Mega-mall opens with high hopes

After three years of anticipation, Emaar Properties opens the doors to one of the world's largest malls.

Dubai, UAE - November 4, 2008 - A fish feeding show at the Dubai Aquarium at Dubai Mall on opening day. (Nicole Hill / The National)

DUBAI // It seemed to take just the blink of an eye for the frantic construction site that was Dubai Mall to transform into a bustling shopping and entertainment centre. After three years of anticipation, Emaar Properties opened the doors yesterday to one of the world's largest malls, the centrepiece to its colossal Downtown Dubai project. More than 600 retail shops were ready for business when the doors opened at 2pm. By early next year that figure will have risen to 1,200. From the start, visitors were free to visit the mall's Olympic-size ice skating rink, the world's largest indoor gold souk and its main attraction, the world's largest aquarium and the adjoining Discovery Garden, soon to be home to 33,000 animals. Construction crews and retailers have worked around the clock to have the centre ready for its soft opening. Even as customers were pouring in the doors yesterday, many retailers were still preparing stores, and construction crews were labouring away in the 14,000-space car park. Yousif al Ali, the general manager of Dubai Mall, said the operators were confident the centre would yield higher revenues than any other shopping centre in the world, despite the global economic crisis pummelling the retail sectors of western countries and forcing tourists to trim travel plans. "We are satisfied and feel this will not impact the mall," said Mr Ali."Business in Dubai is as usual and the growth in GDP is strong, which translates into higher purchasing power." Mr Ali said he expected 30 million visitors in the first year of trade, and, with a boost in population and 15 million tourists expected annually by 2015, that number was likely to grow. Tourists flocked to the mall just minutes after the partial opening, many regarding it as an instant landmark. "My parents only have one day left in town and now that the mall is open, of course they had to see it before leaving," said Dennis Segeren, an architectural student from the Netherlands, who is studying in Dubai. "As for me, I came here two-and-a-half years ago for an internship when they were still building so I was really anxious to see the final product." A massive digital projection dome, complete with surround-sound, towers over the indoor gold souk. More than 220 of the region's biggest gold and jewellery retailers are packed into the traditionally designed alleyways of the indoor market. About 30 per cent of the retail shops in the mall are making their regional debut, including the French retailer Galeries Lafayette, the high-end US department store Bloomingdale's, London's renowned toy store Hamley's, and the UK's luxury supermarket Waitrose. Many of the region's well-established retailers were on hand to celebrate the long-awaited opening. "I feel sure that every tourist that lands in Dubai or Abu Dhabi airport will be here," said Nilesh Ved, the chairman of Apparel, the holding company for brands including Nine West, Aldo and Cold Stone Creamery. "We are really optimistic and expect it to be very successful." Spanning an area equivalent to 50 football fields at the base of Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, the mall boasts 3.77 million square feet of gross leasable area. "It is so big, much bigger than anything I've ever seen in my country," said Maria Micheli, a tourist from Greece who was visiting the mall with her husband. "It is very huge, but the weather is so hot for much of the year so it is good to have a place indoors to bring the family," said Ali al Amri, a resident of Abu Dhabi who was visiting the aquarium with his children. The Aquarium and Discovery Centre has already won a place in the Guinness World Records for the largest acrylic panel, and sports the largest suspended panel of any aquarium in the world. According to Damien Prendergast, the general manager of the Aquarium and Discovery Centre, maintenance for this sea world and miniature zoo cost about Dh5 million (US$1.3m) a year. Postponements caused the mall to open more than two months behind schedule. The latest rescheduling was announced just hours before last Thursday's scheduled launch. The mall's executives blamed construction issues for the delays. Emaar had originally set a date of Aug 28 for the soft opening.