Abu Dhabi comes of age

The expansion of Abu Dhabi International Airport and three major tourism projects in the pipeline are set to elevate Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a sophisticated high-end destination to new heights

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By  Joseph Mortimer Published  August 4, 2006

|~|Em-Palace---large.gif|~|The majestic Kempinski property, Emirates Palace has captured international attention and is a prime venue for meetings, conferences and incentives, as well as luxury holidays and romantic getawys for honeymooners.|~|Abu Dhabi’s attributes are often overlooked because leisure and corporate clients opting for the UAE are all too often dazzled by Dubai’s wow factor. Years of tourism promotion and the construction of iconic buildings like the Burj Al Arab have achieved global recognition for Dubai, leaving the other emirates behind in a trail of dust. But things are beginning to change. Tourism to all of the emirates has picked up in the last few years, and each one is now investing in its respective tourism infrastructure. While Dubai has shot to superstardom almost overnight, its geographically superior neighbour and the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi has evolved slowly, transforming itself from a quiet commercial town that prospered from the oil and gas industry, to an international city that attracts a growing number of leisure, business and MICE visitors each year. “Last year, visitor arrivals increased by a very satisfactory 25% to 1.2 million and we expect the number to exceed 3 million by 2015,” explains Ali Ahmed Al Hosani, director, marketing, Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA). “The last time a survey [of inbound arrivals] was undertaken in 2003, the breakdown was 20% leisure, 5% MICE and 75% business. However, the leisure component is growing very fast and we anticipate that it will account for more than 40% by 2015.” The UK market is the largest source of European travellers to the emirate, accounting for some 100,000 visitors in 2005, he adds. The recent formation of the ADTA in 2004 and the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) in 2005 lit the touch paper that set off an explosion of new developments throughout the emirate. This led industry commentators worldwide to believe that Abu Dhabi was trying to emulate Dubai, but Hosani says the two emirates will offer very different experiences and will therefore complement one another. “While we recognise and applaud Dubai’s success, we do not view Abu Dhabi’s development in terms of ‘catching up’,” he says. “I would also emphasise that plans currently under development or in the pipeline are focused on the top end of the market, and within the next few years, you will see some truly spectacular properties in Abu Dhabi.” Most of the new tourism developments are taking place in specially designated zones, rather than in existing built up areas, so disturbance to the local community will be minimal while construction is underway. “These planned developments incorporate new integrated infrastructure facilities such as road networks, water supply etc, so there will be no problems,” Hosani says. The ADTA has launched an online training initiative for travel agents called Abu Dhabi Tourism Champions giving them the opportunity to become destination experts. The programme has already been launched in the UK and will be introduced to the German market this month. “Despite the strong growth in direct and internet sales by the tour operators, travel agents remain an extremely important force for introducing and promoting a destination to their customers, but they need to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the product,” says Hosani. The culture club The TDIC was formed to oversee the development of the emirate’s real estate assets and create tourism projects according to the guidance of the Abu Dhabi government and ADTA. As part of the emirate’s drive to boost tourism, TDIC plans to build 17,500 new hotel rooms in the next five years and 5000 of these are already under design or construction. The company’s flagship project is a mixed-use development to be built on natural land 500 metres off the coast of Abu Dhabi city.||**|||~|Tabler---large.gif|~|Lee Tabler, CEO, TDIC: “We will be the pioneers in environmentally-friendly development.|~|Saadiyat Island currently boasts lush mangrove forests, which will remain untouched by the development. “We will be the pioneers in environmentally-friendly development,” says Lee Tabler, CEO, TDIC. “We anticipated as a developer the need to keep the environmental areas associated with our project in this pristine condition, and we will work very carefully around the edges of the mangrove forest to avoid damaging any of the trees. The environmental agencies here in Abu Dhabi are very particular about that. “This is going to be one of the major factors that distinguish Abu Dhabi from Dubai in terms of its development.” The Saadiyat Island project will comprise hotels, residential units, luxurious villas, and a cultural district. The latter will include five museums, educational facilities, artists’ parks, and artists-in-residence studios and last month, the TDIC revealed it had signed a contract to build a Guggenheim Museum in the district; the sixth and largest museum of its kind in the world. Traditionally, cultural attractions have not interested Arab nationals, with most opting to savour the shopping and nightlife of the cities they visit, rather than art galleries and museums. But the ADTA believes this is a trend that will be bucked. “Many things will change as Abu Dhabi grows,” explains director general, Mubarak Hamad Al Muhairi. “With the development of the cultural district, the taste of the local market and people within the GCC will also change. “People have not been in touch with cultural activities up to this point, but how can you have an interest in art if you have no art galleries?” he says. He believes the presence of a cultural district will generate an appreciation of art and culture. throughout the UAE. “The current branding of Abu Dhabi is gaining the respect of the world,” he adds. Time for convention Abu Dhabi is also hoping to gain a reputation as a world-renowned MICE destination. Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC) is currently building a new exhibition centre (on the existing convention centre site), which will boast 57,000m² floor space, a 21,000m² visitor concourse and 7,500m² worth of multi-purpose halls, with conference facilities for up to 1200 people, and more than 30 meeting rooms. The first phase of the project is scheduled to be completed by December 2006, in time to host the IDEX 2007 defence exhibition and conference. ADNEC has also joined forces with the UK’s Reed Travel Exhibitions to host the Gulf’s first MICE exposition in March. GIBTM will be an offshoot of EIBTM, which is staged in Barcelona every year. The area surrounding the new centre is scheduled for immediate development and will include hotels, serviced apartments catering to around 2000 people, 17 office towers, a marina development and a retail zone featuring more than 100 outlets. The Kempinski-owned Emirates Palace, which opened in February 2005, has also boosted awareness of Abu Dhabi as a premium MICE destination. The seven-star hotel is largest meeting and conference venue in the Middle East and North Africa, offering 7000m² of space. Last year it hosted the GCC Leaders Summit and the World Leadership Summit in November, and earlier this year, the first Annual Masters of Excellence exhibition; a four-day showcase of luxury lifestyle brands. “The Emirates Palace is a landmark not only for the UAE but for the [rest of the] Arab world as well,” says general manager, Noel Massoud. “The whole essence of the Palace represents the rich culture and dramatic tapestry of Arabian customs and traditions; we are proud to be identified as an Arabian icon and this is reflected in the services that we have and the amenities that we offer.” Up in the clouds One of the key drivers to inbound growth is the rapidly expanding Abu Dhabi-based UAE flag carrier, Etihad Airways and its leisure division, Eithad Holidays. The latter produces a comprehensive colour brochure featuring detailed information on the emirate regarding culture and habits, as well as hotels and getaways, which has helped promote the emirate as a leisure destination in the MENA and European markets in particular. “Abu Dhabi has always been seen as a commercial city, but never as a tourist destination,” explains Ken Bates, manager planning and purchasing for Etihad Holidays. “The majority of the business is still commercial rather than tourism, but the balance is shifting; the pendulum is moving quite quickly. Etihad was the first to try to expose it as a tourism centre.” According to Bates, it has been hard to win custom from some of the major inbound markets that already have a well-established network of travel agents and tour operators. “[But] in newer markets like South Africa, where there are relatively few mature operators on the market, we can make further penetration and be more successful,” he says. Abu Dhabi has also been well received in Sri Lanka and Norway, he adds. No room at the inn It is universally agreed that the current lack of hotel rooms in Abu Dhabi is stunting the emirate’s growth, and although plans to build 80 new hotels are in the pipeline, until they open their doors, the problem will remain. “For the next few years there will be a shortage of beds,” explains Bates. “This has been exacerbated by the fact that a few hotels have been closed for refurbishment or knocked down to make way for new ones.” He says that in peak times, availability is becoming increasingly tight and that room rates rocket as a result, although they are still considerable cheaper than Dubai. Availability issues are unavoidable given the nature of the Middle Eastern traveller’s late booking habits, he adds. The Hilton Abu Dhabi has seen average occupancies rocket from 55% in 2004 to 85% in 2005. “We’re expecting to exceed that this year,” says Kevin Brett, the hotel’s general manager. “There is no reason why these high levels of occupancy won’t continue for the next few years until some of the new hotels open, and even then, with the ongoing increase in the number of infrastructure projects, there will be corporate business all the time.” Although the Hilton primarily caters to corporate business, its leisure component is growing due to hotel facilities such as the spa and beach club, two large ballrooms, several smaller meetings rooms, and 14 food and beverage outlets, which generate 55% to 60% of the hotel’s revenue, according to Brett. But with the current shortage of rooms it’s hard to balance the number of business and leisure guests, he says. “When big expositions in town and occupancy levels soar, it almost kills the tourism market,” he explains. “But the new conference centre will spread that out. We don’t want to be only corporate, and we don’t want to be only leisure; you need your eggs spread about if you want to survive.” Jean-Pierre Trabut, general manager, Le Meridien Abu Dhabi, is concerned that with many top-end hotel builds planned, there will be “saturation in the five-star market”. “People should start looking at different categories of hotels; you look at a plane and you have three categories of seats, and that should be the same with hotels,” he says. “I just don’t think there will be the clientele to fill 20,000 five-star bedrooms.” Big-name hotel brands first began appearing in Abu Dhabi in the seventies when the city first came to life as a business destination. They include the Sheraton Abu Dhab||**|||~|Saadiyat-Island.gif|~||~|Resort and Towers, which has held prime position on the northern corner of Abu Dhabi’s Corniche since 1979 and primarily caters to business travellers although the beach, swimming pool and eight F&B outlets keep leisure guests entertained. James Munro, general manager of the hotel, and area manager, UAE, believes that Abu Dhabi has huge potential as a niche eco tourism destination. “There are long-term advantages of having eco-tourism projects and we could eventually see something similar to the Maldives taking place. Everything is on a smaller scale than Dubai; a more intimate scale,” he says. Out of town Outside of Abu Dhabi’s city, the emirate boasts a wealth of historical sights and places to visit, many of which have only recently started to appear in brochures. The three main areas of interest are Al Ain, Liwa and Jebel Dhanna. Al Ain, or the Garden City as it is known locally for its lush greenery, is an oasis that was founded on the ancient camel route to Oman. Situated 148kms from the capital, Al Ain offers visitors a retreat set away from the cars and high-rise buildings, where guests can enjoy the scenery and some of the historic forts dotted around the desert. According to Lisa Wood, senior sales manager, InterContinental Resort Al Ain, the destination is a popular getaway for UAE residents who represent around 60% of the hotel’s guests annually. “Regionally guests are mainly from Saudi Arabia and Oman, but also Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt,” she explains. “Internationally, our main leisure visitors are from Germany, but this is definitely expanding now throughout the rest of Europe and beyond.” Further out of town, Liwa is located 240km from the city, surrounded by vast sand dunes and stunning desert landscape. In the opposite direction on the edge of the vast Empty Quarter that borders Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, the Danat Resort, Jebel Dhanna offers guests a refreshing break from city life and access to the stunning Sir Bani Yas island wildlife reserve. (See page 10) Lessons learned In spite of its late start, the development of Abu Dhabi as a tourism destination will benefit from observing the growth of Dubai, according to some industry experts. Anwar Abu Monassar, branch manager, Net Tours, Abu Dhabi, believes the tourism industry will need to sit back and be patient if it wants to succeed. “The development of Abu Dhabi is still very much in its infancy,” he explains. “We need to have a bit of courage, and the process has to be slow; you need time to adjust and to train people to deal with tourism; if you have no professionals to look after guests you could destroy the destination. “People coming for leisure and incentive holidays need a different level of service to those coming for business trips. “We must go ahead step by step and we have to keep control.” But despite taking its time when it comes to building the infrastructure for tourism to thrive, Abu Dhabi has ensured that when the time comes to open the floodgates, the demand for the emirate will be strong. “No one destination has made so much progress in one year, in terms of generating an international awareness of what is on offer,” says Monassar. “Trade has been slower this summer, but now that the World Cup has finished, the Germans and the Brits will start to come back to Abu Dhabi.” The Thomas Cook World Tour is set to take place in Abu Dhabi from December 7 to 14. More than 270 travel professionals from across the globe are expected to attend the event, giving the emirate huge exposure and allowing trade to see first hand what it has to offer. The opening of the new convention centre will occur at the same time and therefore offer a golden opportunity to sell Abu Dhabi to the world, as well as setting the scene for the inevitable boom that will follow. ||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|GETTING THERE: Etihad Airways: from Casablanca, four weekly; from Damascus, six weekly; from Khartoum, three weekly; from Kuwait, six weekly; from Muscat, daily. Gulf Air: from Bahrain, 24 weekly; from Muscat, 18 weekly. Kuwait Airways: twice weekly. Middle East Airlines: five weekly. Qatar Airways: five daily from Doha. Royal Jet: Abu Dhabi’s leading charter flight operator can fly to any regional destination with an airport. Charter flights for business groups can work out cheaper than First Class travel on commercial airlines, and offers customers more privacy. Royal Jordanian: daily from Amman. Saudi Arabian Airlines: from Riyadh, five weekly. NEW PROJECTS: Saadiyat Island: a huge mixed-used development located 500 metres off the coast of Abu Dhabi. The natural island is partly covered with lush mangrove swamps that will be preserved by developers under ADTA’s strict environmental policies. The island will boast 19km of beaches, two golf courses, 29 hotels comprising more than 7000 rooms, including an iconic seven-star property, three marinas with berthing for 1000 vessels, around 8000 private villas, resorts set on spectacular beaches, more than 38,000 apartments and eight iconic ‘string of pearl’ architectural landmarks housing museums, a concert hall, art gallery and other major cultural offerings. Shams Abu Dhabi: will be built on Reem Island; another natural landmass just off the coast of the capital. The development will provide residential units for up to 100,000, when it is completed in 2011. Emirates Pearl: a 47-storey tower comprising hotel units and serviced apartments, targeted at both leisure and business travellers. Al Raha Beach: a new city occupying 7.2 million m² of beachfront, which will house up to 120,000 residents on the beach side of the main highway leading into Abu Dhabi from Dubai. Al Gurm: a waterfront resort and residential complex on the western edge of Abu Dhabi island. The resort will consist of a premier 161-room international luxury hotel and 59 exclusive villas. Angsana Resort and Spa: will be the Middle East’s first Angsana property; a US $110 million eco-friendly development in Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangroves district. SPECIAL OFFERS: The InterContinental Resort Al Ain is offering UAE residents rooms from AED 259 ($71) per night, including use of all the leisure facilities and a 25% discount on food and beverages, until the end of August. There is also a residential delegate rate for conferences of AED 499 ($136) for a single room including breakfast, lunch, dinner and meeting facilities, valid until September 15. Net Tours is offering 25% off half-day safaris, 20% off dhow cruises, and 15% off city tours throughout the summer. USEFUL LINKS: www.exploreabudhabi.ae/, www.etihadairways.com, www.etihadholidays.com/, www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton, www.nettoursdubai.com/abu, www.orient-tours-uae.com, www.hilton.com.||**||

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