The world really is getting smaller. So small, in fact, that it's now possible to travel to France and Spain within moments of leaving your front door in the UAE. Such speedy international travel is possible only in Dubai, of course, courtesy of the islands known as The World, a Lilliputian version of the globe.
The latest phase of the project has just been announced: its name is Aquitainia, and it will be located on the islands of France and Spain. History buffs will tell you that the medieval region of Galia Aquitaine encompassed both countries. Now the two nations are set to be reunited once again, this time linked by a bridge. As expected, the project is seriously upmarket, as proved by the recent no-expense-spared launch during Cityscape at Dubai's Buddha Bar. Sarah Ferguson was at the bash, nibbling sushi with the singer Kelly Rowland. Selling just one of Aquitainia's holiday homes will more than cover the tab for the do: prices for property here start at Dh3.64 million and go up to Dh24m. When construction is finished in 2012, there will be 816 properties, a 75-room five-star hotel and a 175-berth marina. The hotel operator hasn't been announced yet, nor has the Michelin-starred gourmet with a chain of eateries around the world who will be fronting the restaurant.
The location is one of the best in The World (if not the world), says Rahail Aslan, CEO of Select Group, the development company behind the project. "We have two of the best islands in the whole of the development," he says confidently. "The reason is that we have unlimited sea views and are close to the four transportation hubs, the stations where the boats dock, so getting to the other islands will be very easy."
Buyers of the holiday homes can rest assured that the Aquitainia development will have all the trimmings: room service can be ordered at the touch of a button and there will be staff to look after the dry cleaning - all the services you'd expect from a five-star hotel right there in your home. As well as facilities, some flats will boast that other must-have of top-end properties: an infinity pool. "Our buyers can sit in their lounge looking to their terrace and infinity pool, which in turn looks out on to the sea," says Aslan.
The interiors haven't been finalised yet, but they are expected to feature a contemporary style similar to that of the exteriors - "refined elegance", as Aslan describes it - certainly a less showy aesthetic compared to, say, Palazzo Versace. There will be six main areas: Spain's Marbella, Barcelona and Madrid - let's hope the property markets in this project in no way resemble their namesakes - and the Gallic areas of Cannes, Monaco and St Tropez. Marbella will be the most expensive, as it will enjoy the best sea views.
Property on The World is allowed to be only four storeys high, so the fourth floors in Aquitainia will be the penthouses. Of the 816 units up for sale, 40 will be villas, 450 will be one-bedrooms, 250 two-bedrooms and 70 three-bedroom penthouses. There will be solar panels - Select Group seems to feel this is eminently possible, despite other developers saying they have problems making these compatible with sand - and water will be recycled. Buyers are expected to hail from the GCC, Russia, India and, to a lesser extent, Europe.
Aslan is keen to highlight the investment case for buying in Aquitainia. He estimates that anyone looking to rent their property out should expect an annual rental yield of between eight per cent and 10 per cent, based on a 40 per cent occupancy rate, and assuming that holidaymakers will rent the properties for Dh3,000 a night. His calculations include the costs of utility bills, cleaners and management charges: Select Group is in discussion with hotel operators to manage the rental, and have factored in charges of between 10 per cent and 15 per cent for this.
It is one of the first launches The World has seen since its inception in 2003 - design concepts and business plans have to be approved by the master planners Nakheel before developers get the green light, all of which takes time. According to Nakheel, only 10 per cent of the islands on The World are still available to buy, and they range in price from Dh73m to Dh184m. Michael Schumacher was presented with one of the islands by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, when he finished his last race in Brazil in October 2006. Rod Stewart and David and Victoria Beckham were rumoured to have bought islands; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt denied rumours that they have bought Ethiopia in honour of their adopted daughter, Zahara. So far, details of the projects on Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Shanghai, Greece, north Russia, Antarctica, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia and, of course France and Spain, have been released.
There have certainly been plenty of column inches dedicated to the development. The question now is, with three palms under way - as well as The Universe fronting on to The World - is there any danger of buyers getting island fatigue? Not according to Philip Agius, managing director of PURE International agency - who is launching developments on the Cuba and Havana islands early next year. "While there are reports of a temporary blip in confidence and sentiment, and there is the possibility that the novelty of island locations may fade away, ultimately we believe the location will always be desirable, and that the islands of The World have truly prime positioning," he says. "With similar projects we've already seen remarkable returns on investments. The Palm Jumeirah has seen roughly 500 per cent appreciation over the last seven years, for example. While capital gains on newer developments may slow down, the investment opportunities are still there, and they are very attractive."
"There's a lot of wealthy individuals out there," adds Aslan. "They will be able to island-hop: each island will have its own restaurant, nightclub or spa. It will take a long time to get bored, and typically our buyers will probably use their homes three or four times a year." Hannah Rogerson of Quintessentially Estates - the property-buying arm of the concierge service - thinks the originality of the development will be its greatest insurance policy. "It's low-rise, which makes it stand out in Dubai, and also means there is a scarcity factor that makes it even more exclusive. But the real selling point is that it's the first of its kind. Our clients can have anything they want, and they want to be seen to have the very best. Many of them are interested in this development as they see it as being the best. If you buy a property here you'll be owning part of the most imaginative development in the world."