle East when it comes to the dress code. That said, there are still minimum standards of dress that tourists are expected to meet, and the dress code can vary depending on the setting you're in. My advice would be to always err on the side of caution: even if you're visiting a tourist hotspot where the rules aren't so strict, it's better to show respect for the local culture.

In downtown Dubai, at the shopping malls or at Burj Park for example, there are less stringent restrictions on attire: while trawling through the Dubai Mall, I noticed many women (read, not Emirati women) were wearing mini skirts, strappy or sleeveless tops, cropped shirts, and figure-hugging dresses. However, doing so does run the risk of attracting attention (not in a good way) or being asked to cover up.

Overall, here are a few basic rules that should get you by without issue: cover the shoulders, knees, midriff and cleavage; avoid any clothing that is transparent or overly clingy; and cover up without protest if you are asked to do so.

While in downtown Dubai, I typically stuck to wearing maxi or ankle-length skirts with short-sleeved T-shirts (you can get away with a slight crop, particularly if your bottoms are high-waisted). It's a good idea to take a shawl or cover-up with you which you can easily throw on. For the high temperatures, linen trousers or loose-fitting cargos are a good bet, as well as maxi dresses and skirts. Longer shorts are mostly acceptable, as long as the bottom is completely covered - however, you should typically aim to cover your knees in most settings. 

What should I wear as a guy or if I'm visiting a mosque?

For men, the dress code is less strict: it's typically advised that visitors wear shorts that are knee-length and avoid tank tops, unless you're at a beach or water park. However, be careful with the wording on any slogan T-shirts: you don't want to wear anything that could be construed as offensive.

If you're planning on visiting a mosque in Dubai, both men and women are required to cover their shoulders and legs. Mosques that allow people of all religions usually rent out scarves for women to cover their heads.

Dubai skyline at night
Photo credit: Getty Images

What are the rules around bikinis?

In a conservative country, the thought of wearing a bikini might seem counterintuitive: but you'll be pleased to know there are several situations where wearing a scantier swimsuit is totally acceptable.

If you're visiting a private beach or planning to take a dip in the pool, bikinis, one-pieces and trunks are all fair game. I wore a bikini top while lounging poolside at the hotel, but made the personal choice to wear a skirt on the bottom to maintain some modesty. As I say, this was my decision: other women were sunbathing and taking a dip in two-pieces, some of which were more revealing, and this was perfectly allowed.

However, there are some caveats at public beaches. It's important to remember that Dubai is an Islamic state and the dress code for women is more conservative: you may attract some stares from local Emiratis if you wear a bikini in a public space. Most experienced travellers recommend opting for swimsuits that provide more coverage while on public beaches: packing a sarong or cover-up is also advised as a sign of respect for the local culture. 

Private beaches typically have more relaxed regulations, although it's still wise to play it safe. Public and private beaches are treated differently in Dubai: for example, some hotels and resorts have their own on-site beaches that are exclusively for guests. These areas won't have strict rules regarding the types of clothing permitted, as they're primarily designed for tourists to enjoy - so feel free to don your skimpiest swimwear. 

Regardless if you're on a private or public beach, topless sunbathing, skinny-dipping or nude tanning are all prohibited. Also, if in doubt, remember: togs, togs, togs - undies. While wearing togs to the supermarket, dairy or walking through a hotel is pretty commonplace in Aotearoa's beachside towns and in the summer, doing so in Dubai would be seen as disrespectful. If you're not by the pool or on the beach, cover up. 

Dubai Skyline and Jumeirah Open Beach - stock photo
Dubai Skyline and Jumeirah Open Beach. Photo credit: Getty Images

Why can't I make calls via WhatsApp, FaceTime or Messenger in Dubai?

Upon my arrival, I attempted to call my boyfriend via Facebook Messenger. The call connected, but I couldn't hear anything - and he couldn't either. We then attempted to call via FaceTime audio, and then through Instagram's call feature, both to no avail. After a quick Google I was shocked to find out that most applications using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services - free internet-to-internet voice and video calls - have been blocked in the UAE for years. This block applies to the likes of WhatsApp, FaceTime, Viber and Skype applications, which can be quite disconcerting if you're used to relying on social media to keep in contact with friends and family. 

To make internet calls in Dubai, you can use licensed services such as BOTIM or C'ME. While these applications are free to use in other countries, UAE residents are required to purchase an internet calling plan from telecom operators like du, Etisalat and Virgin Mobile to enjoy unlimited calls. The Dubai media company Bayut has a helpful guide to internet calling apps here. 

Can I drink in Dubai?

In short, yes, but with a few caveats. You must be at least 21 to legally purchase alcohol in the UAE and selling alcohol to an underage person is a criminal offence.

Alcohol can only be consumed privately or in licensed public places - read, not on the streets. Tourists and visitors can buy and consume alcohol in licensed venues, such as hotels, restaurants, pubs and clubs, without a liquor licence.

However, if you want to purchase alcohol for personal consumption, you are required to hold a liquor licence: from January 1, 2023, there is no longer a fee for the application. 

Tourists are able to obtain a temporary liquor licence from the two official liquor distributors in Dubai, MMI or African + Eastern. You will be provided with a code of conduct document and required to sign a form to confirm you understand the rules of purchasing, transporting and consuming alcohol in Dubai. You will need your passport.

Temporary alcohol permits for tourists remain valid for 30 days.

It's also worth noting that it's a punishable offence under UAE law to drink or be under the influence of alcohol in public. 

The Burj Khalifa
Photo credit: Getty Images

Is it better to pay in local currency or home currency?

If you are planning on using your debit card in Dubai (like I did), the Eftpos machine will ask you upon purchase if you'd like to pay in New Zealand dollars or local currency - in the UAE, the currency is dirhams. While the choice is yours, research shows that in most cases, you can save by opting to spend in the local currency. When you choose to pay in the currency of the country you're visiting, Visa or Mastercard will set the exchange rate.

I used my ASB Visa debit card during the trip. There is a small additional charge for each purchase, known as the Offshore Service Margin: a margin charged by ASB when you use your card to make an overseas card transaction. This is around 2 percent of the amount paid. If you're using a card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees, you should always pay in the local currency. And of course, it's worth checking with your credit card provider or bank to be sure. Forbes has a more definitive guide to using a credit card overseas.

What's the deal with tap water?

Although by law Dubai's hospitality venues are required to provide filtered tap water, many restaurants will push expensive bottled water on their customers. At a restaurant in Dubai's city centre, I was offered still or sparkling, and I requested tap. Despite filtered tap water being safe to drink in Dubai - and there obviously being a tap somewhere on the premises - I was told they didn't have tap water on offer. This was not a one-off: it appears many venues in Dubai don't readily offer tap water to their customers, meaning if you want water for the table, you'll be adding around NZ$10 to your bill for a bottle of still or sparkling. 

In 2020 the Dubai Food Code was officially updated to stipulate that hotels and restaurants are legally required to offer filtered tap water as an alternative to bottles. This marked the first time tap water regulations were introduced to the code, as the concept of free potable water had not been - and has still yet to be - fully embraced in the UAE. However, it is at the discretion of restaurants if they choose to charge for the filtered water. 

My advice would be to carry a drink bottle with you that you can fill up during the day: the water supplied to domestic and commercial developments in Dubai is thoroughly filtered. Ask for tap water when you go out to eat, even if it's not offered as an option. 

Woman walking on beach in front of Dubai skyline - stock photo
Woman walking on beach in front of Dubai skyline. Photo credit: Getty Images

Can I get away with public displays of affection?

In short, not really. PDA, or public displays of affection between couples are frowned upon: for example, there have been several arrests for kissing in public, so seasoned travellers or expats would advise not to risk it.

Additionally, swearing and rude gestures - including online - are considered obscene acts and offenders can be jailed or deported. It's advised to take particular care if you find yourself dealing with the police and other officials.

Top tips for the Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa is one of Dubai's most popular tourist attractions: rising over 800m into the sky, it's the tallest structure to have been built worldwide. It's two-and-a-half times taller than Auckland's Sky Tower.

While I would recommend the Burj Khalifa to anyone visiting Dubai, here are a few tips. With the entrance located on the ground floor of the Dubai Mall, the queues at the ticket office are often incredibly long: however, you can skip the wait by simply buying your ticket online ahead of time, allowing you to walk straight past the hordes. You feel very smug and organised doing so, and you get more time to view the different ticketing options to pick the one that's right for you. A basic general admission ticket set me back AED$174 (about NZ$75), but there are more expensive packages on offer that include access to the highest observation deck (level 148), brunch, or a visit to the aquarium.

You'll also find that once you're at the Burj's viewing platforms, there will be a photographer around for a photo opp or two. Perhaps naively, I enquired at the gift shop about the photos, and was suddenly roped into buying a very expensive souvenir. A flimsy book of four prints will set you back hundreds of dollars - so don't just tap your card and go. I purchased one print, and it was still AED$250 - about NZ$110. I don't want to talk about it. All I can say is, learn from my mistakes.