Dubai's new theme parks: a shift to mass tourism?
Theme parks styled on Bollywood, Marvel comics and The Hunger Games indicate Dubai’s direction to reach its tourism goals.Neil Churchill April 28, 2015
For the past six years the term 'theme park' in Dubai was a sore subject. It was a word that became synonymous with Dubai's financial crisis in 2008, when the emirate's property bubble burst in spectacular fashion.
Dubailand was one of the hotly-tipped developments back then; a mega-project that would hold the world's largest theme park. But in the years that have passed, the Universal Studios archway has stood lonely. Instead of welcoming visitors to a world of attractions it guards nothing, an ironic symbol of the crash.
However in the last 12 months, Dubai's prospects of finally having a theme park have turned around considerably. Unsurprisingly, both the new and re-born projects are not small, with inception level scenarios of a theme park, within a theme park, within a theme park, being the common approach. Dubai Parks and Resorts along with developer Meraas is in the process of building a 25 million sq ft, AED 10.5 billion entertainment destination in Jebel Ali, encompassing three separate theme parks: Motiongate Dubai, Legoland Dubai and Bollywood Parks Dubai. Motiongate will be a Hollywood-inspired park that will include a Lionsgate area dedicated to The Hunger Games franchise. Another part of the park will be designed to hold live performances based on the Step Up films.
Legoland will do exactly what it says on the tin, becoming the first Legoland franchise in the Middle East, while the Bollywood park will dedicate areas to famous Bollywood films and movie stars. The different themes are not random choices - Bollywood has a massive market in Dubai with Indian people accounting for 27 per cent of the UAE's population, and Indian culture prevalent.
The development is scheduled for completion in October 2016 and Dubai Parks and Resorts expects 6.7 million ticketed visits in its first full year of operation. But make no mistake, all of Dubai's new theme parks will be targeted at tourists. With a vision to receive 20 million visitors a year by 2020, Dubai is starting to shift, albeit very slowly, from high-end luxury tourism to the mass market. The park's Hotel Lapita is a sign of that; rated at four stars instead of the usual Dubai five. Speaking to Gulf News, Nikola Košutić, a research manager at Euromonitor International, said that amusement parks do not just attract tourists, but they impact on the length of their stay. He expects visitors' length of stay in the UAE to increase by four days over the next five years.
Last year, the UAE's market for theme parks was valued at AED 1.6 billion, with growth expectations of AED 3 billion by 2019. In the same time frame, the number of people expected to visit theme parks is forecast to grow from 6.2 million to 11.4 million.
Dubai Parks and Resorts will be the Middle East's largest leisure and entertainment destination when it opens. But that title may not last for long, if - and it's a big if - Dubailand completes all the developments it has on its drawing board.
The scale of Dubailand is hard to imagine. When it was first announced in 2003 it had an estimated cost of AED 64 billion. Its proposed size spread over 107 sq miles, making it twice as big as Walt Disney World in Florida, and the largest collection of theme parks in the world. Many of the projects have since been cancelled after the financial crash, and several more indefinitely shelved. But slowly, Dubailand is starting to take shape. The plans were for Dubailand to encompass six zones. Some of the mega-projects within those zones have been built and run successfully for a number of years - notably Dubai Sports City, Dubai Motor City and Global Village. Akoya Oxygen, a 55 million sq ft eco-friendly community developed by Damac, is scheduled to be completed later this year. The Trump World Golf Club, formerly Tiger Woods Dubai, is scheduled for 2017.
But it is the IMG Worlds of Adventure theme park that has begun to steal the limelight with high hopes for its completion and collaborations. Located within the City of Arabia - another part of Dubailand - it will have four themed zones: Marvel, Cartoon Network, Lost Valley-Dinosaur Adventure and IMG Boulevard. Given the popularity in recent years of Hollywood blockbusters based on Marvel's comic book characters, it's no surprise that park is the one that has garnered the most attention.
This growing bubble of theme parks indicate that Dubai is branching out into the wider tourism market. That certainly doesn't mean it is turning away from the luxury segment - these high-end hotels of the future prove that. But in order to reach its target of 20 million annual visitors by the year 2020, building more affordable hotels and introducing entertainment and destination facilities that appeal to a wider market than fine dining restaurants and rooftop bars do, are a sign of what's to come.
Once a byword for Dubai's debt problems, theme parks are becoming a beacon of Dubai's future.