SINGAPORE // On the international Grand Prix circuit, Abu Dhabi is tucked in closely behind Singapore - the new kids on the starting grid. Comparisons between the two are plentiful: both are booming island cities, growing tourism and business hubs with a cosmopolitan blend of east and west. But when Abu Dhabi holds its first Grand Prix in November next year, it will join Singapore in a very exclusive club.
The south-east Asian city state made its debut this week, hosting the first-ever night race and offering Abu Dhabi a sneak preview of what it can expect when the Grand Prix circus comes to town. All in all, the event was seen as a resounding success. But important lessons will have been taken back to the UAE by the Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management (ADMM) delegation, not least the need to get the local population involved in and excited about the big race.
Singaporeans reacted with growing enthusiasm as the weekend went on, and the city gained publicity beyond its wildest dreams, with an estimated 500 million TV viewers worldwide. But not everything was plain sailing. With at least 40,000 of the 100,000 spectators flying into Singapore for the race, hotels across the island had geared up to cash in. Muhammad Rostam Umar, the director of communications at the Singapore Tourism Board, which covered 60 per cent of the Grand Prix costs, said: "Once we secured the Grand Prix, a lot of hotels raised their prices, some up to two or three times the normal rate.
"When we did our own research, we found that this was not particular to Singapore. So we left it up to the market to price itself." With no regulation, however, hotels suffered. Tourists chose cheaper accommodation, with only a few hotels in the city centre sold out. In the weeks leading up to the race, the Hotel Rendezvous cut its nightly rate from S$430 (Dh1,100) to S$1,000 (Dh2,560) after a lack of bookings, and the Meritus Mandarin scrapped its minimum three-night-stay rule.
Mr Umar said: "There was an element of having to understand what the demand was and how much you charge. You learn from your experiences. He added that the hotels that kept their prices at a steady limit "got a decent occupancy rate". A day after the date of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was announced, the InterContinental hotel doubled some room rates for the F1 weekend. With the number of hotel rooms in the city expected to increase only from 14,185 today to 16,662 next year, according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, rooms will be at a premium during the race.
International interest in the Singapore Grand Prix was assured because of the novelty of a night race. But locals often spoke of their indifference to the event. Despite roaming tickets being made available to locals for as little as S$38 (Dh97), many complained that the race was just a tourism- generating exercise, and that there was little interest in the sport in the city. Kevin Toh, an electrical sales assistant, said: "The thing about Formula 1 is that it is an expensive sport. Singaporeans do not want to pay so much to see a sport they do not know about. A lot of people have been put off."
Sandra Liu, a hospital administrator, said: "The children all want to see it because they see the pictures everywhere in the town. "But in a few days, it is over. Singapore will be the same again. That is why we think it is for tourists and only tourists." In an editorial in the leading Singapore newspaper, The Straits Times, before the race last week, Carl Skadian, its news editor, wrote: "Week after week, all we keep hearing about are tourists, tourism receipts, fancy watch shows, fancier boats ... Frankly, it can seem to some as if Singapore is throwing a giant party.
"Only thing is, someone forgot to invite the Singaporeans." He concluded that it was "a shame more has not been done to rouse our interest in what is going to be happening this weekend." In the end, Singaporeans turned out in droves, and those who did were treated to an the incident-packed race. Yeow Joon, a risk analyst, said: "It is the biggest sport in the world and it is two miles from where I live. It makes me proud to be Singaporean, I have to go."
Abu Dhabi's race organisers are already aware of the danger of not gaining the support of the local community. A number of taster events have already taken place in the capital, including an F1 festival and the visit last week by Kimi Räikkönen, the reigning world champion. Thomas Hofmann, ADMM's executive communications director, said: "This should not just be an event that comes here for one weekend.
"People should understand all about it, enjoy it and look forward to it. It should be brought so close that, by next year, people should feel, 'It's our race, our experience, our F1'." As well as highlighting potential problems, the race also demonstrated the benefits to a city hosting an F1 race. The Singapore Tourism Board expected its first Grand Prix to bring in at least US$100 million (Dh367m) in revenue, with incremental benefits from tourism generated by international TV coverage promising even better returns over coming years.
Mr Umar said: "Having millions of viewers watch your country on screen, looking at the landscape and landmarks - you cannot put a value on that." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org