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Thu 31 Aug 2006 08:00 PM

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Hotels 2020: A report from the future

Regular columnist and Dubai-based hotel industry consultant, Guy Wilkinson provides us with a tongue-in-cheek preview of what the future may hold for the Middle East tourism industry of 2020

Dubai, August 2020. A friend of mine just got back from one of those sub-space flights you can get in Ras Al Khaimah these days. Apparently he considered the US $100,000 well spent, for an intimate glimpse of the stars from 100km above earth, a taste of weightlessness and an almighty rush at take off! He tells me the RAK spaceport is worldclass, and now that the place has become almost as well known as Dubai was 20 years back as a resort destination, there were plenty of great hotels to choose from during the week of preflight training.

Although he was tempted to stay at one of those ubiquitous EasyHotels, just to get a taste of pod-style accommodation, he opted instead to try something more authentic for the region, and stayed at the elegant Shaza Resort.

He tells me the railway journey back to Dubai World Central was fantastic. It was the express that just goes whistling through the stations at Umm Al Quwain, Ajman, Sharjah and old Dubai without stopping.Who would have thought, years ago, that you could sit in total comfort checking your holomails, while a bullet train whisks you from RAK to Dubai in 15 minutes?

Of course, these new mainline trains are not the problem. Nowadays,with all the airline security, it’s much easier just to get a GCC visa, and go everywhere by train.

Your typical sales rep can now take a train from Jeddah, say, to Manama via Dammam using the Landbridge, then across the Friendship Causeway to Doha, on down to Abu Dhabi and right round the coast to Muscat, Salalah, Aden and back round to Jeddah.

No, the problem is when you get out of the main stations and start using these metro systems. I mean,whose great idea was it that every new real estate project should have its own light rail network?

I know they originally helped reduce the road traffic (and imagine, they were still using petrol engines in those days!), but they created new challenges. Leave aside the fact that once you get off the Purple Line at City of Arabia, say, you then need to pay an extra fare to use their own system, it’s those few minutes of walk down to the office building that just happens to be furthest from the station, that really kills you.

I know a lot of businessmen who have shelled out to buy one of those new suits with the personal climate control. I mean there’s no way you can arrive at a meeting without being drenched in sweat, especially in a typical Dubai summer, unless you’ve got one.

It’s a bit non-PC to say so, I know, but there’s also the matter of the type of people you see on the metro.Of course, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get around town, but that means the great majority of people who use it are those who don’t have a car.

Which brings me on to another gripe: unintelligible tourists. I guess it was inevitable, what with Dubai’s enthusiasm for building hotels and theme parks and all, but they should have anticipated some of the attendant consequences.

I was invited for a drink at one of those quaint three-star beach hotels along the strip at the Waterfront a few nights ago, and I couldn’t find a single person who spoke Arindi. Everyone was speaking Italian! Don’t you find that a bit odd, especially as the UAE now has its own official language that tourists are encouraged to learn? My friend was only in RAK for a week, but he could say ‘yom tikke’ as well as anyone.

The thing is that all these charter flights coming in through World Central for the theme parks and beach districts are creating little neighbourhoods where you just have to speak the local lingo to get along.

I guess you could say it started with the Chinese community at International City, but now it’s like the United Nations.This Italian quarter I went to (great pasta, by the way) is full of Venetians.

Many of them operate the boats that go out to the Palms and The World.

Let me tell you, if I had a crystal ball back when they were still building the Palms, I’d have bought myself a flotilla of those hover-abras that you see everywhere. I’d have made a fortune! I was speaking to this chap called Luigi, and he told me…

Well, enough of that. I can’t share all my good tips with you, can I?

Ok, I know this column is supposed to be about hotels, so I’ll get to the point. A lot has changed since I was first a hospitality consultant in Dubai.

Think of it.Dubai went mass market, for a start. I know we’ve still got exclusive zones, but let’s face it;we’re not doing things the way we used to.

Time was, when most tourists were FITs.Now, we’ve got back-to-back charter flights and the majority of the tourists are big groups on allinclusive packages.Occupancies are great, but the room rates we were earning when Dubai had the world’s number one RevPar (when was that, 2005?) are long gone.

And then they passed the law allowing street restaurants and bars to be licensed. Newcomers to our industry may not know there was a time when hotels were the only places you could get a drink and catch a live band. Now you see them everywhere. And of course hotel outlets have lost much of their importance in our society, let alone our industry, meaning rooms revenues have become the key driver.

And then even the most conservative of the other GCC countries started creating those ‘special tourist zones’, resulting in intense competition for Dubai and making Club Med the most ubiquitous brand in the region.Not to mention the fact that the local trades unions really started to get some power in the hotel sector, in large part due to the influx of local national employees, driving staff costs up.

I remember the golden age, when being an hotelier was simple. Bring back those times! Guy Wilkinson is a hotel industry consultant based in Dubai. For more information, e-mail: guy@wilkinsonline.com


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