Family Matters

Family-friendly Tourism

Improving its family-friendly tourism options is one of Dubai's priorities heading into Expo 2020, and the recent construction of two major theme parks should give the sector a needed boost.

Over the past two decades, Dubai has become an international destination behind the strength of its luxury shopping and hotels. In 2016 the International Organization for Migration named it the world’s most cosmopolitan city, and its international airport has been the busiest in the world every year since 2014. Yet, with the high end of the market becoming increasingly saturated, industry leaders have shifted gears slightly to broaden Dubai’s offerings in the family-friendly segment. The goal here is twofold: by increasing visitors from this underutilized market, Dubai hopes to boost overall numbers, and improving its offerings beyond its traditional high-end options will help build a more robust and complete tourism sector.

The push for more family-friendly tourism options has its roots in Dubai’s Tourism Vision 2020. This development plan, introduced by the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) in 2013, laid out a blueprint to increase annual visitors from 10 million per year in 2012 to 20 million in 2020 and triple the Emirate’s revenue from tourism. Family projects are one of the vision’s three areas of focus along with expanding MICE tourism and the Emirate’s development from a regional to a global hub. To meet these family tourism goals, DTCM’s roadmap calls for improved coordination between the public and private sector in order to “expand existing attraction, events, and experiences that cater to families.”

One of the primary ways that the sector will be evolving is by opening and promoting a wave of new amusement parks aimed at families with children. Many of these parks are built at the same massive scale that has made Dubai famous—IMG Worlds of Adventure, for example, is the world’s largest indoor theme park at more than 1.5 million sqft. The construction of IMG Worlds took three years and cost more than USD1 billion, yet if it succeeds at its ultimate goal of becoming an iconic part of Dubai’s family-friendly offerings, it will be well worth the investment. Offering more than just rides, IMG Worlds is home to more than two dozen dining outlets and retail stores, and a 12-screen cinema that was added in summer 2017. To overcome the challenge of a young market and lack of consumer knowledge about Dubai’s family-friendly atmosphere, part of IMG Worlds’ built-in advantage is its partnerships with foreign media companies, which has allowed it to use high-profile international brands in its marketing.

True to Dubai’s penchant for the outsized, IMG Worlds of Adventure was not even the largest park to open in 2016. Dubai Parks and Resorts, a 25-million-sqft megaproject, became the largest park in the Middle East in December 2016. The complex includes a Bollywood-themed park, Legoland Dubai, and a waterpark; plans also include a Six Flags to be constructed and opened in late 2019. Like IMG Worlds, Dubai Parks and Resorts formed partnerships with global entertainment firms to use licensed characters in its parks.

Even with these partnerships, these parks have seen slow growth in the first year since their opening. Early projections are that Dubai Parks and Resorts will see around 10,000 daily visits until 2019, around half its goal. Likewise, IMG Worlds has also seen attendance below its original forecast. Industry leaders have chalked this up to the relative youth of the market, and expectations are still high for the coming years. Expo 2020 is expected to be the event that pushes this new tourism segment to maturity; with more than 25 million people expected to visit the Emirate, the time is now to develop the infrastructure needed to host a wide variety of tourists. The long-term goal is for these parks to become anchors for family-friendly activity, drawing visitors from core markets (Saudi Arabia, India, China, and Russia) and supporting a network of three- and four-star hotels and midscale retail and restaurant activities.