Abu Dhabi’s quite unlike anywhere else

That’s how Abu Dhabi seeks to position itself, with an offering comprising heritage, culture and art, sport, sun and beach and MICE, Mubarak Al Muhairi of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority tells KEITH J FERNANDEZ
Al Muhairi: Abu Dhabi’s islands will be unique

Inceasingly, as Abu Dhabi announces the Gulf’s second Formula One (set for 2009) or a cultural and museum district at Saadiyat Island (with local versions of the Louvre and Guggenheim), the emirate’s approach to tourism actually seems to be making sense.

Rather than being driven to make a decision, as a nation whose economy depends on vital tourism revenue, Abu Dhabi seems in no hurry to raise the number of visitors streaming through its arrival gates. Case in point: its target visitor numbers for 2015 are a mere three million. By then, Dubai hopes to have crossed 15 million – but they were compelled to get started earlier.
Perhaps this is because the emirate actually does have a lot of disposable income at hand, and is able to make its decisions the way a canny shopper might – look around, ask for a few of the best options, and then put your money down where it will work the most for you.
So where does Abu Dhabi hope to be on the tourism map? TTN asked Mubarak Al Muhairi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Excerpts:

If you could outline briefly, Abu Dhabi’s tourism strategy – obviously sport and culture seem to be key factors, but how do they fit together? Is there more to this than we know?
We place Abu Dhabi tourism at the high end of the market. Our source markets are Europe, GCC and part of Asia. We believe events are important for the growth of any tourism destination, whether cultural or sporting events. Sporting events are more important at this stage because of the number of viewers and the media attention they attract. Several have already been announced and more will be announced in the near future, some sport, some culture, some music.
Besides events, we focus on MICE, which is an important part of our tourism strategy. By 2015 we expect three million hotel guests. It will not be possible to calculate through entry points and people might come through Dubai or Sharjah, so we are focusing on the number of guests staying in hotels. To achieve our target for 2015, we need to double our business travellers. In 2004, we found that 25 per cent of guests were business travellers, we want to raise this to 50 per cent in the future. So we kicked off this development with the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center, our sister company and by September 2008, the second phase will be complete and this will be our backbone for any MICE business. At the same time we are encouraging DMCs and operators specialized in conferences and meetings to set up a base here. Over the last two years, we have been able to build more confidence with the stakeholders. Travco is here, Arabian Adventure is expanding their setup, Planet Tours have their license already and more international companies are coming.
On the hotel development front, we expect to add about 5000 rooms by 2010 – not just city hotels or conference hotels and resorts, but unique destination properties on our islands, among the mangroves, in the deserts.

And your islands.
Yes. We have launched the Saadiyat Island and have been expanding our developments on the island. We expect at least eight resorts on Saadiyat beach by the end of 2009 to strengthen our sun and beach product offer. We are also focusing on the western region of Abu Dhabi, because in that area, Abu Dhabi has tens of islands and for ATM, we may have a mega product to launch in that area – targeting the European market. It will be the only product competing with what destinations like Maldives, Mauritius or Seychelles have to offer, so very high-end luxury. It will be a cluster of natural islands with more than one operator. Most of what we are have been trying to accomplish for the last two years will start to pay off for Abu Dhabi –all the major hotel operators are already here with developers and investors. Some are under construction, some about to open, others in the design stage. 2009 and 2010 will be when Abu Dhabi starts getting its returns on all the initiatives of last year.
Add to that the hundreds of archaeological sites and historical buildings in Abu Dhabi – once these are developed, I think we will have a very strong offering when it comes to archeology, old forts and building, regeneration. So it’s heritage, culture and art, sport, MICE and sun and beach. The European market will discover a new destination in Abu Dhabi not available anywhere in the world.

As Etihad Airways expands, how do you plan to strike the balance between hub and destination?
You cannot avoid the overnight one- or two-day experience. But that is how you help create a destination, because most of the travellers who come for two nights stay on their way from Europe to the Far East or to Australia, usually plan a longer trip on their return. I recently understood from the GM at the Danat Resort Jebel Dhanna that over 80 per cent (after registering 80 per cent occupancy) of his guests were coming on holidays and were staying at an average of eight to ten days. And no excursions, but they stayed at the hotel. The success of properties like that gives us the confidence to reach out to people looking for hideaways, pure sun and beach, with some wildlife or desert thrown in.

How much do you work with the other emirates?
This is really not in my hand, or in the hand of any other emirates. It is all in the hands of the tour operators. And with many operators from Dubai expanding into Abu Dhabi and they have always been happy with any new offering, any new product coming in Abu Dhabi – or for that matter any of the other emirates – since it adds to their itinerary. So, this is how it is in the UAE, we are always trying to see how best to complement each other, so we don’t repeat or copy the same product.

Do you feel that there is a need for a UAE tourist authority – that unites the needs of the seven emirates?
I do think there is a need. The body is there already, it is called the National Council of Tourism and Antiquities and is chaired by the minister of culture. This is an important for co-ordination among the emirates but also because all the governmental agreements need to be signed by the federal government.

What about a new classification of hotels?
We have been working very closely with hotels and are almost done with our classification system. It will be strictly implemented in all the new developments. With existing hotels, since they were never regulated, we will have long term plans in upgrading what will necessarily take time.

What about visitors from the US market? Is that opening up with Etihad and EK?
Yes, that is a big and important market. But in Abu Dhabi we started only two years back and our priority is to focus on what is the closest and easiest for us to penetrate, so Europe and the GCC come first. Now we have started looking at Australia and Far East, because of Etihad, and so we will look at North and South America as Etihad does so.