When you think of culture, think of Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Sultan: destination UAE

ABU Dhabi declared its intentions to go beyond the regional spend-and-shine formula last month, by announcing the emirate will host the world’s biggest Guggenheim museum at 30,000sqm, part of a strategy to bring in three million visitors by 2015. To be sited on the new Saadiyat Island development (or as it’s known inhouse at TTN, Happy Island), it even comes complete with big-name architect, Frank Gehry, who’s enough to bring the tourists in on his own.

“Abu Dhabi has an overriding ambition to be a cultural destination,” says Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) and the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), which owns the museum. “The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will reflect the local and cultural aspects of the city. We believe this will bridge the gap between the region and the rest of the world.”
To date, Abu Dhabi is forecast to award more than Dh47 billion ($12.8 billion) for construction projects by 2007, with total investment crossing Dh500 billion. Excerpts from an interview with SHALU CHANDRAN, about budget hotels, whether the emirate will have standalone alcohol-licensed restaurants and more:

What is Abu Dhabi’s tourism strategy?
We plan to position Abu Dhabi as an upscale tourist destination, and the Guggenheim will be part of a series of museums on Saadiyat Island to cater to this upscale market. We are also talking to people like the Louvre in Paris.

Where will the predicted Dh40 billion investment in tourism go?
We have the Saadiyat project, which is a huge and exciting project for Abu Dhabi. In the city itself we already have some cultural facilities and we have plans to run these in the coming years, so as to build awareness of culture in Abu Dhabi. We have new hotels, almost 5000 rooms in the coming two years, planned in the city, a new exhibition centre that will be home to exhibits and other [major trade] shows.

Abu Dhabi plans some 17,000 hotel rooms by 2015. What are your source markets?
Our target market for now is Europe, including the UK. However, in the future we are looking at Russia and East Asia. Also very important is the local and regional consumer.

Are you also aiming at the American market with flights such as Etihad to Toronto?
We are relying on that route mainly for business travellers. They feed into our numbers along with [leisure] visitors and in our plan by 2015, business travellers will account for 40 per cent of the total.

How about economy accommodation? Is the ADTA looking at this on a policy level?
This is really according to the private sector and how they see future market trends. I am aware of several three- and four-star hotels coming up, in particular major international brands such as Ibis. Of the 5,000 rooms announced, 90 per cent will be five-star and are already signed by major hotel companies. These will be leased through TDIC but many standalone projects have also been planned.

Any plans for festivals like the DSF?
We are working on plans, but it’s too early to announce anything.

An issue with many tourists is the lack of standalone alcohol-licensed F&B outlets. Is this policy likely to change?
We are working on the general legal and federal landscape law, that does not mean that we are not thinking flexibly, but yes while we are developing such establishments more within hotels, maybe, there is a possibility to open standalone restaurants in the city too. It will be in a controlled manner, since we have to respect the culture of the city. In fact now we are starting to apply our new tourism law, so we all have the same rules regarding tourism relations and policies.

How does Abu Dhabi differentiate itself from Dubai?
So far I am proud of the development taking place in Dubai, it’s been a very successful story. But Abu Dhabi, too, is trying to build itself as a tourism destination, relying mainly on our natural assets, the islands, the mangroves, the desert, the oasis. We are also looking at the cultural asset and these  will complement each other. The rest is organised by the private sector. Even tour operators are selling UAE as a package.

What lessons, if any, can Abu Dhabi learn from Dubai?
We are one country, and we are learning from Dubai’s experience. The problems they faced, the advantages they are tapping. And not just Dubai, we learn from successful stories worldwide.

Brand Abu Dhabi in three words?
It is actually branded with four words, ‘you will come back’. That is a main focus for the long term, repeated visitors.