Team Leisure official offers insight into Dubai's theme park boom

A new report published by Euromonitor International for The Leisure Show Dubai 2015 forecasts that theme park revenue in the United Arab Emirates will almost double by 2019 from $470 million to $837 million. 

The country is in the early to final stages of developing 10 theme parks, two safari parks and three international museums.

The country continues to advance its theme park strategy and blaze the trail for leisure travel in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Yet with so much being built all at once, Dubai faces challenges in creating a sustainable market for the new mega parks.

Gulf News Journal sat with Phil Taylor, managing director of Dubai-based consultancy Team Leisure LLC, who will discuss “Dubai Theme Parks: Boom or Bust?” at the three-day Vision Conference, held right before the Leisure show. In his presentation he will address some of the challenges the small emirate will face but that in the end will work.  

Q. You’ve been quoted as saying if anyone has the vision, resources and power to do this it is Dubai. What types of challenges are they facing though?

A. The biggest risk isn’t the size of the market. It’s the scale of what they are trying to do at the same time.

Originally themed theme parks, for example, the concepts they are creating for the Bollywood theme park and Motiongate, are both unique. The challenge is if you are going to do it quickly you risk potentially affecting the creative process that gave rise to these amazing attractions and theme parks in other parts of the world. There is a stretch of creative resources, a stretch of talent in the region (and) in the number of outside resources needed to deliver the project. There are also specialist construction skills like "themeing," and these sorts of elements that will be stretched thin. The real challenge is just managing all the aspects of three theme parks, all at the same time.

Q. The Eurostar international report predicts that 5.5 million annual visitors will come to UAE theme parks by 2017. Is this accurate?

A. Depending on when the Dubai Parks and Resort project in Jebel Ali opens, it will take a little while for the theme parks to establish themselves and develop a full market penetration. They’ll have only just opened by 2017, so it’s difficult to see much more than 5.5 million being achieved in aggregate across the UAE, I have to say.

But, the potential is much bigger than that, and the long-term pipeline of projects means that they should continue to keep driving.

Q, Does Dubai have any competition in the Gulf Coast Countries in the theme park arena?

A. At the moment I don’t see anybody is even coming close to it. Although there are other countries that are looking at developing theme parks, Dubai is the only one that is leading with a theme park strategy in its tourism.

I’m often quick to remind people that hotels are an essential part of the infrastructure necessary to support and maintain a tourism strategy, but you need things for people to do to drive the strategy. So whether it’s cultural attractions, heritage, beaches or beautiful places, or shopping or theme parks, you need things that people can actually do to drive the tourism strategy. So in many respects, these theme parks are critical to the next stage of Dubai’s development as an international tourist destination.

Q. What other potential advantages could Dubai see by adding theme parks to its array of offerings?

A. The major advantage it brings to Dubai is it actually opens up new market segments. Quite a bit of the growth that is projected, not just for Dubai national visitors but for the UAE as a whole, is seeing a substantial sustained period of growth and that’s projected to continue for some years to come. To achieve that, they need to open up Dubai, and all of the UAE, to new markets. The nice thing about theme parks is instead of just having a luxury or high-end market appeal. They are also able to now fully appeal to the family market.

When you start looking at large-scale, international, theme park-led destinations, it’s not atypical to start thinking of three-hour flight time as the capture market. If you start thinking that way from Dubai, you start to capture a substantial amount of the Indian market and the Middle East, of course. So the potential capture market in that three-hour flight is substantial.

Q. Does there need to be more of a focus on budget resorts and accommodations for the family market?

A. There are a lot of high-end hotels in the UAE and there is a focus on the luxury travel moreso than there is on the family travel and the family tourism. The way they’ll appeal to those markets doesn’t have to be by doing low-value accommodation, though I hope there will be an opportunity for that to also increase substantially as the market develops, but by developing new products.

For example, themed hotels; they are not necessarily less expensive than a luxury hotel. They typically carry a premium because of the nature in which they are linked to the brand and the theme park, the proximity to the park, the way in which they offer a resort experience that’s wrapped around the theme park offering. That can include water parks and other elements.

Q. The government has driven a lot of these projects as opposed to private organizations. How much of a role has the government played in the success of the theme park strategy in Dubai?

A. In the Dubai Land strategy that was announced in 2003, the government very much looked to the private sector to lead and deliver on that strategy. The Dubai government set the vision and then engaged with and worked with a significant number of private partners to deliver that strategy, and it was never delivered. Not in the way it was originally conceived, and not in the way that they envisioned or hoped it would.

It really has only been by the government getting directly involved and acting as a catalyst for the development of leisure attractions and a leisure-led strategy that it is now moving forward. So, I would say the reality is that the government involvement and role in this is absolutely essential. One of the earlier weaknesses of the previous Dubai Land strategy was that it didn’t have enough of a government role in in the early stages to catalyze the strategy.

Q. How much is the weather going to impact these theme park projects?

A. I think that one of things Dubai is doing right is very actively considering that and making sure designs reflect that. It’s not just Dubai, but the UAE and the region as a whole are recognizing it has to adapt these formats and make a substantial proportion of the offering indoor. It doesn’t have to all be indoors, and at times of the year it’s beautiful to walk outdoors to enjoy the weather and the climate, but other times in the year it's essential if you are going to have an all year-round operation to build a substantial portion indoor or in a climate-modified environment. I think that’s an important part.

The essence of the story might stay the same, and the scale and talent of the storytelling might stay the same and the rides and the thrills and the experience might stay the same, but the way it’s presented has to be done.