On the wings of a theme park

Leisure tourism is a key area of activity for countries looking at economic diversification, reports TTN
Theme malls like the City of Arabia are on the rise in the Middle East region

The Middle East is fast becoming a leisure playground; from Qatar’s $500 million World Gardens, to Dubai’s $3.2 billion Dubai Mountain City, the travel industry is set to cash in on a trend that has seen projects springing up across the GCC.

Whether it is golf, roller coasters, shopping or botanics, Abdul Rehman Falaknaz, president of International Expo Consults, organizers of the specialist trade exhibition Dubai Entertainment, Amusement and Leisure show, believes this slew of development is only set to rise, and that now is the time for the Middle East to sow the seeds of the future.
“The number of theme parks and entertainment facilities coming up either as exclusive projects or as part of the projects has increased exponentially. Aimed at attracting the global tourists, the trend of investing hugely in the amusement component of the overall infrastructure is only going to gain more momentum,” he said.
According to the World Tourism Organization, increased funding, improved product development and slick marketing plans have all eased efforts to milk tourism’s potential. While some argue that diversification of Middle East oil-based countries through tourism is old news, others believe that channelling focus on leisure resorts is new.
“In the context of the rapid economic diversification that is happening in the UAE and the aim of developing more non-oil revenues, the Dubailand project has strategic significance,” confirmed Mohammed Al Gergawi, chairman of the board of Dubai Development and Investment Authority, who heads up the $18 billion development that is set to become one of the Middle East’s biggest pull factors.
By 2012 Dubai hopes to attract some 15 million tourists, a figure that looks set to materialise as the industry expects to post profits to the sum of $279.4 billion by 2016 from $147.6 billion in 2006.
Added to which, tourism is expected to contribute 2.6 per cent to GDP in 2006 ($27.3 billion), rising in nominal terms to $58.9 billion (3.1 per cent of total) by 2016. The percentage of the total should rise from 9.6 per cent (US$102.2 billion) to 10.1 per cent ($189.5 billion) in this same period. For the Middle East, travel and tourism activity is expected to grow by 4.4 per cent per annum in real terms between 2007 and 2016.
According to Falaknaz, amusement and theme park resorts in the Middle East are even surpassing the developed countries in terms of sheer scale of amusement projects and theme parks being developed.
Some of this success has been attributed to the rise of the Dubai Entertainment, Amusement and Leisure (DEAL) show, which has registered tremendous growth in the recent year – at the last exhibition this April, more than 200 companies attended, with major participation coming from USA, UK, Europe and Canada all showcasing the latest products in the amusement industry.
Learning from their competitors, developers within the GCC have seen projects like Qatar’s $1.2 billion Lusail Entertainment District and Dubailand’s $1.5 billion Falcon City of Wonders stir up significant interest; all envisioned to be trend setters in the industry and promising a unique experience to the visitor.
In fact the Middle East sits on the latest in technology and has the best possible human and technical expertise in the industry on tap, suggesting that in time it may surpass its competitors in terms of profits too.
But stand alone amusement parks are not the only contenders in this development war; large scale regional and specialty shopping complexes, mixed use water front developments and even the odd two million sqm indoor garden are also being thrown into the mix. In more rural settings, additional components often include destination resorts, bungalow parks and shopping/restaurant villages, such as Abu Dhabi’s US$27 billion Saadiyat Island, Muscat’s US$500 million Green Acres development and Bahrain’s US$500 million Sakhir City development.
The Dubai Mall - part of the landmark Burj Dubai development and slated for completion in 2008 – is pegged to be the world’s largest retail development, comprising 1.1 million sqm of total space and 465,000sqm of total retail space. The US$735 million project overshadows its competitor, Mall of the Emirates, with the world's largest indoor gold market, several food courts, waterfront atrium, fountain oasis, a dedicated high fashion area and even an Olympic-sized ice-rink.
Some GCC countries are even converting their coast lines into exclusive water parks, such as Bahrain’s recently opened $50 million Dilmun Water Park (see box). Meanwhile established water park resorts, such as Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s Wild Wadi waterpark are upping their game with new and improved rides to woo custom.
According to the experts, the GCC amusement industry has learnt from the experiences of its international competitors, successfully evolving a recreational mix that is more likely to attract the global tourist.
The expansion of Dubai airport and the success of airline majors like Gulf Air and Emirates Airlines having recently been joined by new arrivals, Etihad and Air Arabia, further fuels the growth in international tourism and gives access to the Middle East’s bevy of leisure resorts, particularly as the Dubai Mall gears up to its opening early next year.
“With increased flying options to the Middle East, tourists are now considering traveling to Dubai for the weekend in order to do some shopping at The Dubai Mall, soak up some sun, with a day at Dubailand to boot,” confirmed Embassy Abu Dhabi managing director, Mark Fuller, who has just launched his exclusive restaurant brand at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace.
Rather than being viewed as a stand alone attraction, theme parks and retail resorts are being developed as an integral part of a balanced leisure product and tourism system that contributes to the economic development, employment, and resource preservation of an entire region.
While the amusement industry across the Middle East is being developed along the latest global trends, Falaknaz foresees the incorporation of stronger regional and local elements that showcase heritage, achievements and world contribution in the near future. A case in point is the Ritz Carlton’s recently opened Sharq Village & Spa in Qatar.