Sun, sand, and snow: The Middle East’s growing popularity for winter sports

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A skier performs a jump during a contest as part of the “DXB Snow Week” at the Ski Dubai indoor resort.
KARIM SAHIB | AFP | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Skiing in the desert might sound absurd, but in the heart of one of Dubai’s busiest shopping destinations, Mall of the Emirates, this adrenaline-pumping pastime has been going strong since 2005.

It’s technically not real snow at Ski Dubai of course, yet this wintry wonderland remains hugely popular with tourists and residents who enjoy speeding down a 1,300-ft-long slope – or indeed tobogganing, bobsledding, ziplining, zorb balling, and hanging out with penguins.

Boasting “fresh” snow all year long, the park is chilled to -24.8 degrees Fahrenheit and has even been named the world’s best indoor ski resort for six years in a row, including this year.

And in a region known for one-upmanship, Saudi Arabia is about to get what’s described as the largest indoor ski slope and snow dome in the world at the massive new Mall of Saudi, currently under construction.

With a reported 40,000 square meter indoor snow slope, the Kingdom will be adding to several other “snow experience” centers, including Snow City in Riyadh.

Scenic mountains

These unabashedly unsustainable snow-in-the-desert resorts remain controversial due to the eye-watering energy intensity of what are essentially huge refrigerators. But aside from these types of mega-scale artificial venues, the Middle East is working hard to build on its winter sport offering to attract tourists looking for something a bit different.

For serious ski enthusiasts, the spectacular slopes of Lebanon are a particular draw due to scenic mountains covered by the white stuff from December to April.

Children take ski lessons at Mzaar Ski Resort on January 7, 2022 in Kfardebian, Lebanon.
Andreea Campeanu | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Although Lebanon’s winter sports season was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, mammoth resorts like Mzaar are back and thriving thanks to recent heavy snowfall and sensible Covid restrictions in place to reassure guests such as masking in busy areas and some social distancing. With 62 miles of terrain, the resort is home to some challenging slopes, while also offering plenty of runs for beginners and intermediate skiers.

For those with a more adventurous spirit, Pakistan in the wider region has several incredible ski resorts and mountain ranges that can compete with anywhere in the world in terms of “wow” factor.

One hidden gem — the Naltar Ski Resort in the Gilgit–Baltistan region in the extreme north of the country — boasts Pakistan’s highest chairlift and hosts major ski, ice hockey and snowboarding competitions. Naltar itself is a picturesque pine-scented village known for its wildlife and magnificent mountain scenery.

Turkey too has bountiful snow in the winter months, notably at Mount Erciyes which is part of a larger ski area that totals around 95 miles. The ski center here has the nearby town of Kayseri which has a plenty of top-notch hotels, such as the swanky five-star Radisson Blu.

There’s no snow park or terrain park at Mount Erciyes, but the resort is covered by 80% artificial snowmaking, so it’s a snow-sure winter fun destination. The area is also ideal for snow-kiting due to having big open planes that stretch for miles.

Erciyes Ski Centre has been set at Mount Erciyes (3916m) the highest summit of Anatolia, and located 25km south of Erciyes Province.
Ayhan Altun | Moment Open | Getty Images

Summer sports in winter

Back in the United Arab Emirates, as the country tries to move away from oil and toward tourism as its main economic driver, there’s a surge in new attractions aimed at pulling in global sports lovers over the winter months by offering top facilities for activities more traditionally enjoyed in the spring and summer.

A good example is the Meydan Hotel Dubai, which sits close to famous equestrian hotspot, the Meydan Racecourse. It has launched the Tennis 360 academy, serving up a raft of facilities such as eight floodlit courts – including a championship court – as well as three padel courts and two beach tennis courts.

“We continue to bring new, world-class attractions to The Meydan Hotel, and look forward to a long and successful partnership with Tennis 360, which has opened as the winter sports season gets under way,” Mohamed Shawky, hotel manager at The Meydan Hotel, told local media.

This month Dubai is also about to open EmiratesPadPro, the largest padbol facility in the world – padbol being a cross between soccer, tennis, volleyball and squash. Ever quick to capitalize on a hot trend, Dubai is looking to latch on to the booming global padsports scene by offering this impressive home for it in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Covid rebound

Hussein Kapasi, co-founder of Emirates PadPro, says they are focused on attracting a new generation of sports enthusiasts during winter and highlighting the appeal of the regional climate.

“The Middle East is known for sunny skies and dry cooler months without rain and snow which is ideal for anyone looking to play sports outdoors at ease without worrying about the weather or transport, as the roads are clear and safe for everyone,” he told CNBC.

Tourism in general currently looks promising for the region, even with Covid still in play. Before the pandemic, the Middle East’s travel and tourism sector’s contribution to their economies was an impressive $270 billion, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Covid may have brought things to a standstill in 2020, but by the end of 2021 Middle East tourism was pulling ahead of other regions — such as Europe and Latin America — with a year-on-year increase of $36 billion to its economy, the World Travel and Tourism Council also reported.

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