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Wed 26 Sep 2007 02:24 PM

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Supersize me, you, everyone

Days of discreet high-end tourism appear to be over as new hotels compete to outdo one another in grandeur.

Small, it seems, is no longer beautiful, at least in the world of high-end tourism. All around the world, resorts and hotels are competing to see who can build the biggest, tallest, most outrageous, most resource hogging developments.

The push for all this growth in epic-sized resorts is most likely the success of Dubai, which has become one of the world's highest-profile tourist destinations. Other resort owners look at Dubai's indoor ski runs, artificial islands, world's tallest buildings and plans for small country-sized theme parks and think, "We want some too."

A growing number of countries now aspire to recreate their own version of the Dubai success story, largely through the rapid construction of mega-resorts serving high spenders seeking luxury.

No longer content to cater for middle-class tourists on a yearly holiday spending $200 a night, these countries are aiming to attract tourists in a much higher income bracket. And for that, in these days of bling, you apparently need big and bold. Even Iran is getting in on the act, with the building of the US$2.4 billion Flower of the East development on Kish Island - a vast project that, when finished in 2010, will include a seven-star hotel to rival the famous sail-shaped Burj al Arab Dubai.

A new project planned for the Swiss Alps, meanwhile, will see an artificial sandy beach and tropical spa plunked down on a snowy mountain top. Next door, the US$140 million Matterhorn Glacier Paradise Project will see a 117m steel and glass pyramid built on top of the Klein Matterhorn, taking it to a height of 4,000m.

Last year, Cambodia announced that 61 offshore islands were now available to international investors to develop into a beach paradise. The government is clearly anxious to diversify tourism beyond Angkor Wat, but five of the islands have already been sold and local environmentalists fear the pristine coastline is about to be swamped by glass and steel.

In China, where domestic tourists are increasing rapidly, tropical Hainan island is rapidly being turned into a vast identikit beach resort. Yalong Bay, a special tourism national reserve on Hainan, is where most of the luxury hotels are now located.

Even in Kenya, home of the low-key eco-safari, there are plans to build three resort cities.

But with these large projects come large risks - not all of them financial. Most of these giant projects are being built with scant regard for the environmental and human cost involved. People are being forcibly relocated from their homes to make way for hotels and golf courses, and biodiversity is being trampled in the rush to build high rise resorts.

In Dubai, this may not matter - while there is bountiful wildlife in the areas nearby, few tourists come to Dubai to watch birds or explore the desert. In fact, given that most of the emirate's beaches are surrounded by construction sites, few tourists probably come to Dubai for the sand and sea either.

But places like Cambodia, Switzerland and Kenya are attractive precisely because of their natural beauty. Building mega-resorts over that beauty may attract the high-spender, but it also risks destroying the unique character of those places. Building identical cookie cutter resorts, even luxury ones, will eventually prove short-sighted as tourists tire of traveling only to find they could be anywhere in the world. And in the end, it is the local culture and people who will lose - tourist dollars are important, but these countries must find a way to lure tourists without losing their national character.

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