Snowriding in the desert
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – In this hot, arid Persian Gulf nation, winter sports have about as much relevance as camel racing in Vail.That is, until a deep-pocketed developer decided to build Ski Dubai, an enormous structure containing about three football fields’ worth of terrain covered in “real” machine-made snow. The distinction is important since some artificial ski areas – such as some in Great Britain – use a plastic surface wet down with water to ski on. Ski Dubai uses snow guns not unlike those deployed at traditional ski areas. It also has a fixed-grip Poma four-seater chairlift and a rope tow, luge tracks for sledding, a small terrain park and quarter-pipe and a snow play area.”The vision is to create a beautiful day in the mountains,” said Phil Taylor, Ski Dubai’s chief executive. “The response from people is that they’re absolutely delighted – across the board it’s been a remarkable response.”Taylor, a Brit with background in the leisure industry, said there was concern how the different nationalities who live in and visit Dubai would react to the facility. Only about 15 percent of the country is comprised of natives, he said; the rest are from all over the world. Any concerns were short-lived, he said, with a strong response since Ski Dubai opened in December. He said it’s amazing to see men and women in traditional Arab dress frolicking in the snow.
“We supply long, quilted coats to be worn over the men’s dishdashas and the women’s abayas,” he said. “They love to come in, and it’s something to see Arab children sliding down the twin luge. No nationality has an exclusive on fun.”A unique projectThe brainchild of developer Majid al-Futtaim, Ski Dubai is part of the Mall of the Emirates, which Taylor said is the third largest in the world. Although he said he couldn’t say precisely how much Ski Dubai cost to build, he said it was “less than 10 percent” of the total mall’s construction cost of about $800 million. Dubai, which is one of the seven emirates that comprise the country, is known for its excesses. The resident population is about 1.2 million and rapidly growing, while the number of annual tourist visits has climbed past the five million mark. Extraordinary hotels, quickly erected skyscrapers and a housing development built on a fabricated island offshore are the norm in the country these days, so the indoor ski area is more of a fit than it might seem. Taylor has nothing but superlatives to describe the engineering feat that made it possible. He said 30 tons of new snow is made nightly, and the melted water is fed into heat exchangers which, in turn, is used to air condition the mall and irrigate the outside landscaping. Rather than keep the air temperature very low, the floor has antifreeze liquid running underneath in pipes, which keeps the snow cool.
“We bring the temperature down to (about 22 degrees) at night to make the snow, then bring it back up in the day,” he said.For snowmaking, Taylor said they blow a fine mist into the air to create a cloud, then sprinkle it with ice crystals to allow the water droplets to form into snowflakes. All told, the facility has some 6,000 tons of snow, with artificial rocks and trees adding to the effect. The ceiling of Ski Dubai is blue to look like the sky, so photos of skiers from inside can look deceptively like the real thing.That illusion is dashed when looking in the windows to the mall, where shoppers are walking by in shorts and sandals. Mostly, though, visitors are happy to forget for a time that they’re not in the Middle East but, say, in Vail.Setting a benchmarkWhile Ski Dubai goes through a fair amount of water and energy, Taylor said it’s all recycled two or three times. The project was 11 years in the making, he said, and the goal was to make it energy efficient and environmentally friendly.”Our energy costs are less than 10 percent of operating costs, which is consistent with any commercial structure of this scale,” he said. “The engineering behind it is just amazing.”
In addition to gentle slopes for beginners, there’s a more advanced terrain, including what Taylor calls “the world’s first indoor black run.” To make the most of the relatively small amount of terrain, the designers included a number of different angles and curves, with lots of changes in level and direction. There’s not much in the way of moguls, he said, but the whole idea was to give people a taste of what it’s like to be at a real ski area.”We’ve tried to create something that’s much more like being at a mountain resort,” Taylor said. “Many of these types of facilities done in the past paid little regard to structure or the environment and just focused on the sport of skiing. We’ve gone a step further and provided an immersive environment.”Putting it next to a mall, he said, was the best way to ensure traffic, which he said averages about 2,000 visits a day. A two-hour pass costs about $37, and that includes all clothing and equipment. For kids just looking to play in the snow – and perhaps touch it for the first time – there’s a snow park that costs $11.”We’ve created the best indoor winter facility in the world,” Taylor said. “Having set that benchmark, it could inspire a whole new generation throughout the world.”On the Web: skidubai.aeAlex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14625, or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado