Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Destinations with a difference

Original Article

Larger than life: The lobby of
the $1.5 billion Atlantix The palm
Jumeirah, where the room rates
are being quoted from about $450
a night to $25,000 for a luxury
It used to be that people in search of an exotic holiday would travel to remote destinations – Kenya, Singapore, Egypt – in search of natural beauty, hoping to immerse themselves deeply in a cultural experience.

Once there, they would stay in hotels that provided certain comforts of home as well as accommodation, entertainment and meals. Today, that concept has been turned on its head, as hoteliers aim to transform their properties into the sort of all-encompassing destination that guests will see no need to leave.

Back in the 1930s, Raffles in Singapore and the Treetops Hotel in Kenya provided a unique location for their rich and famous guests to have an alternative experience.

Treetops, near the township of Nyeri, started out as a tiny two-room dwelling in a fig tree. Situated 1,966 metres above sea level on the Aberdare Range, from its humble beginnings in 1932 it offered guests a view of Mount Kenya and a chance to get up close and personal with the local wildlife.

The hotel was initially designed to provide a relatively safe and comfortable tree-top hunting platform. But that humble two-room treehouse has grown into a 50-room hotel, one including elevated observation lounges and ground-level photographic hides, where guests can huddle to watch as wild animals stop to drink at nearby waterholes.

The hotel hit the media spotlight because it was where Princess Elizabeth was staying when she learned of the death of her father, George VI on Feb 6, 1952. Soon afterwards, Treetops’s reputation quickly spread as the world’s elite flocked there to experience a true Kenyan adventure.

More recently, hotels have taken an extreme turn by adding more fabricated attractions. In the process, they have morphed into elaborate, self-contained reproductions of real destinations.

Although all of Las Vegas beckons, one never really needs to leave the Bellagio, which is famous for its fountains show – set to classical music on a mini-lake – and also offers the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, serene pools and courtyards, five-star restaurants, nightclubs, a full shopping mall, vast gambling facilities and a theatre housing Cirque de Soleil’s O performance.

And when Sol Kerzner, the billionaire owner of Kerzner International – the company behind the US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) Atlantis The Palm resort – first introduced Sun City in South Africa, the company’s trademark corporate motto “blow away the customer” transformed the definition of “destination hotel”.

The mould-breaking fantasy hotel and resort offered guests the chance to engage in exotic activities such as elephant riding, archery and clay pigeon shooting, all within the same complex. The hotel also focused on attracting families by offering special packages and a wide range of activities for children.

But where Las Vegas, Sun City and Disneyland have led the way, Dubai is now following. As Gerhard Hardick, the chief operating officer of Roya International, a regional hospitality consultancy, sees it, the city has to up the ante.

“Unlike Egypt, where there are other attractions for tourists like the pyramids and artefacts,” said Mr Hardick, “Dubai has no choice but to focus its attention on building extraordinary hotels which will have tourists travelling here just to see them.”

Dubai has already set an ambitious target of attracting 15 million tourists by 2015, so reinventing itself is crucial.

“Hotels are a major part of our business,” said a spokesman from the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). “And making sure that we have a variety of unique hotels with interesting concepts will further boost tourism business.”

And even though the self-contained concept of destination hotels has been around since the 19th century, developers in Dubai are going one step further.

“In order for Dubai to attract tourists from the GCC and Asian markets, our studies show that the novelty factor plays a very important role in luring them in,” said Rohit Talwar, the chief executive of Fast Future, a UK-based tourism consultancy. “So that’s why it’s very important to kept the wow factor alive.”

One major example is the indoor Ski Dubai slope inside the Mall of the Emirates, which is proving to be a major draw for tourists.

“One of the reasons I decided to visit Dubai is to see this ski slope inside a mall. The idea was very new to me and I also thought it was practical to ski and then shop,” said Shady Ezzat, 26, an engineer from Egypt.

Ski Dubai is the kind of over-the-top attraction that destination hotels are seeking to pack the tourists in. Kerzner International, which is bringing its successful Bahamas Atlantis concept to Dubai, is to feature a huge water park, shark lagoon and dolphinarium – in addition to 1,539 rooms and 17 restaurants, including the famed Japanese eatery, Nobu – across more than half of the 114-hectare Atlantis project on the man-made Palm Jumeirah.

“Like the Burj Al Arab hotel, this is another icon for Dubai,” said Alan Leibman, Kerzner International’s president and managing director. “We are planning to become one of the landmarks in the emirate that people from all over the world would come to see.”

Room rates at the new facility are being quoted from about $450 a night for a standard to $25,000 for the 924 square metre Bridge Suite. The project is a 50-50 joint venture between Kerzner International and Istithmar, a subsidiary of Dubai World.

Without giving specifics, Kerzner International reports year-round occupancy rates at the Bahama Atlantis are “high”. Such massive projects worked for Dubai, said the DTCM spokesman, because they delivered better returns and had the potential to help reach the emirate’s lofty tourism targets.

Destination hotels in places such as Las Vegas and the Caribbean rely on gaming and casino revenues, something Dubai must do without. But gaming revenue at the Atlantis in the Bahamas has never been significant, Mr Leibman said.

“We never planned to have one; it’s not a major part of our business,” he said. “Our market research really came from our presence in Dubai at the Royal Mirage. From that, we had a pretty good idea about what the market here demands.”

Another major project pioneering the way for destination hotels is Dubailand, a spread of 45 gigantic mixed-used projects totalling an investment of Dh235bn. The project’s master developer, Tatweer, believes Dubailand will attract 40,000 visitors a day.

Dubailand’s largest project will be Bawadi, which is to include one of the world’s largest hotels, the Asia Asia, with 6,500 rooms covering more than 55 hectares.

“The hotel will have an Asian theme, which means there will be Asian shops, a floating market like the one in Thailand, and a ‘Great Wall of China’ roller-coaster ride,” said Arif Mubarak, the chief executive of Bawadi, a member of Tatweer Group based in Dubai.

Although Mr Mubarak declined to reveal the name of the hotel operator, he said the selection had already been made. He added Asia Asia would employ about 12,000 people, compared to a standard 250-room hotel that employs about 400 staff.

The Bawadi masterplan for the surrounding area aims to make it the longest hospitality and retail strip in the world, a 10km stretch that will add 51 hotels, 60,000 rooms and 370 hectares of retail space to Dubai at a total investment of Dh200bn.

“A year ago, the investment figure for the project was Dh100bn and we have now doubled it because we want this project to stand out from any other,” said Mr Mubarak.

The hotel will feature an extravagant twice-daily theatre production that has not yet been made public, as well as a theme park area, a tram system and a man-made river where guests can ride in Chinese junks.

“The hotel will also be divided into a five-star and four-star section, so we can reach both segments of the market,” said Mr Mubarak, adding that rates had not yet been fixed.

He declined to give details about investment in the hotel itself, or the returns it would generate.

“With a project on such a large scale the returns will not come instantly,” said Mr Mubarak. “By targeting people from the GCC, North Africa and Asia, [the project] will be successful because we are providing them with all the fun family holiday activities in one convenient, well-planned area.”

Such projects are a far cry from a mere treehouse in a fig tree. But for developers, Dubai’s newest destination hotels are on the cutting edge.

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