x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Atlantis: what a year it was

A fire before opening day, a star-studded launch party and a huge waiting list for rooms made the Atlantis resort's first year a memorable one.

Fireworks explode over the Atlantis hotel on Palm Jumeirah during the grand opening last year.
Fireworks explode over the Atlantis hotel on Palm Jumeirah during the grand opening last year.

DUBAI // Charlize Theron was among the A-list celebrities invited to attract attention to the lavish launch party for Atlantis, The Palm last year - but it was the firework display that stole the show. During a stop on the long, red carpet, the Academy Award-winning actress echoed a popular sentiment as she tried to sum up the feast before her eyes. "I can't believe they're doing this in the middle of the sea," she said.

The party at Dubai's heart-shaped pink palace, on November 19, was attended by 2,000 guests. Star wattage including the basketball player Michael Jordan, the pop star Kylie Minogue, the actor Robert De Niro and the business magnate Sir Richard Branson. Then came the fireworks. Organisers claimed they could be seen from space. The event, said to have cost US$20 million (Dh73.5m), was a definite highlight of the first year of operation.

Ten months after that grand launch party and one year after the resort opened an Atlantis official said yesterday that the hotel was "comfortable" with the number of guests it had attracted from the Emirates and around the world. Alan Leibman, the president and managing director of the resort and its surroundings on the Palm Jumeirah, refused to reveal exactly how many guests had lain their heads on the hotel's fluffy pillows since it opened.

He would say only that the resort had maintained a high occupancy rate, with levels of 92 per cent in July and 80 per cent in August. "It is true that promotions have stimulated demand," he said, "but we are comfortable with that." Mr Leibman recalled the launch party as "a blur" as he talked yesterday about how the Atlantis changed the landscape of Dubai. "There are some great hotels along the beach in Dubai, but we recognise that different customers like different things," he said. "Customers are really making the choice here. People want entertainment, they want to have a good time, and there are a lot of experiences to offer here."

The $1.5 billion resort - a joint venture between the Bahamas-based Kerzner International and Istithmar, a subsidiary of Dubai World - opened last year just as the global economic downturn began to take hold. In the same month as the launch party, a sister resort in the Caribbean laid off 800 workers because of low occupancy rates. Five months after Atlantis opened, 70 of its staff were also let go, which the management said at the time was mostly a performance-based move relating to employee probationary periods.

Mr Leibman predicted the coming months would see occupancy levels in the high 70s. While the resort had not been immune to the economic crisis - which had a severe effect on the tourist industry, forcing a number of hotels in the emirate to cut prices and run a series of special promotions - the Atlantis team felt comfortable with the figures produced so far, he said. "There are probably some areas we can do better, and we have had a number of promotions, but we've also seen a nice trend in occupancy," he said.

There have, of course, been hiccups along the way, starting with a fire in the lobby before the hotel even opened. In its first few weeks the hotel was swamped with visitors, and diners were turned away from packed restaurants. A ruptured valve caused taps to run dry in hotel rooms and left incoming guests stranded in the lobby for hours as those checking out refused to do so without showers. "We opened in a very busy time, and we wanted to ensure the best level of service," Mr Leibman said.

Since the initial problems, he said, "the customer satisfaction scores have shown a warm and friendly response" to the services available. Yet the early crowds were not the end of the Atlantis's problems. A young whale shark, said to have been rescued after it washed into Dubai waters, raised the anger of environmentalists and animal rights groups after it appeared and was promoted as the star attraction at the hotel's Lost Chambers aquarium.

The controversy attracted worldwide media attention, prompting the Minister for the Environment and Water, Dr Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, to say the animal would be freed. Yet almost 12 months later, amid renewed calls for its release, the whale shark remains on display. One condition of yesterday's interview with Mr Leibman was that The National would not pose questions about the shark. According to Mr Leibman, while the hotel is seeing normal traffic of tourists from Europe, a large number of those staying come from the GCC, and it has also been exposed to a newer market from Russia and India.

"We also have a lot of repeat Dubai customers who want to experience the Palm," he said. Reeling off restaurant names such as Nobu, Ronda Locatelli and Rostang, Mr Leibman said half the intrigue for guests was to see what it was all about. A large part of this can be given to the added extras within the resort, namely Aquaventure and the Lost Chambers, which allow visitors to experience water slides that travel through the shark tank or tour an aquarium that is home to more than 6,500 fish and 11 million litres of water.

According to Atlantis figures, the last year has seen 650,000 visitors to Aquaventure and one million visitors to the Lost Chambers. "The Dubai brand is very strong," Mr Leibman said. nsamaha@thenational.ae