With Disneyland in Hong Kong, Universal Studios in Singapore and Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, it is almost inconceivable that Dubai, a city featuring some of the world’s most ambitious leisure projects, does not already have an abundance of rollercoasters looping into the sky from coastline to desert.
This will change in the coming weeks as the grand opening of IMG Worlds of Adventure, which organisers say is the world’s largest indoor theme park, begins an era that some business leisure leaders believe will make the UAE the leading entertainment destination on the planet.
The project, owned by Ilyas & Mustafa Galadari Group (IMG), is just one in a wave of such developments planned in the UAE before 2020, with more following in the years to come.
It is not the first time that a theme park boom has been planned in the emirate, of course. It is just a decade since a similar number of projects were announced. Ground was even broken on some, the remains of which still stand in desert outposts as lingering reminders of the devastating effects of the global financial crisis.
If some have questioned why this attempt should be different, no such doubt can be heard from park organisers who — even before the harness is lowered over the shoulders of the first rollercoaster rider — have begun talking of Dubai in the same breath as the US city of Orlando, widely considered the theme park capital of the world.
“In comparison to other parks scheduled to open in the region, we see Dubai developing as the world’s leading leisure and entertainment destination,” says IMG Worlds of Adventure CEO Lennard Otto. “Similar to Orlando, Florida, Dubai will include a multi-park offering, each complementing one another. With this large selection of diverse theme parks, the UAE will be unique.”
The park was scheduled to open on August 15, though with just days to go, organisers delayed the opening until August 31. A 2014 launch had originally been moved back due to changes in construction rules and the complexity of the project.
After an investment of $1bn, IMG is predicting 4.5 million visitors in the first year. With a capacity of 30,000 visitors, the park, located off Mohammed Bin Zayed Road, will boast more than 20 attractions spread across four sections under one roof. A Marvel zone will feature attractions based on the most popular superheroes from film and comic books, including Iron Man and the Hulk. Its three other areas comprise a Cartoon Network zone, IMG Group’s Lost Valley Dinosaur Adventure concept and IMG Boulevard, featuring education and events spaces. There will also be a 12-screen Novo cinema with IMAX and 5D theatres, 25 shops and 28 food and drink outlets based on the entertainment brands represented in the theme park.
“I feel it is a better time now [than at the time of the global financial crisis] to launch a theme park due to the strong macroeconomics in the UAE, including a large youth population as well as high disposable income,” Otto says. “The theme parks will help drive additional visitor numbers to the UAE and create a new tourist sector. The UAE is targeting to grow its tourist numbers at 7.1 percent per annum, which they are currently achieving, and are on track to reach the 20 million visitors by 2020.”
The IMG project will initially go head-to-head with Dubai Parks & Resorts’ $2.86bn multi-park offering, featuring Motiongate, LEGOLAND Dubai, Dubai Bollywood Parks and Riverland, which is due for an October opening.
Those two megaprojects will be followed by the opening of a $1bn Warner Bros park in Abu Dhabi, which is due to open in 2018. The postponed $2.7bn Six Flags park in Jebel Ali is now expected to open in 2019, with a 20th Century Fox-themed attraction on the Dubai-to-Al Ain Road planned for the following year.
Of course, the UAE already boasts Ferrari World and the world’s fastest rollercoaster, on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, at which a third phase of expansion is planned for early 2017. It will see the addition of three major rides and attractions that will increase the park's capacity by 40 percent. Add to that Yas Waterworld in the same complex, plus the Wild Wadi and Aquaventure waterparks in Dubai, and the question of whether the UAE can support such similarly themed attractions, all set to launch within such a small time frame, is a fair one.
But commercial property experts think the new parks will benefit from the extra competition. What’s more, the UAE’s more established attractions can actually gain from the extra tourists that the parks – and the publicity that they generate – will bring to the emirates ahead of the 2020 tourist target. Dubai attracted 6.57 million visitors in the first five months of this year, according to Dubai Tourism data. That figure is up from 6.32 million visitors in the same period last year, a rise of just under 4 percent, but slightly below the global average of 4.7 percent.
But this is before the city began its push to establish itself as the theme park capital of the Middle East. The parks will help to draw extra visitors from countries within a short flight from the UAE, according to Marko Vucinic, senior vice president for the Middle East and Africa of property consultancy JLL. He says the development of the parks can play an important role in diversifying Dubai’s offering from the “sun and sand’ and destination retail to more leisure and entertainment.
“This diversification further enhances Dubai’s appeal as a global destination and will assist to draw additional demand — from existing markets and new,” says Vucinic. “The theme parks are likely to draw universal appeal to both residents and tourists. A key drawing factor would potentially be the surrounding countries within three to four hours’ flight, where previously such theme parks were largely concentrated in the US, Europe or the Far East — for example Disneyland Paris, Universal Studios in Florida or Disneyland Hong Kong.
“The primary strategy behind the theme parks is to widen Dubai’s overall offering and enhance the destination status of the emirate. This will consequently have a positive impact on the tourist arrival figures.”
It means as visitor numbers grow, the slice of revenue available to each park operator from tourists grows alongside it. As with some of the world’s most famous established theme park “clusters”, such as Orlando and the throng of attractions on Australia’s Gold Coast, this would allow the parks not only to survive, but to thrive.
Orlando plays host to dozens of theme parks, including Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Studios. The famous names contributed to record visitor figures of 66 million last year, a growth of 5.42 percent. It followed the 2014 “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” expansion at Universal Studios Resort and an overhaul of Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World.
Gold Coast visitor numbers decreased by 6 percent to 3.329 million from June 2014 to June last year, though international visits increased by the same figure to almost 840,000, showing that attractions including Dreamworld, Sea World, Wet ‘n’ Wild and Warner Bros Movie World remain a global draw.
“Theme parks benefit from close proximity to each other, as they feed off each other,” says Craig Plumb, MENA head of research for JLL. “This is clearly the case with Orlando and the Gold Coast, where a number of different theme parks are established in close proximity, for example water-based [and] movie-based [parks], and animal kingdoms.
“Yas Island is a good example of a theme park cluster, with Yas Waterworld and Ferrari World already in operation. The development of additional attractions in Dubai could benefit Yas Island if the new offer is sufficiently different. By increasing the size of the total pie — the number of visitors to the UAE for theme parks — these developments could have spin-off benefits for Yas Island. The opening of the Yas Island waterpark did not have a major adverse effect on Dubai’s two water parks, Wild Wadi and Atlantis.
“Theme parks are not particularly profitable developments in their own right and many free-standing theme parks around the world have struggled for financial viability. The key to a financially successful project is to use the theme park as an attraction for other, more profitable, elements of the project.”
It’s not just in the UAE that sees theme parks as a key cog in its pursuit of increased tourism. In June, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum exempted Saudi Arabia from a GCC theme park deal, allowing the Gulf kingdom to pursue its own anticipated plans with US operator Six Flags.
In Qatar, Angry Birds World is scheduled for opening next year at the upcoming $1.8bn Doha Festival City, after initial plans were switched from the Mall of Qatar, which is also under construction. And Oman’s biggest indoor theme park, the $120m alien-themed Majarat Oman, on the outskirts of Muscat, is also expected to open next year. The 25,000 sq m development at Al Sawadi Beach Resort will cater for up to 3,000 visitors a day.
“It’s a very exciting time for the leisure tourism industry in the region,” says Mohamed Al Zaabi, CEO of Miral Asset Management, which owns the Yas Island theme parks. “The emergence of new theme parks around the region definitely adds to each country’s appeal, and bodes well for the GCC region’s tourism industry and macro-economy. That being said, recent research has indicated that the UAE will make up 90 percent of the Middle East leisure tourism market by 2020 and we believe that Yas Island definitely has a big role to play in this.”
It could include a fourth park on the island, along with Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld and the upcoming Warner Bros attraction. Mohammed Al Mubarak, CEO of developer Aldar Properties and chairman of Miral, told Arabian Business in October last year that he expected progress on the as-yet unnamed project by 2020. Al Zaabi admitted that discussions were under way over further projects, but stressed that the firm would not rush into further expansion plans.
“We have a sizeable land bank on Yas Island and there is room for more destinations,” says Al Zaabi.
“However, like all our other destinations, it needs to be well-planned with feasibility studies. More importantly, each of our destinations need to complement each other and create value for Yas Island and Abu Dhabi.”
The imminent theme park era could also serve to expedite the gradual growth of the UAE’s mid-range hotel market. Operators in the emirate, known worldwide for its dazzling five-star resorts, are already recognising that an unstable global economy is resulting in more travellers looking for value. Add to that the target demographic that park operators are hoping to attract and the need for affordable hotels increases further.
“Demand from new hotel brands remains incredibly strong, with operators using Dubai as a testing ground for new concepts before they are rolled out across the region,” says Matthew Green, head of research and consulting at CBRE Middle East.
“While historically there has been a clear focus on the five-star market, this is now shifting towards the mid-market brands, which better align with the current affordability challenges brought about by sustained US dollar strength and the target demographic of the new theme parks. We have also seen a shift from local developers, with an increase in mid-market-focused products currently being assessed and also delivered into the market.
“Despite the presence of world-renowned shopping destinations, a seven-star hotel and world-class leisure infrastructure, Dubai still needs to diversify its tourism offer further in order to achieve the growth required to meets its 20-million-a-year tourism target by 2020. Clearly the move to establish the emirate as the region’s theme park hub is the next phase in this strategy, and while it is not without its risks, it will certainly add a major driver for establishing new avenues of tourism revenue in the coming years.”
A more diverse choice of hotels is of course great news for potential visitors, though the sector is currently feeling the pressure as a result of increased supply levels and shift in tourist source markets, according to industry analysis.
But with its inaugural mega parks within weeks of opening, Dubai’s newest tourism money train is firmly on the tracks. While previous attempts to establish itself as a global theme park hub were derailed, this time, it seems, nothing can stop its momentum.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.