RAK braces for America's Cup fallout

Millions are said to have been invested in preparing for the event and the effect of losing potential visitors may be even greater.

DUBAI. 5th August. 2009. AMERICAS CUP IN RAK. The Al Hamra village area  as seen from Al Hamra Marina in RAK, possible site for the Americas Cup. Stephen Lock  /  The National .  *** Local Caption ***  SL-rak-002.jpg
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // For months, residents and business owners in this northern emirate prepared for what was to become their day in the spotlight, with millions in potential revenues, and the chance to buck the economic crisis and perhaps even to revive shelved development plans.

But as the two America's Cup sailing teams mulled over a New York court's decision on Tuesday to disqualify RAK as host for the February race, the emirate's hopes appeared all but dashed. If the competition does rule out the venue, many here fear it will deny the emirate millions of dirhams' worth of tourism and investment. "High-profile events like the America's Cup can play a major role in promoting RAK effectively as a tourist destination," said Maurice De Rooij, manager of the Cove Rotana hotel. "We have received a massive number of enquiries since the event was announced."

RAK is reported to have invested more than Dh440 million (US$120m) preparing for the event, including the construction of a man-made island to house facilities for both BMW Oracle Racing, the challenger, and Alinghi, the Swiss title-holder. Some RAK hotel owners reported solid bookings for the projected race date. And construction already has begun on homes around the new marina; in other venues such as Auckland, which was host to the Cup in 1990, 1993 and 1998, many well-heeled yacht-racing enthusiasts purchased seasonal houses.

The effects of losing so many potential visitors may be even greater, experts said. The Cove Rotana hotel, one of the largest in the area, was fully booked for the event weekend. Many in the RAK seized on the example of other host cities: Valencia, which was host to the 32nd America's Cup, in 2007, reported an economic impact of ?6 billion (Dh32.5bn) and more than 60,000 new jobs. Alinghi said it was not ready to give up on the venue, although it did not say how it might challenge the court ruling.

"We are doing this in co-ordination with the RAK people, who have been excellent partners so far," said Paco Latorre, spokesman for Alinghi and head of America's Cup management. "What they have done to prepare for the cup is great." The Golden Gate Yacht Club, backers of BMW Oracle, went to court to challenge the selection of RAK as host, arguing it was an "illegitimate and unsafe" venue, unsuitable for hosting one the world's most prestigious sporting events. Aside from breaching the Deed of Gift, the 1857 document that sets rules for the competition, the selection of RAK raised security concerns because of its proximity to Iran, it said.

Tom Ehman, a Golden Gate spokesman, said of Alinghi: "They wanted a venue that suited their boat, somewhere with light air and flat water, and they looked on a map and found Ras al Khaimah." He dismissed suggestions that RAK had spent US$120 million on infrastructure projects, saying the team's reconnaissance group had estimated the total to be only hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mr Ehman said Valencia was exempted from the Northern Hemisphere restriction by an earlier New York court ruling after both BMW Oracle and Alinghi agreed that the Spanish city was an acceptable location.

Khater Massaad, the emirate's Minister of Tourism, declined to comment except to indicate that any legal challenge would have to come from Alinghi and not from RAK itself. "Financially, losing the America's Cup is a disaster for RAK," said Dr Theodore Karasik, a Gulf security expert at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "This was their F1, and now it looks like it won't happen."

But there may still be some hope: as she gave her ruling, Justice Kornreich encouraged Alinghi to appeal against it. * The National