Dubai’s fantastical ambitions have placed a city that was once an obscure backwater firmly into the global consciousness and among the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
Now another goal is about to be tested as two theme parks open in the coming months: can the emirate become the Orlando of the Middle East?
First up is the 1.5 million square foot IMG Worlds of Adventure, which will open on August 15.
Purporting to be the world’s largest wholly indoor theme park, it will feature rides based on characters from Cartoon Network and Marvel Entertainment but will soon be dwarfed in scale by Dubai Parks and Resorts, a 25 million square foot development (about the size of 230 cricket pitches) near Jebel Ali that is slated to open in October.
These are two of seven parks under development in Dubai, with Warner Bros World, Six Flags and Twentieth Century Fox World also due to be operational before this decade.
Matching Orlando will be some feat, though. Located in Florida’s Orange County, its seven theme parks, which include Disney and Universal Studios, are all in the world’s top 25 by popularity. Their 73 million visitors generated $21.1 billion in revenue in 2014, consultants AECOM and PwC estimate.
To place that in context, Dubai welcomed 14.2 million overnight visitors in 2015, up 7.5 per cent year-on-year to remain on track to reach its target of 20 million visitors in 2020, although visitor numbers in the first three months of 2016 grew at a more pedestrian 5.1 per cent to 4.1 million.
The dirham’s prolonged strength, via its dollar peg, has made Dubai much more expensive for European tourists, a key source market.
Yet Dubai has demographics and geography in its favour – 4 billion people reside within a four-hour flight versus the 1 billion living within eight hours’ flying time of Orlando.
“There’s no reason why Dubai can’t challenge Orlando in next five to 10 years as the new capital of entertainment … where (people living in) Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa will travel to instead of making the long haul to the US,” Lennard Otto, IMG Worlds of Adventure chief executive, told a conference recently.
His park will charge $81.66 (300 dirhams) for adult tickets and $68 (250 dirhams) for children. “The macroeconomic data points to a very positive potential outcome,” Otto added. “We have high disposable income, very low unemployment, a great youth population.”
Focus on families
Dubai has made families a focus for its tourism sector, offering developers tax incentives to build mid-range hotels and expanding leisure facilities to help get more people to visit and convince them to stay longer too.
“The UAE is creating a multi-faceted destination so there will be a handful of reasons someone would want to visit. It’s increasing the attractiveness of the destination overall,” said Margreet Papamichael, AECOM Director of Economics.
Theme parks also appear a good prospect, with the industry buoyant despite the lingering effects of the global financial crisis. Attendance at the world’s top 25 parks rose from 187 million in 2006 to 236 million in 2015, AECOM estimates.
The $2.86 billion (10.5 billion dirham) Dubai Parks and Resorts (DPR), which is listed on Dubai Financial Market, provides a breakdown of its costs and likely revenues, perhaps mindful of investor scepticism following the failure of Dubailand’s grandiose plans of the previous decade that once included being home to about a dozen parks.
But first the fun part: DPR will boast more than 100 rides across three theme parks - motiongate Dubai, LEGOLAND Dubai and Bollywood Parks Dubai. A fourth, Six Flags Dubai, is under construction and will open in late 2019.
Motiongate’s rides will be based on films by three Hollywood studios – Sony Pictures, DreamWorks and Lionsgate – such as the likes of Shrek, Ghostbusters and The Hunger Games; globally recognized names to appeal to an international audience.
The three parks are separate, but integrated, so visitors can pay to visit one or more; daily ticket prices are still to be announced.
Almost two-thirds of DPR, majority owned by Dubai and which counts Qatar among its other backers, will be indoors and all queues will be air-conditioned.
DPR forecasts it will generate $653 million (2.4 billion dirhams) in revenue in 2017, its first full year of operations when it expects to attract 6.7 million visitors. That would catapult it into the world’s top 20 and put it second only to Euro Disney in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
“Some people have made very optimistic projections around attendance to these parks. Whether or not that’ll be proven true, I really don’t know,” said AECOM’s Papamichael.
She cited the success of Dubai’s retail sector, which has confounded dire warnings of over-supply, as evidence experts can get it wrong.
“The Middle East proved itself to be significantly different from any other market,” added Papamichael.
DPR has still to announce an official opening date and its 15,000 workers are readying it for the all-crucial first day.
“While it’s a theme park project of a scale never been done before in the region, the component rides have been tried and tested elsewhere so the execution risk is more manageable,” said Philip Shepherd, a partner at PWC.
“You only get one chance with these parks. You’ve got to make sure everything is invested into ensuring those first guests have the best experience. Now with Twitter, Facebook and social networking whatever happens will be out there very quickly.”
PwC forecasts Dubai’s overall theme park addressable market, which includes tourists and residents with sufficient disposable income, will grow from 26.6 million in 2015 to 45.4 million in 2021 and DPR chief executive Raed Al Nuaimi was bullish about his company’s prospects.
“In the beginning, less than 30 per cent of people who visited Orlando visited a theme park. We’re looking at less penetration, although it will still be a profitable business,” said Nuaimi.
“We’re still short in terms of supply of theme parks … I think we will become even better than Orlando. Dubai has always been proving people wrong.”