Four kilometers off the Dubai coastline lies Europe. Or a version of it, at least.
Bijan Hosseini, CNN
Comprising six man-made islands styled after a mix of European countries and cities, when completed this $5 billion megaproject will be able to accommodate 16,000 tourists in the height of travel luxury.
In this Europe the sun nearly always shines, the ocean’s warm and white sands are never far away. There’s Venice and St Petersburg, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and more. And, if you have the money, it could be yours for a vacation or a lifetime.
Called The Heart of Europe and currently under construction, it’s the latest chapter in one of Dubai’s grandest — and most eyebrow-raising — enterprises: The World.
Construction of The World began in 2003. A huge archipelago of 300 artificial islands in the shape of a world map, it was pitched as a playground for the rich and famous.
To make the islands, 34 billion tonnes of large rocks and 320 million cubic meters of sand were deposited in the sea over millions of square feet. So vast was the project, astronauts were able to track its progress from space.
The archipelago was completed on the eve of the global financial crash in 2008 and as a result The World — with very few exceptions — remained undeveloped for many years.
The project has been labeled a “spectacular white elephant().” But against all odds, one corner — The Heart of Europe — is readying itself for guests.
A $5 billion mega-project
Construction cranes line the Dubai skyline as the city rapidly builds ahead of World Expo 2020. While residential real estate prices have declined since 2014, demand is expected to pick up at the start of the expo, according to John Lyons, head of sales and leasing at Dubai real estate agency ESPACE.
Kleindienst, the developers behind The Heart of Europe, seek to capitalize on this.
The Heart of Europe covers 13 hotels and resorts and more than 4,000 holiday homes. Featuring climate-controlled streets and underwater bedrooms, the complex spans six million square feet and will be able to accommodate up to 16,000 people at any one time when completed, say Kleindienst.
The first phase of construction includes 10 waterfront “palaces” on Sweden Island, 32 villas on Germany Island and 78 floating homes dubbed “Floating Seahorses” surrounding St Petersburg Island.
On land, one Swedish “palace” is already finished, with Scandi-influenced design throughout and a roof shaped like an upturned Viking ship. The other nine are 70% completed, say Kleindienst. The heart-shaped, honeymoon-themed St Petersburg is fully formed and Germany’s Bauhaus-inspired villas are also taking shape. The first Floating Seahorse – Signature Edition (a larger model) has been recently completed and another 20 standard models are in construction.
Handover of properties begins this year and will be completed in 2020, say Kleindienst. The developer is targeting second-home buyers and says it has already sold 85% of its units, with 70% of buyers from the UAE and wider Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
Chairman Josef Kleindienst said The Heart of Europe aims to be a “staycation” destination. “We want to be such a place where people from Dubai and from the UAE are attracted to spend their own vacation here in their own country,” he told CNN. Although he added “we want to attract tourists from all over the place.”
All 10 properties on Sweden have already been sold, the Austrian businessman told local news last year — eight to billionaires from the Middle East and another two to billionaires from Europe — as well as every villa on Germany Island.
A new plot on the tourist map
Kleindienst says phase two consists of two holiday resorts on “Main Europe” — a mixed themed island — inspired by Portofino, Italy and the Cote d’Azur in France, scheduled for completion in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Among the attractions will be artificial coral reefs for diving and snorkeling, created by Kleindienst’s Marine Life Sciences Center, based on the archipelago.
“The main goal is to create a vibrant, diverse and sustainable marine habitat,” Adrian Evans, a marine biologist at the center, told CNN. The developers say the center is growing an additional 100,000 corals a year.
For those who prefer to stay dry, the Floating Seahorses allow visitors to watch marine life from their underwater bedrooms and bathrooms.
If Kleindienst’s project proceeds as planned, there will also be a slew of underwater rooms throughout The Floating Venice, another of the themed complexes planned for The Heart of Europe. That is considered part of phase three of the development, along with chalets on Switzerland Island and nine other hotels on Main Europe.
Richard Thompson, editor for Middle East Economic Digest, told CNN he’s witnessing a shift in tourism demands.
“People are looking for experiences, they’re no longer looking to have a bit of luxury on a beach,” he said. “They want to have an adventure, they want to have something for their social media pages, they want something unique that helps them as individuals develop their own life story.”
The wider World
So what of the rest of The World? Almost all its islands remain undeveloped, but there are rumblings that holiday destinations could soon pop up elsewhere.
Close to The Heart of Europe, Lebanon Island has been operating as a small private beach club, but is currently for sale. Allsopp & Allsopp, the real estate agency in charge of the sale, told CNN that a hotel group is currently interested in buying the property with a mind to building an eco-friendly resort.
Meanwhile Seven Tides, owners of a swathe of South America, said via its communications representatives that it plans to build resorts on two islands in the south of the archipelago, with more details to be released in March.
It appears that in the future, The Heart of Europe will have greater company. But Kleindienst will hope to bag a number of firsts.
Josef Kleindienst told CNN that the group is hoping to finish the entire project by 2020, just in time for the World Expo. “Expo 2020 is the time where everyone on this planet should come and visit Dubai,” he added.
Small wonder — if all goes to plan, he’ll have rooms to fill..