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What now for sailing in the Gulf?

By Anouk Lorie for CNN
  • Iran holding five British sailors for allegedly entering Iranian territorial waters
  • The Gulf has made efforts over the past years to be seen as a great and safe sailing destination
  • Maritime experts say sailors should do research on the area

London, England (CNN) -- The detention of five British sailors by Iran in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday has cast a shadow over the area's ambition to become the world's prime destination for luxury sailing events.

In the past decade, countries in the Gulf -- including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain -- have made consistent efforts to attract sea tourism by enhancing port cities, organizing sailing regattas and promoting the region's safety.

An Iranian official Tuesday reportedly said that the sailors -- who were on a racing yacht heading to Dubai but may have strayed into Iranian territorial waters -- could be dealt with "severely," prompting some sailing experts to question the area's image of as an uncomplicated destination.

Tracy Edwards, an award-winning British sailor who headed the first round-the-world sailing race out of the Middle East in 2005, told CNN that "the main problem Westerners have in this area is their lack of research.

"They see the luxury and bright lights of places like Dubai and think the whole region must be safe."

Before her race, Edwards says she spent two years in Qatar researching required safety precautions.

"As a sailor, when you plan to go to that area, you have to find out about issues like piracy, the problems of going around the many oil fields and of course, Iran.

"It's a shame for the sailing community in the Gulf because it's such a great place to sail -- the weather is lovely and there are nice wind formations.

"But from a safety point of view, it's not the greatest place," Edwards added.

For Mark Turner, CEO of sporting events company OC Group that is currently organizing the creation of an annual sailing race called "Tour of Arabia," the events on Tuesday are just a very "unlucky" event in an otherwise completely safe area.

"This was very unexpected as this area is very safe and fantastic for sailing," he told CNN.

"This will obviously scare some people off, but it really shouldn't.

"People just have to take precautions not to get near the coast of Iran. Personally, we are not concerned at all and will not change any of our plans."

According to Turner, the increase in sailing events in the Persian Gulf is a blessing for sailors keen to explore "thousands of miles of unspoiled waters."

Video: Iran seizes British yacht

"After centuries of not paying attention to their maritime heritage, countries in the Gulf have again realized the importance of developing marine infrastructure."

The region even managed to attract the attention of the world's biggest sailing event, the America's Cup. Last year's champions Alinghi have spent months trying to persuade the cup's committee and U.S. courts to hold the next race in the United Arab Emirates.

But the San Francisco Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC) -- under whose colors Alinghi's opponent, BMW Oracle, are sailing -- challenged the UAE as a possible host for the America's Cup, citing safety concerns, among others.

In a legal brief, GGYC voiced their concerns that one of the world's most sophisticated and expensive yachts, flying the Unites States flag, could be a target for the Iranians amid the current diplomatic tensions.

GGYC said that a reconnaissance team visited the UAE to assess safety and had concerns about how Iran polices waters around its maritime territory.

In 2007, Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines it alleged were trespassing in Iranian territorial waters. The crew was released after Iran said it determined they had mistakenly crossed into its waters.

Graeme Gibbon-Brooks is CEO of "Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service," a private company that provides advice on safety levels across the world's oceans told CNN that Iran's actions can be hard to predict because the navy sometimes acts independently from the government.

"This unpredictability has already had a negative effect on Iran's neighbors," he said. Gibbon-Brooks predicts that the recent events will make tourists more cautious about sailing in the Gulf.