Shocking truth about $83b tourist paradise
Soaring over Dubai in a light plane, I spotted a dizzying array of opulent structures springing up from the Palm Jumeirah, a famous man-made island that's as intriguing as it is audacious.
I tried in vain to stop my jaw from dropping to the floor of the aircraft.
Lavish villas, water parks, the famous Atlantis Hotel and exquisite restaurants are among the tourism drawcards located on the palm tree-shaped archipelago that juts out into the Arabian Gulf.
This sprawling concrete utopia was an awe-inspiring sight to take in - even after having just been wowed by the aerial views of the world's tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, and the spectacular ship sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel.
The mammoth Palm Island engineering project, which is visible from space, is so impressive that it has even been hailed as the "eight wonder of the world". So it's little wonder the Emirate is attempting to recreate this huge success with a second - even more ambitious - neighbouring island mega-project called the World.
Over the past decade Dubai has poured billions of dollars into the World; a series of more than 300 islands in the shape of a world map, which was billed as the ultimate offshore playground for the super-rich and famous.
The aim was to provide a slice of all the best offerings from countries around the globe, including recreating Shanghai's skyline on one isle, and creating a new Irish Giant's Causeway on another. Huge floating "seahorse" homes were to surround dozens of luxurious restaurants and resorts.
Alas, when our plane turned to peruse the site of the World I was left perplexed. All that was visible for kilometres was a cluster of hundreds of barren spots of Earth, dotting the ocean.
All but two isles had been left undeveloped: Lebanon Island, which operates the World Island Beach Club, and Greenland, owned by Dubai's ruler. They sat all alone in what appeared an eerie, desolate wasteland.
It was a shocking contrast. So what on Earth was going on here?
LOGISTICAL AND FINANCIAL PROBLEMS
It had been an ambitious - and seemingly genius - proposal from the very beginning: Give tourists a taste of the best the world has to offer, all in one spot. So it's little wonder that when the development was announced in 2003, investors quickly started snapping up land. But the initial optimism quickly turned to despair due to two critical issues: Location and cost.
Firstly, not only were the islands difficult to get to for everyday residents (they are only accessible by boat and seaplane - unlike the Palm which you can drive onto), the area is also fairly isolating as most isles are not connected.
There were also reports the World's islands were sinking. Having been constructed from displaced sand dredged up from the sea, erosion was beginning to take a toll.
But worse was yet to come. In 2008, the global financial crisis precipitated the downfall of this colossal dream. Suddenly, construction contracts vanished, leaving in their place overwhelming debts reportedly reaching upwards of $83 billion. Bankruptcies followed.
The island dream was on track to implode.
The following year amid the financial problems, the owner of the Ireland island and co-owner of the isle of England, property tycoon John O'Dolan, committed suicide. His company had splashed out $44 million for the isle of Ireland.
Then, the co-owner of Thailand, Imtiaz Khoda, was jailed for an unrelated fraud. Rumours of money-laundering added to the dark mood many felt about the project.
During this time of turmoil island owners desperately tried to sell up. One owner listed his property back on the market in 2012, for $20 million. Lebanon Island also encountered issues, and was sold by entrepreneur Wakil Ahmed Azmi the following year, at a loss of several million.
Lebanon was the only island to ever open to visitors, and even it still struggles.
Ultimately, for many invested in the project, it seemed the end of the World was nigh.
NOW, A RENEWED SENSE OF OPTIMISM
Fast forward a few years and there's new hope the mega-project will be invigorated, due to news that work is finally ramping up on another World island. After sitting languishing for almost a decade, thousands of workers have descended on the Heart of Europe to ready it for opening by 2020.
Shaped like a heart, it will actually span across six islands and will be home to pristine beaches, castles, chalets and palaces. And streets lined with lots of snow.
There will be a Floating Venice island, capable of hosting up to 3000 visitors, along with a range of accommodation on offer including a 7 star hotel. The other islands include Germany, Sweden, St Petersburg, Switzerland and Main Europe. They will all be connected via bridges, solving the isolation issue.
There will also be the UAE's "first party hotel", a pet hotel and the Empress Elizabeth Wedding Hotel. Visitors will be able to explore an underwater museum, take part in diving and snorkelling, enjoy 24/7 night-life and restaurants, a daily night show including fireworks, and a range of festivals.
"Our goal is to have from at least each European country one food and beverage outlet," Josef Kleindienst, CEO of the development firm Kleindienst Group told the local National news site.
"This will allow you to have dinner in Germany, breakfast in France and lunch in Italy."
Along with featuring more than 100,000 natural corals and a coral nursery, there will be ancient Mediterranean trees ageing up to 1500 years old that will be imported from southern Spain.
The developers will pump sand onto the beach in an attempt to compensation the erosion from the sea, which is expected to lose 12-40 centimetres of sand per year.
So will the beating Heart of Europe be enough to bring The World back to life? Only time will tell, but it sounds promising.
If you need further convincing, there's word that Lindsay Lohan is designing her very own lavish isle on the World called Lindsayland. Drop the mic …