POSTED: Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 10:00am
UPDATED: Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 10:04am
CNN — Under the baking hot skies of the Persian Gulf the region's travel hubs are showing they're not just places to change planes -- they're destinations in their own right.
The Gulf's "Big Three" carriers -- Dubai-based Emirates, Abu Dhabi's Etihad, and Doha-based Qatar Airways -- have grown dramatically over the last decade, opening new routes and competing with the biggest names in aviation.
Conveniently placed between east and west, the Gulf's geographic location has been a major factor in these industry-reshaping developments. Anywhere in the world is one stop from the Gulf.
Add to this the investment in state-of-the-art airports and vast new plane fleets, as well as the acquisition of stakes in some of Europe's biggest airlines which have ruptured traditional airline alliances, and it is clear why more and more commercial traffic is making a pit-stop in the region.
But the "Big Three" are keen to stress that Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai are more than just strategically located landing strips in the desert. Each is a thriving commercial and cultural destination with plenty to offer travelers passing through the region.
Literally built out of the sand, Dubai set out on its meteoric rise into the global community in the early 1970s. In just three decades it grew from a humble fishing and trading dock into a world-renowned tax-free business haven.
With artificial islands, gaudy luxury hotels and colossal skyscrapers, modern Dubai is nothing if not spectacular. And according to Emirates president Tim Clarke, Dubai is more than just a transfer hub.
"Dubai is such a great place to live and work, have your family, have education, health, etc. The lifestyle is very good," Clarke told CNN's Richard Quest.
"Remember, we have nearly 80,000 hotel rooms here, which is a lot more than most large cities in the world today," he added.
Top attraction: Any traveler will struggle to miss the world's largest building, the Burj Khalifa, which is more than 2,700 feet tall and offers the perfect vantage point to view the city's ever expanding skyline.
Where to stay: Dubai may have a huge number of hotels but few are more impressive than the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, which offers jacuzzis in every suite, an army of trained butlers and guest access to a fleet of chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce cars.
Like Dubai, downtown Abu Dhabi has its fair share of large mirror-and-glass buildings that stretch high into the sky. Unlike its upstart neighbor, however, the emirate is eager to emphasize its cultural and traditional heritage alongside its shiny modern facade. A number of important Islamic and historical sites are dotted across Abu Dhabi, whilst plans are in place to open branches of major museums such as the Louvre and Guggenheim by 2017.
Top attraction: The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is one of the biggest in the world. Spread over 22,000 square meters it can accommodate a staggering 41,000 worshipers. Abu Dhabi's close proximity to the desert means even short-stay travelers can take a trip out onto its sun-drenched dunes.
Where to stay: Built in 2005, the Emirates Palace Hotel is located on a private beach. Despite its youth, the 114 domes that grace the opulent hotel evoke traditional Arabian architecture.
Unlike Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Qatari capital of Doha has less experience when it comes to welcoming foreign tourists and travelers.
This situation will change dramatically in the coming years as the tiny nation prepares to host the football extravaganza of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
A detailed plan is already in place to develop tourism in Qatar, although the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, is keen for the country to maintain its cultural integrity.
"We don't want to be a mass-tourism destination, we want to be very selective," he told Quest.
"We have a lot of culture in this country, the people's mindset is different. We want to respect that mindset ... and grow our tourism in a way that does not dispute the cultural fabric of my country."
Top attraction: The Museum of Islamic Art only opened its doors in 2009 but it claims its collection of Islamic pieces is already one of the most extensive in the world. The Souq Waqif, which has been situated on the same site for more than a century, is the perfect place to pick up a traditional souvenir.
Where to stay: At 300 meters high, the Torch Hotel is the tallest building in Doha and offers spectacular 360-degree views across the city as well as a spectacular architecture.