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Arabs on Holiday Say, 'Rain, Rain Don't Go Away'

Arabs on Holiday
Say, 'Rain, Rain
Don't Go Away' The Monsoon Season Draws
Guests to Indian Resorts;
A Stormy Day at the Pool

August 22, 2005

PANAJI, India -- Haya Bin Hammad's smile faded as she stepped off the plane here to start a family vacation. Her Barbie umbrella was already open, but there wasn't a drop of rain in sight.

"What is this?" Haya's father muttered as he saw the disappointment on his 7-year-old daughter's face.

Fortunately for the Bin Hammad family, the weather was cooperating by the time they left the airport. Torrential rain beat down on them. "Look, Daddy! God has sent us rain!" Haya said, beaming at her father.

The Bin Hammads live in the United Arab Emirates, a tiny federation of states in one of the driest regions on earth. Oil money in the U.A.E. and other Persian Gulf countries has financed everything from world-class restaurants and skyscrapers to a 25-story indoor ski slope. But even though money can't buy rain, it can buy parched Arabs the next best thing: a monsoon vacation.

The Indian state of Goa first started marketing itself as a monsoon destination about five years ago. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, many Gulf Arabs began vacationing closer to home, turned off from their usual vacation spots in the West by tightened visa restrictions and worries about how they might be received.

Resorts in India and northern Pakistan began seeing more Arabs eager to experience the novelty of rain. Posters went up in travel agencies in the Gulf nations of U.A.E., Qatar and Kuwait, beckoning residents to "Come Feel the Rain." Goa, on India's west coast, says it attracted 55,000 Arab visitors during last year's monsoon season, nearly three times as many as two years earlier.

"We've seen steady growth in business from them, all of it during the monsoon months," between June and early September, says Pamela Mascarenhas, deputy director of Goa's state department of tourism.

But this year, the rains took a deadly turn. A weeklong deluge at the end of July caused floods and landslides that killed more than 1,000 people in parts of India. Hundreds of others have died from water-borne diseases. Hardest hit was Mumbai, north of Goa. In the wake of the disaster, many tourists canceled vacation trips, although Goa's popular coastal areas escaped with relatively minor damage.

Many beach resorts are already filling up again. Arab families are particularly drawn to luxurious complexes featuring elaborate "waterparks" with terraced pools and connecting slides. As rain falls, fathers and their children romp through the labyrinthine pools. Mothers and older sisters, covered in black robes and headscarves, lounge nearby without umbrellas, eating ice cream and sipping nonalcoholic drinks.

The Indian tourist industry has created tours and activities aimed at rain-starved Arab visitors. Open-air discotheques are billed as "rain dance floors." Tour operators peddle sight-seeing trips, or "rain walks," as relaxing excursions for "introspection" and "family bonding." A manager at the Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa, Vijay Anand, says of the off-season guests: "We know what they want."

On a recent Sunday at a neighboring resort, Arab families head to the terrace tables for brunch, while non-Arab guests sit indoors listening to live music.

"If we wanted to be in the air conditioning, we could have just stayed in Kuwait!" says Sheikha Al-Shaer, who is visiting with her husband and three children. The Al-Shaers and the Bin Hammads say their friends recommended Goa for a monsoon holiday.

The highlight of the Bin Hammad family's first day was the "outdoor rain shower" -- a spa-like experience in a roofless tiled room entered through their bungalow. "I'd say Haya had about 10 showers today," Mr. Bin Hammad laughs. He compares the joy to that of Westerners who frolic in the snow.

Day two brought sporadic downpours. When it began raining shortly after breakfast, Haya dragged her father and 18-year-old uncle, Mohammed Hassan, to the pool. Mr. Hassan plugged in his iPod earphones, grabbed a chaise lounge, and stretched out to soak up the rain. This was his routine for the next three days. "The sound of rain is relaxing," he said.

Haya and her father jumped into the pool as Haya's mother, Amjad, watched from a nearby table. The resort staff had organized a contest to see whether Haya or her dad would be first to fill plastic tubs with rainwater. Father and daughter lifted beach buckets above their heads to catch the rain, then waded to the side of the pool to dump them into the bigger tubs.

Haya won. Her prize: a blue-colored "monsoon mania rain drink." She says she would like to live somewhere where it rains all the time. "At home it's very hot and I'm not allowed to play outside because my mother says it's not good for me. Here, I can play outside all day because it's raining and it's good for me," she explained.

When the rain started to taper off, many guests emerged from the air-conditioned hotel to enjoy the dry spell. Haya, however, turned glum.

But not for long. Suddenly, pellet-size drops thundered down. The other hotel guests wrapped themselves up, grabbed their children and ran inside. Haya insisted on ice cream, outdoors.

The following evening a light drizzle fell on the Bin Hammads as they strolled through a shopping district, buying souvenirs. They purchased five small glass bottles filled with "rain drops" -- each one a different color -- and another five bottles of "rain-preserved flowers."

Hoteliers on the Goan coast say they found the Arab fascination with rain strange at first, but now they're used to it.

"All the other parents worry about their children being in the rain," says Elizabeth Shackleton, guest-relations manager at the Goa Marriott Resort. "Our guests from the Emirates are the opposite."

Write to Yasmine El-Rashidi at 1
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