The Dubailand sales center, seen behind the gate, touts what the theme park is supposed to become, promising dinosaurs and spaceships, Spiderman and Shrek. Two live tigers prowl a glass enclosure next to the reception desk. But it is now unclear when or if much of it will ever get built..
(photo credit: AP)
Walk through the grand arched entrance of Universal Studios' Dubai theme park, and you step into... wind-swept desert.
No Hollywood thrill rides, no ticket kiosks, no
studio back lots. Even the guard house and the construction office sat
empty during a recent visit.
The planned park is part of a vision by Dubai officials to turn
a patch of sand on the edge of the Mideast city-state into Dubailand -
a vast amusement complex twice the size of Walt Disney World studded
with theme parks including Universal Studios, Six Flags and Legoland,
along with resorts, the world's biggest shopping mall and the first
golf course designed by Tiger Woods
It is now unclear when or if much of it will ever get built.
Dubailand has hit the harsh economic realities of the global downturn,
much like the rest of Dubai, which once seemed unstoppable in its drive
to build the biggest, the tallest, the most extravagant.
"At this point, it's kind of hard to sell," Bobby
Sarkar, a real-estate analyst at Al Mal Capital in Dubai, said of the
Dubailand project. "Obviously it's not feasible currently."
Dubailand was conceived at a time when cash was readily
available and the pint-sized emirate was expanding rapidly, building
man-made islands, ever-taller skyscrapers and gleaming luxury housing.
Now in the world economic crisis, easy credit has disappeared, and
Dubai faces crippling debt and a glut of brand-new real estate.
Thousands of foreign workers who flocked here seeking higher-paying
jobs are pouring out of the city as layoffs mount.
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"Was Dubailand a sound idea? In part yes," said
David Camp, director at ERA Aecom, whose consulting firm was involved
in early plans for the site. "But it got carried away, like most of
Dubailand was launched six years ago as part of the emirate's
push to more than double its tourism numbers to 15 million visitors by
2015. The hope was that their dollars, euros and riyals would keep the
economy chugging ahead despite the emirate's dearth of oil reserves.
The project sprawls over more than 259 square kilometers of
desert - bigger than Orlando, Florida, home of some of America's most
famous amusement parks.
A few parts have been built, including a humble outlet mall and
a fairground open only during the cool winter months. A sales center on
the outskirts of the site touts what Dubailand is supposed to become,
promising dinosaurs and spaceships, Spiderman and Shrek. Two live
tigers prowl a glass enclosure next to the reception desk.
But much of what is promised appears to be stalled and running
well behind schedule. One of the more extravagant ideas - an artificial
snow park housed under a glass dome - has quietly disappeared from the
project's Web site.
Dubailand senior vice president Muhammad al-Habbai said in a
brief written statement to The Associated Press that "there is no
change to the vision of Dubailand, and we can reaffirm that all our
projects will be developed and delivered to completion." He gave no
time frame, saying only that the project "was designed as a phased
development to be built over a number of years."
Neither Dubailand nor its overall developer Tatweer made officials available for interviews.
The idle appearance of the Universal Studios site suggests it
will not open next year as advertised at the sales center. Universal
Studios' parent, NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.,
referred questions to Tatweer, which said only that work was
Ssix Flags, the New York-based amusement park chain, said plans
for its first Mideast park were "moving forward" but provided no
additional information. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in
The Tiger Woods-designed golf course will not open as planned
this year. Woods recently told The AP the project was delayed and is
"out of my hands."
Dubailand said "consistent progress continues" at the course.
Three of the 18 holes are completed, which it said confirms its
commitment to the project.
Union Properties, a local company building the world's first
Formula One theme park at Dubailand, said in March the racing-themed
project would be pushed back a year to 2010 because of a lack of
funding. Analysts at Mideast bank EFG-Hermes have speculated the
project could be dumped altogether.
The opening of the Legoland park is expected to be pushed back
two years from its original 2011 target, said Sally Ann Wilkinson, a
spokeswoman for Merlin Entertainments Group, a British amusement-park
operator that contracted with Tatweer to build the park.
For the international brands, Dubailand must have looked like a great opportunity.
"Around Dubai, and I'm talking about a radius of more than 3,000
miles, there are no major theme parks. Given that, it is a good idea to
have a world-class theme park in the Middle East," said former Dubai
resident and amusement-park enthusiast Stefan Zwanzger, who blogs about
the industry at Thethemeparkguy.com. "I'm not sure it makes sense to
build 10 or 11 theme parks at about the same time."
The deals were typically structured as licensing agreements
that left the international companies with little financial risk,
according to regulatory filings and analysts. Partnering companies in
effect got paid while gaining a toehold in a part of the world with a
booming population and little competition.
But they also left at least part of their reputations in the
hands of Tatweer, a company linked to the emirate's ruler that is now
Complicating problems for Tatweer is its planned merger with
another Dubai developer, Emaar Properties, which declined to comment on
Dubailand. The plan calls for publicly traded Emaar to swallow up
Tatweer and two sister companies in a deal widely seen as stemming from
Dubai's real-estate bust.
But industry observers say the slump could also be a blessing, giving Dubai a chance to rethink its priorities.
"What Dubai thought they'd done was create this everlasting
growth market.... The world was booming. Whatever crazy idea you came
up with, people said, 'Yeah I'll buy it,'" said Camp, the consultant.
"The fundamental issue is Dubai had far too grandiose ideas for
far too short a time," he said. "It was a bit like a toddler trying to
do a 100-meter sprint rather than trying to just walk around the
furniture a bit."
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