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Fri 12 Oct 2007 04:00 AM

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Authenticity: does it matter?

Hotel industry consultant Guy Wilkinson on the importance of authenticity in ME accommodation options.

What constitutes a truly authentic hotel? As part of a tourist experience, such a property should in my view immerse the guest in the local culture. An archetypal ‘authentic' hotel should therefore be built in the local architectural style, be staffed by local employees, serve local food in its restaurants and offer tours to local tourist sites. Agreed?

In Egypt, tourists can find such an experience at the Mena House Oberoi at the Pyramids, a former royal hunting lodge, or at two Victorian properties run by Sofitel - the Old Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, and the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, for example.

In Syria, there are now two marvellous boutique hotels converted from old houses in the historic and largely unspoiled Al Jdaidah district surrounding Aleppo's ancient Citadel, namely, the Dar Zamaria and Beit Wakil hotels.

In Lebanon, you can attend a summer music festival at the Mir Amin Palace Hotel at Beiteddine in the picturesque Shouf mountain range, once the residence of the last Emirs of Lebanon.

So a key question is, can a modern hotel be authentic? In the Gulf, where there are so few historic buildings of any kind, the argument is of little importance. There was never a Mena House, let alone a Dorchester or a Ritz, not even a caravanserai to serve the silk route, which wound its way far to the north. So what would be the nearest thing? A hotel composed of barasti huts? A tent? A Jeddah merchant's house? A fort (surely one of Oman's 500 forts would make a great hotel?).

Or a barjeel (wind tower) house? Actually, there is a most attractive guest house in Dubai's Bastakia district converted from a wind tower house - the XVA Gallery - but the souk in which it is located gives you a better taste of India than of the real Dubai.

But by the same argument, what constitutes an authentic US hotel? Only a teepee or a Spanish mission, but nothing else? Plainly, staying in an old building is not the only attribute that defines an authentic hotel experience. Think of the archetypal American hotel and you may think of Las Vegas. There, you can stay in a hotel that's pretending to be Venice, or the Pyramids, Paris or New York.

Is that an authentic American experience? Well, yes, in so much as it reflects what a cultural melting pot the US population is, that the US is the birthplace of the movie industry with all its fantasies, and that its own native American culture has long since been swamped by the multiple cultures - those of the so-called WASPs, the Irish, the Italians, and the Latinos - of generations of settlers.

So where does that put both the Gulf's existing hotel supply and the plethora of new hotel projects that are inspired by anything but local culture? Are they authentic? If you stay in a typical five-star hotel built in the Gulf during the 1980s or 1990s, you will note that it carries the hallmarks of that era - the concrete or glass box architecture, the faceless rooms floors, the multiple international F&B outlets. You will perhaps say to yourself, "this is not the real Riyadh" (or Kuwait or Doha). But you are in fact experiencing something genuine. In those days, the GCC countries were still distancing themselves from the traditional lifestyle they had led until just a few decades earlier.

They aspired to be recognized as international business hubs, with the same slick brushed aluminium airports as are found in Europe or the States, the same smooth six-lane highways, the same bland corporate hotels. So do the Marriott Jeddah or the Sheraton Kuwait offer authentic lodging experiences? In the sense that they reflect their respective communities' true aspirations at the time, yes.

You may logically refer to the new generation of hotels, from the Royal Mirage in Dubai to the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village in Doha, that feature ‘replica' heritage architecture derived as much from Morocco and Syria, as from the Gulf. Where do they fit in? Well, to be honest, the experience they offer is not authentic, but has its own value creating in bricks and mortar an experience that could only previously be found in the pages of Alf Leila wa Leila, the 1001 Nights - to the delight of local residents and foreign tourists alike.

And will those much-vaunted themed hotels at Dubai's Bawadi mega project be authentic? The Holly Bolly Hotel and the Camelot Hotel, for example? And what about the Snow Dome and the Hydropolis? Well, yes, I believe so, because the reality of Dubai (and Doha and other cities in the Gulf) is that it is more a cosmopolitan city than an Arabian one, and its true nature is to look outward and forward, rather than inward and backward. Whatever the rest of the world can do, we can do better - that's not just the motto, but the watchword by which today's Gulf investors (at least) live. And when, eventually, you will be able to stay at these hotels, you'll feel the electricity in the air that is created by such a dynamic philosophy, and that will be an authentic experience.

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