x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

RAK scents its fortune in the wind

Emirate wastes no time starting work on preparations after being selected as host for the world's leading yacht race.

The Al Hamra village area, where sailing's biggest event could soon be based.
The Al Hamra village area, where sailing's biggest event could soon be based.

Ras al Khaimah is pressing ahead with preparations for the America's Cup sailing competition in February, discounting the possibility that its selection as designated host could yet be challenged in a New York court. The decision gives the emirate, which learnt of the move last week, an opportunity to boost its tourism and international profile, and it has set up a planning team, playing down a legal battle between the two competing clubs over various regulatory matters.

The planning body includes representatives from the RAK Government and tourist board and from the Al Hamra resort, "The base for the event will be a 22-hectare island that already exists within the Al Hamra Village lagoon," said Hilary Cormack, the manager of RAK tourism and overseer of the event's organisation. "Al Hamra Real Estate have already begun work on the infrastructure at the site, including facilities for the race participants, the media, the sponsors and the public, in accordance with America's Cup event requirement."

A computer-generated design of the event island shows that this will include three marquees, for the teams and sailmakers, and a small wharf complete with a crane to lower the boats into the water. The rest of the island will be a combination of parkland and beach. "The Al Hamra village is one of the most complete beach resorts in the UAE," she said, "and has amenities, including hotels and malls, to support the purpose-built facilities and help cater for the diverse requirements of participants and fans."

Several new hotels would help to provide more than 1,500 hotel rooms, she said. The 33rd America's Cup is scheduled to start on February 8 and will last from three to seven days, depending on the weather. The race, held every three to five years, is the world's most prestigious sailing competition and the oldest active trophy in any sport. It has been raced since 1857 and was named America's Cup after its first winner, the America of the New York yacht club.

The New York club retained the cup until 1983, when an Australian challenger ended the longest winning streak in sporting history. Any challenger complying with the International America's Cup Class (IACC) rules has the right to take on the holder of the trophy. In the previous America's Cup, at Valencia in 2007, the Switzerland-based Alinghi team successfully defended its crown against Emirates Team New Zealand, from whom it had taken the title in Auckland in 2003.

The America's Cup final round has traditionally been staged by the reigning champions at their home yacht club. But since Alinghi has no suitable waters of its own, it selected the neutral site of RAK for the final (and only) round next year. In years past, the final has been preceded by a series of heats, leading to a semifinal round to determine the challenger. This provided a build-up to the final over several weeks.

This time, however, only one team - BMW Oracle, entered by the Golden Gate Yacht Club of San Francisco - has challenged Alinghi, from the Société Nautique de Genève club, which means the whole competition could be completed in a single weekend. The lack of competitors may be attributable to the legal feuding in New York over such issues as the use of engines to trim sails and breaking regulations about where ballast can be stored in the hull.

Since the cost of preparing a challenge has been estimated at up to ?20 million (Dh100m), potential competitors are presumably reluctant to take part as long as the ground rules remain uncertain. Although the choice of venue has not so far been formally contested in court, it is understood that the Golden Gate Yacht Club does not support the selection of RAK, possibly because Alinghi has trained nearby in Dubai, arguably compromising the neutrality of the waters.

With up to 10,000 visitors expected at each race, and a considerable profit to be made both by the host city and host team in merchandise, sponsorship and entertainment revenue, the choice of venue is not made lightly. Valencia has said that the 32nd America's Cup, in 2007, had an economic impact of ?6 billion and created more than 60,000 jobs. The impact of America's Cup on a host country is perhaps best illustrated by Auckland, which held the event in 2000 and 2003.

So important was the cup to Auckland - which promotes itself as the "City of Sails" - and its tourism sector that in 1995 a government post was created: America's Cup Minister. Trevor Mallard, who held that office, described the event as a "strategic marketing opportunity for tourism". One of the city's most vibrant districts, the Viaduct Basin, was constructed to host the teams and remains a bustling area of the seafront.

Every visitor to Auckland is quickly made aware of the importance of America's Cup and its legacy. Three former winning vessels are on display at the airport. Auckland's example was used as a template by Valencia. The Spanish city developed its own America's Cup village and used the brand to boost tourism and the local economy. It remains to be seen, however, whether RAK can replicate those cities' success, with a lack of challengers and a shorter format.

"In Valencia the America's Cup was a huge event spanning five months with 12 teams each setting up their base in the city and competing against each other for the right to be the challenger," said a recent competitor, who wanted to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the court case in New York. "A temporary village was built to accommodate the vast circus of teams and supporters complete with restaurants, entertainment and merchandise stores."

He noted that having won in 2003, Alinghi took the 2007 race to Valencia, resulting in Auckland's losing a large source of revenue. "It is the amount of money involved with the race," he said, "both in preparing for a challenge and in the vast rewards for the winners that has resulted in aspects being contested in the courts." On a more positive note for RAK, the Alinghi team announced yesterday that one contentious issue in the legal battle with Oracle had been resolved, with the USA confirmed as the challenger's single boat for the race.

Lucien Masmejan, of the Alinghi legal team, said the priority now was to get America's Cup out of the court and back to the water. "Our goal is to have an exciting race on the water, and we are willing to assist the challenger with any queries it has with regards to measurements or procedures to ensure USA conforms with the Certificate of Challenge for the race," he said. Despite this conciliatory gesture, relations between the two teams are said to remain strained, and Oracle appears likely to dispute other aspects of Alinghi's management of the 33rd America's Cup, including its location in RAK.

tbrooks@thenational.ae