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Abu Dhabi bids for 'it' status with yachting jet set

By George Webster for CNN
  • Abu Dhabi unveils it's vision to become one of the world's prime yachting destinations
  • Massive investment in luxury marine facilities expected to draw three million tourists by 2015
  • But some industry experts are doubtful about the region's ability to pull in an international crowd
  • Lack of natural beauty and difficult access seen as major obstacles

London, England (CNN) -- Monaco and Abu Dhabi are both exclusive tax havens known for high-profile monarchs and ostentatious displays of wealth.

And there could soon be another parallel between the small European city-state and the capital city of the United Arab Emirates if the Emirati royal family has its way.

They are positioning the Arabian Gulf metropolis, which holds the enviable title of the world's richest city, as the next "it" destination for the ritzy world of luxury yachting.

Emirati royal Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) told CNN: "We envisage being able to produce infrastructure and facilities for the leisure marine industry which will be on par with the best the Mediterranean has to offer."

Last week, the oil-rich emirate hosted the second Abu Dhabi Yacht Show, an event that focuses, characteristically, on super-and-megayachts -- luxury boats costing hundreds of millions of dollars that can be anywhere upwards of 50 meters to 170 meters in length.

As far as our clients are concerned, unless they want to go and see an oil refinery, it's not a cruising destination
--Charlie Berkitt, CEO, YCO Group

The prestigious yacht exhibition and market is held at Yas Marina, next to Abu Dhabi's glitzy new Formula One race track.

It is one of many seductive nautical projects government officials hope will draw a projected three million tourists a year by 2015.

To cope with the projected influx, Abu Dhabi is planning 45 high-tech marinas along its 400 km of coastline, investing $10 billion over the next 10 years, said the ADTA.

Yas Island, Abu Dhabi's $38 billion man-made reef already boasts its own F1 circuit, a PGA golf tour and some 20 signature hotels.

And if that's not enough to entice ultra-wealthy overseas yachtsmen, then planned cultural attractions on Saadiyat island including a $27 billion arts extravaganza that will include an offshoot of the Louvre and a new Guggenheim museum surely will.

Or perhaps not?

Although Abu Dhabi represents one of the fastest growing markets in the yachting industry, some insiders are yet to be convinced it holds much appeal for tourists from outside the region.

The Emirate's facilities are "almost second to none" said Paul Ashton, editor of SuperYachtWorld magazine, but he thinks the region still has a long way to go.

"At the moment I can't see there being a big demand for charter yachts in that area," he tells CNN. "The customary trip to the Mediterranean in summer and the Caribbean in winter is so popular because it works."

The lack of distinctive natural beauty along most of the Arabian Gulf coast could also stand in the way of Abu Dhabi's ambitions.

"It just doesn't have the anchorages and the secluded, unspoiled islands -- the geographical wonders that make places like Bermuda and the Seychelles such a big draw," Ashton said.

Charlie Berkitt is the CEO of the YCO Group, a multinational company dealing in charter management and luxury yacht sales, whose attention is fixed on the bubbling Middle Eastern market.

"It is a big focus for us. We have a permanent presence there," said Berkitt. "There's a lot of buying activity, but as far as our clients are concerned, unless they want to go and see an oil refinery, it's not a cruising destination."

And yet, Berkitt is optimistic that the situation may change over time.

"Don't forget that it's not just Abu Dhabi, but the whole region that's investing. You've got the Pearl-Qatar and the Palm Islands in Dubai -- this will make the area a much stronger attraction overall.

"Whether it will draw in yachts from international waters is another matter," he added.

Both Berkitt and Ashton agree that if yachting is really to take off in Abu Dhabi then it will be through a massive increase in the vessels that are permanently stationed there.

"This means that the property market has to remain strong," said Ashton. "As long as people are buying houses and holiday apartments, there'll be a demand for yachts to complement those properties."

This, says Ashton, is the lesson learned from Abu Dhabi's northern counterpart.

"A few years ago Dubai looked like it was going to be the Gulf's yachting capital," he said. "But then the bottom fell out of the property market, and with it a lot of potential yacht owners."