x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Yas Island calm before the swarm

Operators of the hotels and restaurants on Yas Island, the $40bn development in Abu Dhabi, fear business will remain slow until the island's attractions and amenities are finally open.

Yas hoteliers were faced with the proposition of making the island a popular leisure destination in the wake of the Formula One Grand Prix.
Yas hoteliers were faced with the proposition of making the island a popular leisure destination in the wake of the Formula One Grand Prix.

Operators of the hotels and restaurants on Yas Island, the US$40 billion (Dh146.92bn) leisure development in Abu Dhabi, fear business will remain slow until the island's attractions and amenities are finally open. The Ferrari World theme park and Yas Links golf course are under development and scheduled to open this year. A planned waterpark, shopping mall, marina and other attractions are set to open over the next few years.

Many questions remain with little clarity over when the whole development, by Aldar, will be complete. The mall was due to open next year, but was delayed by about a year because of concerns over costs. "Yas Island is a destination in the making," said Chiheb Ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. "It will have to capitalise on, and in a sense overcome, its Formula One Grand Prix success to give out the image of a permanent destination."

With the bustle of activity that took place on Yas Island during the inaugural GP more than four months ago, the island's developers and hoteliers are now having to come to grips with the realities of making a leisure destination. Thousands of spectators flooded to the island for the race, filling all of the capital's hotels, including the seven newly built lodgings on Yas Island with their 2,250 rooms.

The island's flagship property is the futuristic Yas Hotel, which straddles the racetrack and has a colour-changing LED shell. But the island is now a much quieter place and the hotels' occupancies are considerably lower, with only the racetrack and its marina open. "We expected the business to be slow," said Joe Batshoun, the general manager of Yas Island Rotana and Centro. "The first three quarters of the year were expected to not be very busy. We budgeted for that." The four-star Yas Island Hotel is charging rates from Dh500, while the three-star Centro's rates start at about Dh400.

"These are promotional rates to get people to the island, but the pricing strategy is going to be revised," Mr Batshoun said. "Things do not happen overnight. They are brand-new hotels. "This is a very fast-track project. By the end of the year things are going to look fantastic. It is going to take a little bit of time for things to pick up. We are not going to be able to pick up until most of the components are in place."

Jim Hawthorne, 55, a site manager for a UK technology company who was staying at the Centro Yas Island while he worked on a project at the Abu Dhabi International Airport, said the quality of the hotels was excellent. "It's only 10 minutes from the airport, so the travelling costs are much cheaper for the company," Mr Hawthorne said. "The prices at the hotel are quite reasonable." But he said he was baffled by the lack of amenities on the island. "I walked for more than an hour one day following the signs to get to Yas Mall, only to find that it hasn't been built yet."

With Ferrari World set for a soft opening in August and Yas Links due to open later this year, there is likely to be a pickup in visitors. "All together, the theme park and water park, the marina, which should be something like The Walk in Dubai, the beaches, should be attracting the attention of our residents as well as tourists," said Sami Asad, the chief operating officer at Aldar. "We don't have anything that is put on hold - we are progressing. We are reviewing every step - to make sure at the end we have the right product."

Some hoteliers were upbeat about the situation, with events at the track such as the GP2 Series last weekend and the V8 Supercars, starting on February 19, attracting more guests. "We are quite healthy," said Torbjorn Bodin, the general manager of the four-star Radisson Blu Hotel on Yas Island. Rezidor, which owns the brand, also has a three-star Park Inn next door. "We are almost on par with the other hotels in downtown Abu Dhabi," Mr Bodin said. "I would say it is better than expected. We see a trend that more and more people are finding their way out to Yas Island."

He said the Saadiyat link made access to the island easy, and that would improve further when the tunnel to Al Raha opened. Mr Bodin said a lot of custom was coming from people who were doing business in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and wished to stay somewhere between the two emirates. The hotels were also attracting a number of guests because they were so close to the capital's airport. "Also, the meetings and events sector has picked up a lot," Mr Bodin said. "Companies in Abu Dhabi and around are coming to Yas Island to have conferences and meetings, and that generates room nights."

@Email:rbundhun@thenational.ae