x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

There's no business for snow businesses

It began with high hopes, but expectations that skiers would be hitting the slopes at the long-awaited Snowdome in the Marina Mall this winter seem to be going downhill fast.

Snowdome languishes snowless and deserted this week, with no definite date for completion.
Snowdome languishes snowless and deserted this week, with no definite date for completion.

ABU DHABI // It began with high hopes, but expectations that skiers would be hitting the slopes at the long-awaited Snowdome in the Marina Mall this winter seem to be going downhill fast. Announced in 2003 as part of a Dh300 million (US$82 million) expansion of the shopping centre, there is still no firm opening date for either the ski slope or the skating rink being built alongside.

The delays have frustrated neighbouring shop and cafe owners, who moved in expecting to draw much of their revenue from the visitors expected to flock to the Snowdome. "First it was supposed to open in summer of 2007, but they kept pushing the date back. Now they have stopped construction altogether," said Evita Fortuna, operations manager at Mockamore, a cafe located just behind the site. "We are really affected by this; the ski thing was supposed to bring us people, but it's a construction site and no one comes here. I'm so disappointed by this."

Work on the project appears to have come to a complete standstill. The site looks abandoned; all the lights are switched off and piles of wood are scattered along the hill, which is covered in a layer of dust. Ms Fortuna said the lease for Mockamore was purchased in February 2007, at which point she was first told that business would start to flow within a few months. Jason Rodriguez, 27, works behind the counter at Mockamore. He says he and the other employees have a game they play to pass the time during their shifts. They count up the number of people who walk by.

"We aren't counting much these days," he said. Ferdinand Ramos, who works at Pharma Plus, says the number of customers at his end of the mall has been less than ideal, and much less than expected. "We thought when it opened people would come, but no," he said. "You could say it's a little bit quiet around here." For a brief period earlier last year it looked as if Abu Dhabi would join Dubai's Mall of the Emirates as a destination for winter sport in a desert setting. A thick layer of artificial snow briefly covered the slope, with a team of expert skiers seen practising stunts, apparently for the opening.

Then, virtually overnight, the snow vanished. The ice rink appears to be closer to completion and even boasts a miniature ice resurfacing machine - but no ice. Skates were at one point laid out behind the entrance counter, but have since been removed. Neither is there any sign of the authentic Alpine cafe, serving hot chocolate to the skiers off piste, that was also part of the original plans. Business owners say that while they have never been told what has happened, they heard rumours that snow production was the problem. A test run last year is understood to have revealed structural problems that made it difficult to keep the snow frozen, while cold air leaked into the rest of the building. After the snow was removed, the interior was filled with scaffolding that has since been removed.

Those involved with the Snowdome have little to say about the project. Nadeem Wajahat, general manager of the mall, maintains that he does not know who the contractor of the project is and cannot say how close the Snowdome is to completion. Mr Wajahat said he had "not seen any angry feelings from store owners. Any business needs some settle down time." Mashwi al Qubaisi, deputy managing director of the National Investment Company, which runs Marina Mall and the extension project, said the problems with Snowdome were largely technical and started with the dry run. Mr al Qubaisi said work was taking a long time because they just "want things to be perfect".

"There are too many problems with this, there's a huge list of items. The snow is a problem, cooling is a problem. The design issue needs to be perfect." It is also unclear who is responsible for solving the construction problems. Among the companies listed as contractors is Nael Construction and Contracting. Jose Soji, the project manager, said work on the extension project had stopped "because of the economic crisis", but then denied any involvement in the Snowdome.

Mr Soji named another company, Al Firas, as the contractor, a fact confirmed by Mr al Qubaisi. However, a representative of Al Firas claimed not to know about the ski slope, saying: "We don't have this project, this Snowdome. It's not us." Bin Harmal, an Al Ain company also named by Mr Soji, also denied any involvement. A media report from 2005 quoted Mr Wajahat as saying: "Further expansion is definite and the sky is the limit". More recently, he told The National that he "can't put a date on when it will open".

Mr al Qubaisi said he was "crossing his fingers" the construction would recommence soon. jhume@thenational.ae