The renaissance of Dubai’s attractions industry and its impact on the UAE
Reporting by Jeremy Schoolfield
On May 4, 2013, His Highness ShEikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, proclaimed Dubai will draw 20 million annual international visitors by 2020. At that point, Dubai was primarily known for its huge malls, beautiful beaches, and the tallest building in the world—the 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa. Now nearly four years later, the attractions industry is making significant contributions toward this lofty goal and beginning to change the perception of tourism in this rapidly growing destination.
In the latter half of 2016, four major theme parks opened in Dubai along with several other standalone attractions, offering a diverse range of experiences created by some of the industry’s top operators and innovators. These new facilities mark a resuscitation of the aggressive pre-recession plans for family entertainment here; many of those original projects were shelved, but the attractions industry in Dubai and the broader UAE is now reborn. This region has designs on being one of the top theme-park destinations in the world—“Orlando 2.0” is bandied about here often.
“Dubai is an amazing city—it defies all logic,” says Jean-Marc Bled, general manager of three attractions at Meraas Holding’s new City Walk entertainment district downtown. “His Highness has a vision. We are here to achieve this vision, and tourism will be the key.”
Tourism in Dubai grew from 10 million visitors in 2010 to 14.9 million in 2016, a rate of 33 percent. Despite a drop in oil prices contributing to the slackening of the UAE’s economic growth of late, Dubai is counting on the attractions industry to help insulate the city from macroeconomic challenges in the region.
“For Dubai to develop as a destination, it has to diversify the tourist portfolio,” says Lennard Otto, CEO of new indoor theme park IMG Worlds of Adventure, which opened in August. “Dubai has always been segmented more toward luxury retail and the beaches. That’s worked really well, but it’s not enough to sustain the tourism growth forecasted for 2020. We’ve created a year-round destination; by having more indoor attractions of this scale, people can come all year, completely unaffected by the weather. We’re also helping to drive the length of stay in the country; the longer people stay, the greater exposure to create income for shopping, hotels, and the other leisure industries. We’ve already seen that trend start—over the next three years, Dubai’s tourism landscape will completely change.”
Local Education, International Opportunities
IMG Worlds of Adventure was the first theme park built in Dubai, followed closely by Dubai Parks and Resorts (DPR), a multi-facility, outdoor destination offering Motiongate Dubai, Bollywood Parks Dubai, Legoland Dubai, and Legoland Water Park. Along with Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which debuted in 2010, these new projects are essentially building an international theme park industry in this market from scratch—all at once.
Operators say they’re educating residents on their businesses, but it takes time and patience. During holiday weekends this past year at Legoland, for instance, the transaction time for ticket buying at the front gate was much slower than the park’s standard 60-second model. Management realized visitors were asking way more questions about the park than at any of the other six Legolands around the world, because the concept of a theme park was so new; customers had to be carefully walked through all the various options before settling on a purchase.
“What we see here, parents are not used to experiencing things with their children,” says Legoland GM Siegfried Boerst. “The parents should enjoy it with their children. For a lot of people locally, that’s something new; they usually have someone else looking after their children. The guests don’t have any theme park experience. There is huge potential here, but there’s a lot of education we have to do.”
With a local population in Dubai of approximately 2.7 million and about 9 million total in the UAE, all these new projects cannot rely on local visitation alone to survive—thus the 2020 tourism commitment. Right now, Dubai is taking the build-it-and-they-will-come approach for drawing international tourists. Opening the facilities was the initial priority, and now their focus is shifting to filling them with guests from international markets.
“We have about 2 billion people in a four-hour radius,” says DPR Chief Parks Operating Officer Stanford Pinto. “There’s suddenly so much to do in a spot that’s close by and not as expensive to travel to.”
“A lot of these markets are traveling either to the Far East or the Far West to experience a theme park,” Otto adds. “We are half the distance, and we speak the native language of the surrounding areas. I think that gives us a competitive edge to create this new industry in Dubai.”
Another benefit is total support from the UAE and Dubai government officials; every operator interviewed for this story pointed out how cooperation and commitment from municipal agencies has been a key driver in opening these facilities.
“All the government entities have participated in this vision,” says Ahmed Hussain, CEO of Global Village, the multicultural festival park in Dubai that debuted in 1996. “A strong transportation system has been put in place, for example, from roads to metros to airlines.”
As the veteran theme park operator in these parts, Ferrari World might seem naturally reluctant to welcome new attractions into the market, particularly so many at once. But according to Jesse Vargas, the park’s GM, the opposite is true.
“You can look at it in the short term and say we’re competing directly with the guys down the street and it’s going to be a difficult challenge,” he says. “We see it as building an entire industry for this young and ambitious country, and we’re very proud to be a part of that.”
Vargas says what’s needed over the next several years is “collaborative competition,” where attractions throughout the region work together to create a bond with visitors.
City Walk’s Bled says cooperation is the key to ensuring new projects complement rather than cannibalize one another: “We need to be mindful of offering different experiences to our visitors. We are targeting the same people; we are talking to the same travel agents. This industry is very small, so we are better off working hand in hand rather than against each other.”
Be that as it may, the reality is there will be a great deal of pressure on all the attractions in this region—veteran, new, or forthcoming—to deliver on their own projections. How that shakes out remains to be seen, particularly if oil prices continue to impact the region’s economic growth. Dubai Parks and Resorts, for instance, has already undergone some management changes early in 2017.
“The cake is there, and it’s getting bigger, but a number of people want a slice,” says Silvio Liedtke, COO for Landmark Leisure, which operates six different attraction brands in 11 countries, including the Fun City family entertainment center chain. “Some victims will fall by the wayside in the coming years, because it’s probably an environment now where not everyone can succeed with the current amount of visitors. But we see it as an opportunity to make sure all of our parks stay relevant and sustainable.”
Expo 2020 and Beyond
Just six months after Sheikh Mohammed announced Dubai’s aggressive tourism goal, revelers took to the streets when the city won its bid to host the World Expo in 2020. The event begins Oct. 20 of that year and lasts until April 10, 2021, built around the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” It will take residence on an 1,800-acre site equidistant from downtown Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and promises to draw 25 million visitors. The Dubai government as well as the UAE attractions industry are looking at Expo 2020 as a major milestone, as it represents a chance to draw a whole new swath of people to the city and the region, exposing tourists to all these new themed entertainment offerings and causing a springboard for the future.
“Expo is a very good milestone for the city,” says Global Village’s Hussain, who is also a member of the IAAPA Board of Directors. “It will attract a lot of international tourists, and this has given a good boost to the industry. Everybody’s trying to see how we can participate and enhance the visitor experience.”
“It gives us a tangible target we’re all working toward,” adds Ferrari World’s Vargas. “It also gives us clear expectations for what the attendance numbers in the market need to be by then.”
“The way the UAE has grown over the last few years has been tremendous—about 10 years ago it wasn’t even on the map,” says DPR’s Pinto. “We have to keep that momentum going. Expo 2020 is a big milestone, but that’s not the place to stop. Tourism is always going to be the frontrunner—every effort toward that is supported [by the government]. We are taking the entire market to another level.”
“Dubai is famous for its shopping, beaches, and nightlife, but it can now be known for its leisure entertainment,” says Landmark’s Liedtke. “Hopefully, when you put it all together, Dubai can become the Orlando of the East, if not more.”
Adds Legoland’s Boerst: “If someone can build an 800-meter-tall tower, then in Dubai, anything is possible.”
More on the Way for the UAE
Major theme parks from world-renowned brands set for next several years
Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi
Opening in 2018, this indoor theme park will focus on DC Comics brands (Batman, Superman, etc.) and the studio’s own cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Scooby-Doo, etc.). The US$1 billion project will be located on Yas Island near Ferrari World Abu Dhabi. Both parks are owned by Abu Dhabi government-owned developer Miral Asset Management.
Six Flags Dubai
In July 2016, Dubai Parks and Resorts broke ground on its fifth park, Six Flags Dubai, set to open in late 2019. The park will encompass 46 acres when it opens, with another 34 acres of potential expansion space. It will offer 27 rides and attractions in six different zones. The project’s announced budget is US$700 million.
SeaWorld Abu Dhabi
Late last year, Miral announced plans to build a second new theme park on Yas Island: SeaWorld Abu Dhabi. This will be SeaWorld’s first marine-life park outside the United States, and the first in the company’s history to not include orca whales. In conjunction, SeaWorld will also open a research, rescue, rehabilitation, and return center on Yas Island, the first such facility in the UAE. The park is set to open by 2022.
What’s Happening at These Established UAE Attractions?
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi
The first theme park to open in the UAE, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is in the middle of a capital investment plan that is reshaping the park. Open since 2010, the indoor facility on Yas Island is adding three new roller coasters over a two-year period, starting with 2016’s Intamin Wing Coaster, “Flying Aces.”
Set to debut at the end of March is “Turbo Track,” an Intamin shuttle coaster that will launch guests up to 63 mph and shoot them 200 feet up and out the top of the park’s signature red roof (seen above). And then later this year comes “Mission Ferrari,” a coaster/dark ride hybrid from Dynamic Attractions.
In addition to these thrill rides, Ferrari World has increased its offerings for retail, dining, and live entertainment, and made an effort to add more themed experiences throughout the park. GM Jesse Vargas says the goal was to bring more verve to the midway and give guests places to relax and enjoy one another’s company, rather than rush from ride to ride.
“Being first in the market was a massive advantage,” he says. “There were things we could’ve done better, but it allowed us a lot of leeway to adapt and develop the product to the preferences of our clientele. There were no preconceived notions of what a theme park could, should, or had to be. We had a perfect set of circumstances to make the park what it is now. And with that came this idea that it was about how the park felt, and now we are rounding out the park with the technical aspects that make it complete, in terms of thrill and family rides.”
Global Village is a “multicultural festival park” that operates five months out of the year in Dubai near IMG Worlds of Adventure. The large, open space houses 30 pavilions that are remade each season, representing 75 different countries. These nations offer food and beverage, retail, and entertainment from their native lands, making Global Village a one-stop shop to see the world in a day.
In addition, the park offers a wide range of special entertainment, such as musical acts and a live-action stunt show, as well as fairgrounds with 33 rides and attractions.
Global Village celebrated its 20th season in 2015-16, drawing 5.3 million guests from November to April; its first two months of the current season set a record with 2.3 million visitors. Approximately 75 percent of the park’s guests are local residents.
The park was originally a small gathering downtown of just 18 pavilions, but moved to its current location in 2004 when the Dubailand project launched.