Artificial

Desert sand and temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius might deter some skiers, but not Mickdad and Minhal Bhojani. Whenever they need a downhill fix, the teenage brothers simply head to Ski Dubai, the emirate's new $275 million artificial ski dome, which opened three months ago and features five runs. "Skiing here is different from skiing in the mountains," says their father, local businessman Abbas Bhojani. "[But] it is made to look natural and the ambience is good." The boys practice ski jumps on the slopes and play in the snow, while other observers marvel at the perfectly powdered pistes from behind a thick plate-glass screen that separates them from a shopping mall. A few intrepid visitors in flowing white dishdasha or black higab walk tentatively on the snow in rented boots and parkas, like astronauts setting foot on another planet.

Never mind getting back to nature. Tourists are increasingly able to defy it, thanks to a new crop of man-made, self-contained destinations that cater to every whim. These thoroughly modern wonders may never replace the Earth's crumbling cultural heritage, but they do offer the advantages of versatility. From skiing to surfing, mountain-climbing to moon-walking, visitors can sample new hobbies and environments without being bound by anything as mundane as gravity, oxygen, rain showers or even daylight. "In some ways people are more attracted to the simulated than they are to the real thing," says Scott Forrester of the Department of Recreation & Leisure Studies at Brock University in Ontario.

Improved technology has made these ersatz utopias more realistic and complex than ever, catering to travelers who are increasingly selecting vacation spots based not on locale but on the experiences they offer. "Once, tourism was about exploring different parts of the world. Today, travel is part of the entertainment industry," says Prof. Franz Fischnaller, head designer of Space City, an ambitious gulf-states project set to open in 2011 that will enable visitors to experience the rigors of life in space. As Disney's global growth makes clear, amusement parks are among the most popular of unnatural vacation destinations; in the United States alone, they generated $11.2 billion in revenues in 2005--up from $7.9 billion a decade ago, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Recreation.

There's almost nothing that can't be simulated. In addition to the ski slopes, Dubai is building a $6 billion theme park that will host a "Jurassic Park" of life-size mechanical dinosaurs, as well as a series of artificial islands that will include the world's largest man-made diving reef. Such attractions are expected to help boost foreign visitors to Dubai from 5 million in 2003 to an estimated 15 million by 2015. In Macau, the southern Chinese territory that is rapidly emerging as the Las Vegas of the East, developers are planning a billion-dollar resort, dubbed the City of Dreams, that will feature an underwater casino. At Japan's Ocean Dome, on the southern Hitotsuba coast, visitors can surf, swim, build sand castles--even watch a volcano erupt--all without exposing themselves to actual UV rays. The temperature is maintained at a balmy 30 degrees Celsius, and the retractable roof is opened only when the external weather conditions are as perfect as the internal ones. When Space City opens in 2011, it will offer astronaut training facilities, zero-gravity areas and simulated views of the planets from hotel windows.

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Plants and animals are also being manipulated to create "natural" environments. Orchids and other exotic plants bloom year-round in the rain forest at Tropical Islands, an indoor beach an hour from Berlin. At Xel-Ha, a water park on the Caribbean side of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, trainers work regularly with the park's dolphins to ensure that they are docile with the visitors who swim among them "as if they were wild and free," as the Web site puts it. At Florida's Discovery Cove, a 13-hectare water park near Orlando, tourists can swim among shoals of exotic fish, explore an underwater shipwreck with barracuda and sharks in a simulated coral reef, and feed stingrays in the Ray Lagoon. "People are looking for new experiences," says Colin Beard, coauthor of "Adventure Tourism: The New Frontier." "They've done the donkey rides at the beach. Now they're looking for more sophisticated adventures, and they're willing to pay for them."

Some of the most popular simulated environments force visitors to test the limits of their strength or endurance. Indoor climbing walls now dot the globe, featuring complex routes that can be changed weekly, with cracks and overhangs to challenge climbers; the world's largest--at the Adventure Centre in Ratho, Scotland--features 2,400 square meters of artificial wall. "This is about active engagement," says Beard. "It's about the adrenaline rush: you have to climb it yourself. You're not just strapped in and along for the ride." New technology means surfing pools can create waves nearly three meters high, as planned at a new $18 million surf center in London. And holidaymakers can get tips from experienced PGA professionals and play golf without checking the forecast at Urban Golf, in the heart of London's Soho. There, state-of-the-art simulators replicate more than 50 of the world's most famous courses, from Pebble Beach to St. Andrews.

By diverting tourists away from fragile natural environments, these man-made attractions are also helping to preserve them. Artificial climbing walls and ski slopes spare the real landscape from the erosion, pollution and congestion tourists cause. In 1963, the French government closed the original caves at Lascaux, as visitors' body heat and breath were causing fungi to grow over the 17,000-year-old cave paintings. Instead, it hired a team of artists who created a nearby replica, now known as Lascaux II, which opened in 1983. In 2001, Spain similarly opened a replica of the 15,000-year-old Altamira cave, which was being damaged by enthusiastic visitors. Only 160 visitors are allowed to view the real cave each week but thousands more can see the fake. And the real-cave tours are booked for years to come. "As the technology improves, replicas will increasingly be used to take the pressure off the real thing," says Simon Beeching, cofounder of the environmental management consultancy Travelwatch. "If it's a choice between not being able to see a monument because it's been damaged, or looking at a replica, people will choose the replica."

Coming closer to nature in this way may also spark new enthusiasm for the real thing. The Eden Project, a vast indoor botanical garden that opened in southwest England in 2001, features more than 100,000 plants in different habitats and aims "to encourage people to understand that without plants there is no life on Earth," says cofounder Tim Smits. In New Zealand, the International Antarctic Centre re-creates the beauty of a continent few may have the chance to visit. It includes a replica of Capt. Robert Scott's camp with pictures downloaded daily from the real Scott Base, and a chilly polar room, filled with ice and snow. Visitors can slide down icy slopes, shelter in caves and experience an Antarctic storm with howling 40km winds. "It enables people to interact with a continent that is hugely important to life on this planet," says Robert Lambert, a lecturer in tourism and the environment at Nottingham University Business School. "They may go away with a refined and richer understanding of Antarctica and an ignited passion for the place."

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Critics say simulated environments can also create an unrealistic expectation of the wild, where animals are not always as accessible--or as friendly--as the dolphins at Xel-Ha. Aging or diseased plants are swiftly removed from many theme parks, and chemical treatments minimize bugs and weeds. Still, humans have strived endlessly to go one better than nature, creating fiction and art that is more exciting, beautiful or inspiring than the everyday life it represents. As artificial environments spring up around the world, argues Beard, they are creating their own "poetry of artificiality." Like the Bhojani brothers in Dubai, tomorrow's travelers may find the whoosh of skis on an artificial slope or the lap of computer generated waves on a man-made shore as eloquent and enthralling as anything nature could devise.

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