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Sun 13 Jan 2008 02:10 PM

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A new dawn for regional hospitality

The New Year will welcome a raft of luxury hotels opening across the region. Kathi Everden previews some of the best developments.

While industry reports suggest around 100 new hotels are on schedule to open in the UAE alone by 2010, the reality on the ground is that rooms are still at a premium throughout the Gulf and wider Middle East and demand continues to outstrip supply.

But, with the New Year comes a faint glimmer of hope as various projects come to fruition in 2008, marking a new dawn for all sectors, from meetings and events to the leisure and corporate markets.

We know if we are to harness the potential of the region and stimulate short break bookings in particular, we need to have low-cost flights and charters, as well as scheduled services.

If the trade can relish the expected softening of rates and occupancies, for the destinations themselves, the new injection of rooms and innovative developments will reinvigorate their image in regional and overseas markets, giving added incentives for both first time and repeat visitors.

Two of the biggest and most flamboyant of the new projects have their origins in South Africa's Sun City, where Sol Kerzner perfected the art of the integrated resort and took the concept out to the wider world with the Atlantis Paradise Island development in the Bahamas.

Now split into two companies, both are entering the Middle East market this year, with Kerzner International debuting in Dubai with the massive Atlantis The Palm resort while Sun International raised the first flag with the soft opening of phase one of Port Ghalib at Marsa Alam on the Red Sea, Egypt late last year.

The first deluxe project of its kind in the country, Port Ghalib has been designed to attract the meetings and incentives market while offering a range of premium accommodation split among three hotels - the icing on the cake being a range of on-site facilities including a marina, boardwalk with souk, restaurant and entertainment outlets, the world's second largest salt-water lagoon pool, Six Senses spa, and the Red Sea's dive and snorkelling attractions on tap.

Top-of-the-range accommodation is provided at The Palace, a 309-room ‘citadel' where the oriental architectural influences are evident in the courtyards, domes, arches, murals, mosaics and vaulted ceilings, while the 347-room Sahara Sun Sands is billed as a ‘secluded haven' and the 292-room Sahara Sun Oasis is positioned as a more relaxed family option.

According to Port Ghalib at Marsa Alam director of sales & marketing Brett Hoppe, The Palace is the showcase of the resort and one that is tipped to attract both governmental meetings of the type currently dominated by Sharm El Sheikh, as well as targeting the Gulf Arab market in summer.

"The Palace is a premium address where we have considered the requirements of those who demand exclusivity and privacy," he says.

"There is a dedicated pool, for instance, and we can secure certain blocks to create private wings as necessary."

With control of the nearby Marsa Alam airport, also constructed by developer Kharafi, Hoppe says arrival procedures could be streamlined for those arriving by private jets.

"However, while the positioning of the product is premium, this is affordable luxury with three different price brackets," he stresses.

"We are governed by prevailing conditions in the market and Egypt has one of the best value-for-money hotel rates in the market...this is not Dubai."

And, in terms of access, as well as new Cairo-Marsa Alam feeder services, Hoppe says the group is talking to regional airlines to encourage direct flights in to the Red Sea Airport.

"We know if we are to harness the potential of the region and stimulate short break bookings in particular, we need to have low-cost flights and charters, as well as scheduled services," he says.

Given the wealth of facilities and a Red Sea environment where sea, sand, mountains and antiquities come in to play, potential to excite the Gulf and wider Middle East market is vast, aided by an upcoming consumer and trade marketing campaign orchestrated by Sun International.

Luxurious Luxor

Meanwhile, other developments in Egypt aim to reposition and reinforce that country's appeal as a destination that can cater to upscale travellers.

Hilton International, for example, has identified the spa as a key element to bring in luxury travellers over and beyond the traditional appeal of the Nile and its Pharaonic treasures.

Autumn will see the reopening of its Luxor property following a $30 million renovation as a spa resort with 236 rooms including five spa suites as well as a fibre-optic lit infinity pool overlooking the Nile.
According to sales director Walid El Khayat, 40 rooms have been taken out of the fabric of the original hotel to accommodate the new spa and spa suites.

"With the most luxurious spa resort overlooking the Nile, we are aiming to change the concept of Luxor as a destination," he says.

W Doha will position itself as a market leader by bringing a new flavour to the region as the first lifestyle design hotel.

"We will not be chasing after charter traffic, but will target elite travellers who are buying luxury and the spa experience - and our aim is a $200 average room rate to reflect this."

Citing natural partners such as the Conrad and Four Seasons in Cairo and Sharm El Sheik for those seeking combination tours, El Khayat is optimistic that Egypt as a destination can break in to the luxury market in a new way - a view that is reflected by the wealth of names opening up in both cities and resorts.

Fairmont, for instance, is reflagging the 588-room former Sheraton Heliopolis hotel following renovations and adding a Towers extension with 247 rooms, while the 552-room Fairmont Nile City is scheduled for a summer opening downtown and will feature eight dining and lounge outlets and a showcase roof terrace with outdoor pool, hot tub, function space and one restaurant.

Sofitel has also reflagged the former Sheraton Gezira while Hyatt has a Park Hyatt property in the offing this year and Kempinski is diving in to the Red Sea with a 295-room Moorish fortress design resort at Soma Bay opening in the summer.

Jetting to Jordan

Kempinski has also spearheaded a resort development in Jordan, adding a vast 10,000m² Anantara spa to its Ishtar Dead Sea resort early this year. It boasts 20 treatment rooms, 28 spa suites, ice cave, Watsu pools and outdoor therapy lounges, as well as launching in to Aqaba with a 191-room resort and, again, an Anantara spa.

According to regional director for Kempinski in Jordan, Duncan O'Rourke, the new property will give Kempinski opportunities to develop multi-centre tourism as well as position the destination as a ‘spa' experience.

"The Anantara Spa at the Kempinski Ishtar Dead Sea will be the largest spa facility in the Middle East and is set to be a huge drawcard for leisure travellers and spa aficionados," he says.

Citing the expansion of low cost carriers such as Air Arabia and Jazeera Airways and direct Aqaba services from Dubai and Amman offered by Jordanian Aviation, O'Rourke is confident of a buoyant market from the Gulf, particularly family traffic during the peak holiday season.

"Aqaba boasts stunning natural scenery, fantastic water sports and a rapidly evolving tourism infrastructure, and the resort will add significant leverage to our other properties in Jordan and contribute to the future of the tourism industry in the country," he explains.

The Gulf goldmine

But it's not only the Levant and North Africa pitching in with a range of new doors opening across the region.

Long awaited, the (now renamed) Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay soft opens in the Musandam, Oman, this month with a new brand of luxury where all 82 villas (including 10 spa villas) come with private pools and butler service. Dining includes spectacular views at the mountain top restaurant, while guests can paraglide in to the resort, if they so choose.

With Muscat's Al Bustan InterContinental hotel also set to unveil its new look and spa later in the year and the downtown Sheraton emerging from its makeover, the stage has been set for Oman to compete from a position of strength against its regional rivals.

Qatar's hotels stock is also poised to rise with Hilton and W among the debutants this year, and the latter has already thrown down the gauntlet to its Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and InterContinental neighbours prior to a summer opening, declaring its aim to position itself as the ‘leader' in Doha.

General manager Safak Guvenc says the 291-room/156-apartment hotel will set the standard for modern luxury accommodation in the city.

"The W Doha will position itself as a market leader by bringing a new flavour to the region as the first lifestyle design hotel," he says.

Among the propety's innovations will be a Bliss spa, 180 blue chandeliers in the lobby, interactive TV systems, home cinemas in the suites and the trademark W Whatever/Whenever concierge service.
Hilton, meanwhile, is offering 309 rooms with panoramic Gulf views, a dedicated conference wing, pool, spa and health club plus six restaurants and lounge outlets as its contribution while Rotana has a 380-room tower underway at the City Centre where Marriott is injecting 570 units into the Renaissance, Courtyard and Executive Apartment projects - and Shangri-La, Sofitel, Jumeirah and Millennium are additionally in the wings.

Across the Gulf and Abu Dhabi is undergoing a renaissance with Fairmont, Rotana and Banyan Tree among the first of the big names to open new resort.

Our first sell is Dubai itself with its wow factor, but after that, Atlantis, The Palm represents a destination in itself and one that can be positioned as the new Dubai.

The 400-room Khalidiya Palace Rotana Resort, Fairmont's 369-room Al Maqta resort and Banyan Tree's Al Gurm resorts are all scheduled to open in late-2008.

Rotana is also revving ahead in Dubai with its 72-storey, 480-room Rose Rotana opening on Sheikh Zayed Road this spring as the world's tallest all-suites hotel, closely followed by the 301-room Amwaj Rotana Resort at Jumeirah Beach Residence that will mark the group's first move in to the resort arena in the emirate.

Down the road, the 294-room Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina marks another new name on Dubai's hotel roster; one that has set out its stall even prior to opening in March, aiming to "surprise and delight" with innovative concepts that add a twist to conventional hospitality.

The rise of Atlantis

But it's out at sea where this year's main attraction is taking shape, with the massive 1500-room Atlantis, The Palm due to open six weeks early on September 24.

Such certainty as to a launch date is a novelty in the regional hotel market, but senior vice president sales Brett Armitage is confident Kerzner will deliver on schedule.

"We are both the developer and operator and so are building our own hotel where we can input the essentials," he says, acknowledging that such definitive planning has in fact posed some problems in that the trade has been somewhat sceptical of the promised timetable.

"It is a challenge as delayed openings are the norm in this region and there is hesitance over bookings, particularly for groups," he continues.

"However, we do have reservations and the feedback at exhibitions such as World Travel Market and International Luxury Travel Market has been sensational."

The sales pitch is certainly irresistible: first resort to open on The Palm Jumeirah's crescent; offering panoramic views of the Dubai horizon; the region's largest integrated resort with waterpark, dolphins and acres of beach and grounds; plus a large spa and meetings and event products.

"Our first sell is Dubai itself with its wow factor, but after that, Atlantis, The Palm represents a destination in itself and one that can be positioned as the new Dubai, giving tour operators something to sell again," says Armitage.

Targeting around 25% of occupancy from the regional market - particularly for the 150-strong suite segment - he revels that both a consumer and trade marketing campaign will kick off this spring with a series of sales trips and workshops as well as agent training available in both English and Arabic.

"Our reservations systems comes on line from February 1, and we will be out in strength at Arabian Travel Market and GIBTM - with a September 24 opening, we can target the Eid holidays as a big sell," he adds.

Rates have already been set, rack pricing starting from $454 a night, which Armitage suggests is a fair market proposition, particularly given the buoyancy of the Dubai hotel scene.

"We have evaluated our price points and want to give the guests a reasonable offering for a five star resort," he says, stressing that free water park entrance for guests during the first year of operation is a distinct plus point.

"We will also offer very attractive industry rates for the six months as well as bringing fam trips - a critical part of our strategy has been to adopt trade friendly practices."

There is little doubt that Atlantis, The Palm will be the must-see destination for 2008 - every wannado activity of the average holidaymaker is crammed in to the 113-acre site, from sub-lagoon and 22-storey-high suites and the168 room and suite ‘hotel-within-a-hotel' Imperial Club to Nobu, Rostang, Locatelli and Santamaria celebrity restaurants; supervised activities for children of ages including a ‘no adults' private club; designer shopping; innovative spa with 27 treatment rooms; underwater ‘ruins of Atlantis' with tunnel views; Dolphin Bay for interactive play with the marine mammals; all manner of heart-stopping rides at the 42-acre Aquaventure including a 27.5-metre drop via an acrylic tunnel through a shark-filled lagoon, plus a 5600m² conference and event centre with Palm Grove and Palm Terrace venues.

It all adds up to an attractive package with one distinct selling point for 2008 - it's new.

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