Heba bin Redha has an advantage over many other Dubai tour guides – generations of family knowledge of the city and its history .
She doesn’t have to rely on dusty books or second-hand accounts for research before taking groups on walking tours of the narrow alleys of Old Dubai.
Instead, the 27-year old Emirati – who recently launched her business, Kashta With Heba (Journey With Heba) – is armed with endearing personal stories of her parents’ experiences growing up in Bur Dubai and Deira, which she fondly shares with her clients.
“When my father was young, he used to have competitions with his friends on who would be able to jump off the [Al] Maktoum Bridge,” says Redha, with a laugh. “They would also have diving competitions from Bur Dubai to Deira Creek.”
Redha says such anecdotes really bring to life the history of locations that are often ignored by tourists attracted by the bright lights of the more modern parts of the city.
“I try to educate them about the UAE in a way that they can learn through experience, and have the opportunity to look at it all through the eyes of an Emirati,” she says.
The entrepreneur, who has developed her brand under Dubai company Gulf Express Tourism, offers two- and four-hour walking tours of Deira and Bur Dubai.
She has also launched a treasure hunt, Find the Mandoos, which reveals aspects of the country’s cultural history as residents and visitors participate in team activities. Forty people took part in the inaugural event last month.
“Mandoos means ‘treasure box’ in Arabic,” Redha says. “The hunt began in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood and ended with the teams unearthing a box in Deira,” she says.
The event received backing from Dubai Municipality, Dubai Culture & Arts Authority and the Department of Economic Development Dubai. Twenty Emirati volunteers helped to organise the search across the city.
“We had players running around Al Fahidi, crossing the creek in an abra and going to the textile market to find clues and win the challenges laid out for them in seven spots,” says Redha.
In the Coffee Museum, for example, the players competed in a blind- tasting challenge in which they tried to identify the origin of the beans. Another task required them to dress up mannequins in traditional Emirati garb.
Redha says the treasure hunt works equally well as a team-building exercise for companies, or as an induction for new arrivals.
She is one of only 28 Emirati guides registered with the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing . However, she might be the only one offering such walking tours around Dubai.
After studying international relations and media communications at Zayed University Dubai, Redha went on to complete a two-year cultural fellowship programme organised by the British Council and Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. She then started working towards acquiring her tour-guide licence from DTCM.
“I have always had the passion of sharing the culture and traditions and beauty of our past with people,” she says. “So whenever my friends come from abroad, I take them around Old Dubai to show them how it started. Everyone can easily visit Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa, but people also need to know that [we] have a history.”
One of her favourite moments during the tours is a stop at the Hindu temple in Bur Dubai. “I love telling them how the UAE is a very welcoming country and that everyone lives in harmony,” she says.
“We do not differentiate been nationalities and religions, and this is evident in Bur Dubai where a temple has been built near a mosque. I love to see the expression on their faces.”
Redha encourages other Emiratis to consider this as a line of work.
“One of the reasons very few want to do this is because it is exhausting to be walking around and talking to people for so long,” she says.
“But I also believe there are a few obstacles by the authorities that prevent young Emiratis from doing this, too.”
As an example, she points to a mandate stipulating any new guides must work with an established tour company for two years before they can launch their own business.
“I faced this obstacle,” she says. “Tour companies here are reluctant to take on Emirati guides because they make their staff work extra hours and don’t pay highly. They fear that they can’t do that with an Emirati guide.”
That said, she is grateful for the opportunity to set up her brand under Gulf Express Tourism. Redha says she plans to establish her own company as she expands.
“I started offering the tours for free. Now that I’ve established the brand, I ask for a very reasonable fee for my services,” she says. “I will be adding more innovative and fun walking tours soon.”