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Sun 3 Sep 2006 04:00 AM

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Racing ahead

Fast cars, galloping thoroughbreds and world-class athletes are contributing to a new wave of tourism in the region. Sports tourism is the latest niche market bringing in the crowds

|~|Golf.jpg|~|sports tourism is now a tool to achieve many things — to make money, create thousands of new jobs and even help change cultural perceptions.|~|Sports tourism is a multi-billion dollar business, according to Sport Business Group Ltd. In its report entitled, The Business of Sport, the group describes this type of tourism as one of the fastest growing areas of the global travel industry and portrays sport tourists themselves as passionate and high-spending.

“[The sports tourist’s] direct benefit to a destination is cash — their indirect benefit can be years of follow-on tourists. Sport tourism is now a tool to achieve many things — to make money, create thousands of new jobs and even help change cultural perceptions,” the report states.

Little wonder then, that countries in the Middle East are investing heavily in attracting international sporting events. Governments around the region are developing the facilities and infrastructure to entice travelling golfers, scuba divers and skiers, and to be able to host sporting events that will attract international fans.

“The size of the events now being staged in the region means there is an impact on visitor figures across all sectors — corporate, leisure, the participants and organisers themselves, as well as government bodies and dignitaries,” says Tom Rowntree, vice president, sales and marketing for InterContinental Hotels Group in the Middle East and Africa.

“There is no denying that a strong correlation exists between a major sporting event being held and a spike in occupancy rates.”||**||Competitive Qatar|~|DWC2.jpg|~|sports tourism is now far more organised.
Whereas previously only a few sports events took place, now there are many more happening all year round.|~|Qatar already hosts more than 80 international sports events every year, including the Qatar Masters Golf, the Qatar Open Tennis Championships, the Superbike World Championships, two major international athletics championships and top flight powerboat racing. Football is also gaining popularity in Qatar, and the InterContinental Doha estimates that football teams and associated events now take up around 2000 room nights per year.

This year, however, the biggest event in Qatar’s sporting calendar will be the Asian Games, which will be held from December 1-15. With 10,500 athletes and team officials from 45 countries across Asia descending on Doha to compete in 40 sports events, the Asian Games is second only to the Olympic Games and it is hoped that the event will put Qatar on the international sporting map.

“The hosting of the Asian Games is showcasing Qatar to the international world,” says Raki Phillips, director of sales, The Ritz-Carlton, Doha.

“The government is pumping millions of dollars into upgrading the airports and other facilities, and they are investing in global advertising to increase interest in the destination.”

Indeed, in preparation for the Asian Games, a number of multi-million dollar projects are underway to bring Doha’s infrastructure up to standard, with investment in everything from new roads to new hotels and leisure facilities.

“In order to accommodate the thousands of guests and participants, and the high demand on Qatar as a high-quality destination for sports in the future, many more hotels will be opening by the end of the year,” says Ranya Abu-Sharar, head of communications for Qatar Tourism Authority.

“The Asian Games will enable Qatar to host more international sports events in the coming years through the amazing infrastructure that it will leave behind,” she adds.||**||Revving up|~|Chris-White-2.jpg|~|The emirate of Ras Al Khaimah is aiming to become an adventure and sports destination, says White.|~|Also developing its infrastructure is Bahrain, as it strives to become the home of motor sport in the Middle East. Around 50,000 spectators flock to the Bahrain Grand Prix each year and in response the hospitality industry in the country is undergoing steady expansion, with an additional 3305 rooms predicted to be operational by 2008, according to research by HVS International.

Marriott International, for instance, is planning to open the Marriott Executive Apartments in Manama next year and the Renaissance Bahrain Amwaj Islands Hotel in 2008; Novotel has a 200-room property under construction in the country’s capital, due to open in 2007, and the Durat al Bahrain Resort and Zallak Resort are both set to open in 2008, to name but a few.

With all these new developments coming up, existing hotels will face fierce competition if they are to continue to attract their share of sports enthusiasts. But to the victor the spoils; and those hotels that experienced the five-day thrill of the Grand Prix in March this year know that the rewards are great.

The InterContinental Hotels Group’s properties in Bahrain reported good figures surrounding the Grand Prix, with 100% occupancy for the five-day period of the event, as well as an increase in the number of guests visiting the properties’ food and beverage outlets, according to Rowntree.

“Staging the Grand Prix has, and will [continue to] have an amazing impact on our occupancy rates in the country. This first-class event is helping to secure Bahrain’s place on the tourism map,” he says.||**||Leading the pack|~||~||~|Dubai has, of course, led the pack when it comes to sports tourism, having launched the Dubai World Cup, the richest horse race in the world, in 1996. The calendar of sporting events in Dubai now also includes International Power Boat Racing, Pedigree Camel Races, the Dubai Desert Golf Tournament, Dubai Tennis Championships and Dubai Rugby Sevens.

“With Dubai’s rising status as the sports capital of the region, sports tourism is undoubtedly becoming bigger by the day,” says Wael Elbehi, head of sales & marketing, Coral Deira, Dubai & Coral Boutique Hotel Apartments.

“Besides the increase in the volume of business, sports tourism is now far more organised. Whereas previously only a few sports events took place, now there are many more happening all year round,” he says. “Our share of this segment has also grown considerably over the period. At the moment, 10-15% of our business comes from this sector.”

Building on the city’s current infrastructure, Dubai’s government is in the process of developing Dubai Sports City, which is expected to be ready by 2007 and will cover almost 5km² of land within the Dubailand development.

The city will also feature two international five-star hotels, one situated adjacent to the stadiums, the shopping mall and the main commercial hub while the other, a boutique hotel, will be situated close to the academies and within easy reach of the Victory Heights residence, the country club and The Dunes golf course.

“The Dubai Sports City is a great draw for every sports fanatic and professional out there. When the project is completed, Dubai will be [looking to host] big-scale tournaments in football, rugby and cricket, and once it is operational we might have an influx of fans and athletes staying at our hotel,” says Hussein Hachem, general manager at the Al Murooj Rotana Hotel and Suites.

“Among Al Murooj’s guests at the moment, sports such as rugby, polo and especially golf are in high demand,” he continues. “The reason for this is that we are primarily a business hotel and sports like these appeal to the social aspect of business, where businessmen can meet and network while on the golf course.”

Indeed, golf is the bastion of the sports tourism offerings at most of Dubai’s five-star hotels. Despite being a mainly corporate hotel, The Fairmont Dubai, for example, has been affiliated with the Dubai Desert Classic Tournament since 2003. “We work closely with the PGA European Tour Office in the UK and we offer special golf packages to PGA players,” confirms Nives Deininger, the hotel’s director of group sales.

Located in Dubai Media City (DMC), the Radisson SAS Hotel DMC is only a short distance from both the Emirates and Montgomerie golf courses, and it too is keen to appeal to golfing execs. “Our location provides an ideal opportunity to develop additional weekend business from this segment,” says Craig Senior, regional director of sales & marketing, Rezidor SAS Hospitality. “We hope to position the hotel as the number one choice for the weekend golf market.”

Radisson DMC might have competition for that title, however. Also located close to several golf courses, Bavaria Executive Suites Dubai is planning to offer golfing getaways. Being just a short drive from Ski Dubai, Laure Morvan, the hotel’s marketing executive, believes there will also be a market for ski packages.

“We anticipate that the main feeder markets for our sports facilities and sports packages will be the US and Europe — especially the UK and Germany — as well as the rest of the Middle East,” says Morvan. “Also, sports coaches can bring their basketball, football or other teams for winter training camps from December to April,” she adds.

In the UAE capital, hotels are also keen not to be left behind in the race for sports tourism business. The Millennium Hotel Abu Dhabi, for example, is keen to take advantage of this rapidly developing market, having recognised the segment’s potential as a particularly lucrative market, according to Alaa Al Ali, the hotel’s director of sales.

“The sports tourism market is a fast growing segment for our hotel at the moment, and we are starting to focus on it now,” Al Ali says. “We are targeting this segment more, with facilities and special offers that will appeal. For example, we can offer special long-term rates for people staying the entire duration of a tournament, or special meals for the players.”

Meanwhile, lesser-known emirates such as Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah are also actively striving to develop sports tourism. Plans for several sports venues will soon be unveiled in Fujairah, including the construction of a stadium on the city’s Corniche, the development of water sports facilities in the north of Fujairah, and the launch of six new tennis courts in the city’s central sports complex.

“The developments in Fujairah will help to attract more sports tourism in the region and, although the Al Diar Siji hotel is not a beachfront property, we will still benefit from this increase in demand,” says Fouad Melhem, the hotel’s general manager. “Having sports facilities available in and around our hotel will play a major role in building our reputation, as not only a business hotel but also as a five-star leisure destination,” he adds.

Ras Al Khaimah is also developing its sports tourism facilities. The northern emirate is busy developing a mountain tourism resort, called Jebel Jais, which will offer winter sports, including skiing and snowboarding.

Meanwhile, golfing in the emirate is also developing fast, following the success of the Tower Links golf course. The Al Hamra Golf Club is currently under development at the coastal resort of Al Hamra Fort, and will offer an 18-hole championship course as well as a nine-hole academy course, when it opens for tee times later this year.

The development will also boast three club house buildings, including a Lagoons sports bar, a fine dining restaurant and a summer terrace.

According to Chris White, general manager of Al Hamra Golf, Ras Al Khaimah’s cheaper green fees and accessibility will prove a big draw for golfing enthusiasts.

“With the Emirates Road, Ras Al Khaimah is now only 45 minutes from Dubai. There are three other golf courses being developed here, and with the mountain backdrop it makes it a desirable place to play,” White says.

“What Ras Al Khaimah is aiming for is to become an adventure and sports destination, and it is trying to develop its natural resources, such as the mountain, sea and beaches. It takes a lot of vision to see through the dust and the rubble,” White admits.

The development of the sports tourism infrastructure across the Middle East may have a wide-reaching impact, creating a ripple effect that could prove to be beneficial to the tourism industry throughout the region, according to InterContinental’s Rowntree.

“Tourists, who perhaps would not have looked at holidaying in the region before, do so now thanks to the wonderful world-class sporting action that is staged here,” he points out. “When they get here, they are impressed with what they see and are keen to see more of this beautiful part of the world.”||**||

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