The star rating system for hotels was thrown into disarray in 1999 when, legend has it, an unnamed British journalist referred to the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai as a 7-star hotel. In doing so, the writer breached an international consensus that the most of stars a hotel could be awarded was five. Or at a push, five-star deluxe. But definitely not seven.

Burj al Arab, 7 star?
Burj al Arab, 7 star?

Now there are a few hotels around the world claiming to be – or being described as – seven-star. The question, then, is whether this reflects a genuine improvement in the quality of hotels at the top end of the spectrum since the star system was introduced, or whether it’s a case of grade inflation that could render the whole system meaningless.

Official definitions

In all official tourist-board classifications, a seven-star rating is officially nonsense, like a batsmen who hits a big six in cricket telling people it’s worth 10 runs. It’s not.

But there are many hotels now claiming that five stars don’t do them justice – and they may have a point. So they’ve gone into the examiner’s desk drawer and awarded themselves an extra couple of stars. Some of the hotels claiming to be seven-star include: the Town House Galleria in Milan; the Emirates Palace in Dubai; and the Pangu Seven-Star hotel in Beijing.

Funnily enough, the Burj Al Arab never refers to itself as having seven stars. They leave that to other people.

Lucky stars – are they worth it?

When the Burj Al Arab opened in 1999, it looked like something we had never seen before. It could therefore said to have exceeded a five-star rating, a grade which was drawn up at the beginning of the 20th century, before hotel inspectors had even considered the possibility of being handed a gold-plated iPad along with their room keys.

Perhaps most important, though, is that many people who visit the Burj Al Arab – and the Emirates Palace – say that the hotels are not only worth the price of their suites, they also deserve those seven stars. If you’re not sure, read the reviews on Trip Advisor. They’re not just glowing, they’re gold plated.

Opulent Emirates Palace
Opulent Emirates Palace

Looking at the current rate of development in cities all over the world, it’s quite possible that in 50 years we’ll have hotels that outdo the Burj Al Arab, and make the five-star Plaza in New York look like a provincial bus shelter – highly unlikely, but possible. So as long as the star system – whether five, seven or ten – marks a standard the customers are happy with, and signifies a genuine difference in quality at the top of the pile, it doesn’t seem like there is a problem.

If anything, it could be a good thing to help people decide between the merely excellent and the out-of-this-world good, which is what we’re talking about when we quibble over five stars or seven.