In full bloom
PEARHEADING a policy of cultural tourism that will share the traditions, values and warmth of Al Ain’s hospitality, HE Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan is anxious to provide visitors with a totally different tourist experience.
Undersecretary at the Diwan of the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region, Sheikh Sultan is also chairman of Al Ain Economic Department and Tourism Promotion Authority that was established in October 2000.
“Modern tourists may have little opportunity to visit and enjoy a traditional location provided by Al Ain. An oasis city that retains its distinctive culture and heritage, it also places the UAE within its rich historical context and offers superb modern facilities, services and attractions,” says Sheikh Sultan.
Abu Dhabi’s second largest city,
Al Ain is a destination with a difference, with tourism deve-lopment a key element in the Eastern Region’s economic development strategy to complement agriculture, education and science.
“Fast emerging as a destination for discerning international and regional travellers, key aspects of Al Ain’s tourism development are its formidable cultural and environmental credentials,” adds Sheikh Sultan.
Surrounded by the dramatic Hajar Mountains, Al Ain’s heritage dates back through continuous settlement for more than 7,000 years and as a resting place for the ancient caravan serai travelling across the Arabian peninsula.
Its flourishing history is due to the abundance of natural spring water and date palms. Archeologists excavating sites since the 1950s have found Stone Age tombs with arrowheads and tools now displayed at Al Ain Museum.
In May 2003, a protocol was signed with UNESCO to protect and enhance Al Ain’s cultural heritage. This includes fine museums and 42 forts originally built to protect the oases for which Al Ain is famous.
Also in 1999, the World Wildlife Fund recognised the UAE government’s efforts to protect Al Ain’s environment for future generations by awarding UAE’s President HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan with its highest honour, the Gold Panda.
“Al Ain has much to offer the traditional and modern-day traveller. Importantly, we are seeking to position it as a separate but complementary destination to other UAE tourism offerings. Over the past few years we have made steady progress in planning and developing the city for tourism with several projects implemented and many at the planning stage.
“We are launching our brand soon at international travel exhibitions showcasing Al Ain as a destination with a difference and highlighting our tourism potential as we expect 2004 to be very successful,” says Sheikh Sultan.
“Careful as we go have been the watchwords as the Tourism Authority lays the foundations for an infrastructure able to handle the expected international and regional tourists in an appropriate way. We have ensured through careful planning and consultation procedures that development will enhance and not detract from our city. We have been busy in the classification of various tourism facilities and embarked on the training of young Emiratis. “
“Last year, we hosted the highly-successful FIFA World Youth Cup and there is increasing intra-regional travel. Al Ain is raising its profile, investing, building awareness, making strategic partnerships with the tourist industry to make our offerings both tasteful and complementary but always maintaining our special quality as a destination with a difference,” he says.
As well as developing its tourism infrastructure Al Ain has a select portfolio of five-star hotels including international brands like the InterContinental, Hilton and Rotana, and the Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet, set on top of the highest UAE mountain.
Al Ain International Airport has been extended, and the Tourism Authority is promoting an ambitious and distinctive programme of cultural and tourism events, different to the typical UAE offerings.
Over time, it has been transformed into a beautifully landscaped garden city renowned for its lush parks, extensive afforestation, natural water resources and agricultural land. It is estimated that 150 million trees have been planted in the last half century and there are more than 11,000 farms combining to create a unique microclimate.
The patronage and personal interest of Sheikh Zayed in the city has stimulated development. He founded Al Ain University in 1966 that now has more than 15,000 students as well as schools and hospitals with Tawam Hospital, a specialist centre for cancer treatment and IVF.
“Importantly, Sheikh Zayed has always insisted on conserving and encouraging cultural values, and the importance of heritage and environmental care together with changes to enhance the quality of life and career opportunities for the people. Development is sensitive and appropriate to Al Ain’s implicit values,” says Sheikh Sultan.
The Garden City’s potential for tourism growth and recreation has long been recognised with the city significantly cooler and drier in the summer than coastal UAE cities and consequently ideal for weekend breaks and day trips given its prime location close to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Tourist attractions include a zoo and aquarium, the largest in the UAE; Al Hili Fun City, the biggest regional theme park; and the spectacular Ain Al Fayda resort with lakes, parks and nature trails to the south of the city at the base of Jebel Hafeet.
There is also Al Qattarah oasis and Al Ain Al Hosn Palace Museum, based on the President’s recently-refurbished private residence.
Sheikh Sultan is looking at specific developments in Al Ain including golf courses to complement the existing array of sand and green courses. The latest, now part of the master planning, will be Jebel Hafeet golf course, set amid a major resort development area and sympathetically built surrounded by natural beauty.