Sitting in the office of Capt. Mahmoud Abu Sheikha, GM of the Royal Yacht Club of Jordan, a photograph of Aqaba taken in the 1980’s grabbed my attention.
It showed a sun-kissed shoreline with almost no development. This was in stark contrast to the view I witnessed on returning from a fishing excursion; major hotel brands, such as the Kempinski, stretched around the coastline and a few cranes above major new multi-use development areas. Upon the horizon, Aqaba’s present and future aspirations were unveiled.
These developments have the ingredients for attracting a new wave of MICE business; ‘Ayla’ and ‘Soraya’, the duo of multi-billion dollar projects are redefining both the landscape and future for Jordan’s jewel of the Red Sea. ‘Ayla’ offers a strong incentive portfolio and ‘Soraya’ the conference and exhibition infrastructure, required for this sector.
Ms Ghada Najjar – MD of Karma House Jordan stated, “Amman fostered Jordan’s MICE market, this has rippled out to the ever popular ‘Dead Sea’ area, which held the World Economic Forum – Middle East and N. Africa in May, and Aqaba’s major investments will provide the next stepping stone for MICE in this country”.
Since its inception in 2001, Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) has played a key role in securing inward investment and to turn Aqaba into a cosmopolitan business hub and world class leisure destination. ‘Ayla’ and ‘Soraya’ will be key factors to achieving this goal and to ensure a solid foundation to create a long term and sustainable MICE industry.
Ms. Salma Redwan, from the Tourism Product Development Division of ASEZA, said “We just returned from IMEX Frankfurt, the first such exhibition ASEZA has participated in, to engage with buyers.
We are positioning Aqaba as a destination for MICE, thanks to our new facilities and the various activities available in Aqaba, Wadi Rum and beyond. Recently, ASEZA signed an MOU with Royal Jordanian Airlines to align some route services, such as same day connection from London Heathrow to Aqaba via Amman, to match the needs of various sectors including the ever popular ‘dive’ market from the UK and this will be supported by joint marketing initiatives ”.
‘Ayla’ is the larger of the two major projects and is nearby ‘Soraya’; combined, they will contribute towards doubling the number of hotel rooms in the city. A dedicated convention and exhibition centre ‘Al Multaqa’ is one of the centre-pieces of Soraya and will be supported by four 5-Star properties; it will be operated by the Jumeirah brand and Starwood brand.
‘Ayla’ occupies an area of over 4m sq. metres, creating five major districts, The Marina, Creek, Lagoons, Golf Hills and Avenue, and is heading for completion in 2018. ‘Ayla’ will be home to the Hyatt Regency Hotel and Souk Hotel, the former scheduled for a soft opening early in 2018. As with ‘Soraya’, the development incorporates real estate, retail outlets and tourism facilities, including Jordan’s first 18-hole championship golf course, designed by golfer Greg Norman.
Golf is a key part of Ayla’s tourism strategy, nourished through sea-water desalination and solar power and is already open for business. The ‘Lagoons’ part of the project sits at 3 and 6 meters above sea level and are fed directly from the Red Sea. These world-class facilities are already attracting sports events with the ‘2017 Asian ASTC Sprint Triathlon Asian Cup and West Asian Championships’ and many international events centred on the incredible Golf facility.
Aqaba’s Marine Science Station & Aquarium, Bird Observatory, Wadi Rum protected area, UNESCO world heritage site of Petra, nature reserves and biospheres are all on the port city’s doorstep. Each supports the study, preservation and sustainability of these unique natural and historical environments. Combined they provide knowledge clusters that will also have potential to attract new MICE business.