Russia, US in Abu Dhabi’s feeder plan

Having staked its tourism dollar on culture, Abu Dhabi is now putting its licensing and infrastructure into place, with new rules for agents and a new hotel classification. SHALU CHANDRAN chats up the ADTA’s Mubarak Al Muhairi to find out more
Expect more sporting events, such as the Red Bull Air Race in Abu Dhabi

Do you have tourist arrival figures to-date for 2006? Where are the tourists coming from?
I’ve just looked at the numbers and both arrivals and hotel occupancy figures in the first six months of 2006 are higher than last year.

Following on from a good year in 2005 – Abu Dhabi registered the highest occupancy rate according to the Deloitte’s international report – we expect another good year for Abu Dhabi hotels and arrivals. It would be difficult to state a number till the year end, but we have been very active in UK and Germany through our representative office. We are only two years old, and when we look at the numbers for arrivals and hotel occupancy, we are surpassing all numbers forecasted when the ADTA was formed in 2004, and that is probably pushing us to revise our forecasts of three million targets next year. Now we have seen part of three years we will have a pattern to actually forecast our future growth. 2007 will be our third year in operations and we expect to grow bigger and faster in our promotional marketing or the other things we do like our projects, our events.
The emirate had almost 2.5 million guest nights in 2004, which is almost 17.2 per cent up from 2003. With a majority of tourists arriving from the UK.
Two years ago, tourism was not on our agenda, but it’s a different scene today.

With Etihad flying to Toronto and now New York, are you looking at the American market?
The Americas are not in our short-term target. For the first three-five years our focus will be on Western Europe, GCC and partially Asia for reasons including connectivity and awareness. Right now we are focusing on our priority markets. By the end of the year we hope to open a representative office in France. We are also planning to have some PR representation in Scandinavia and Russia. With Etihad scheduled to fly to Moscow from next year, so with more connectivity through airlines, there will be more promotions and more representation. We need to gain some experience in the market before we open a full-fledged office there.

With 4,000 new rooms scheduled to open in the next three years, what is being done to maintain the infrastructure of the city?
If you are talking about soft infrastructure, we are now the agency taking control of licensing and we have been able to successfully attract many tour operators. Recently we arranged for [Egyptian leisure group] Travco to open its Abu Dhabi office in partnership with the Abu Dhabi National Hotels. We have been able to attract more ground handlers who have been working with Dubai for many years. So, from 2007 they will have their own operations from Abu Dhabi. When it comes to hard infrastructure, the airport is undergoing some major redevelopment. Etihad is growing and new hotels are coming. We also have different kinds of hotels coming into the market, from exclusive resorts to more business city hotels. Today the focus is to develop more branded projects, desert resorts will be announced soon and more high profile hotels as well.

The new licensing polices for local travel agents have affected many agents. What is behind this new drive?
We want to have quality service providers. The market used to suffer from very small operators who will not give full customer satisfaction, they might sell a ticket, but with a lot of hassle. When they arranged tours in Abu Dhabi, they failed to keep a lot of promises. So we put in place some requirements, they are used in other emirates as well. I don’t want to say regulating, but sometimes in order to develop a destination you need to maintain high level of services to visitors, to people who deal with this sector so we had to put some requirements like there should be a GM, and accountant – it cannot be a one-man show. We license these agents, so in case of complaints, complaints come to us. So we had to do something about it.

I believe you’re putting a new hotel classification system in place?
We have been working very successfully with the hotels, with their committee, regarding the new classification system, and by the end of the year we should be able to implement this new system. We are not going really strong against them, since we realize this sector has been left without any guidance for a long time and people have been investing, so we cannot tell them we will downgrade you, so we work on a time plan, when are they going to refurbish, when are they going to add the elements, we need a plan, even if it is a two- or three-year plan.

What is the ADTA’s main focus for Abu Dhabi? Culture is very strong?
Our cultural plan, which is our main focus, with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) working on the Saadiyat Island that will house the new Guggenheim museum.
The Abu Dhabi Heritage and Culture Authority (ADACH) is a new entity established by ADTA this year. ADTA is a unique tourism board because we are not only a marketing entity but also work with regulation and licensing classifications, and in the investment and development part of the sector.
Our natural resources are the desert, the sea and islands, and these will be the upcoming products that will distinguish Abu Dhabi from its neighbours. Abu Dhabi is almost 80 per cent of the UAE and has hundreds of kilometres of virgin beaches and at the end of the day its about sun and beach. The TDIC is also working with many desert sites and ADACH is working on restoring some of the hundreds of archaeological sites between Al Ain and the western region.
The government wants to develop a sense of art in the city, which we never had because we don’t know what it is. We hope 20 years from now people living here will be more appreciative of art and the culture because it is also about appreciating other religions, culture, civilizations and history.
We are working closely with Abu Dhabi Classical Music Committee which hosts the Al Ain Classical Music Festival in March. The Berlin Orchestra is coming to Abu Dhabi in December. There will be more cultural announcements soon.
Events are also important to us and we have now laid out a calendar, with more pencilled in for next year, mostly in sports because of the media and excitement it generates and the celebrities it brings. International educational institutes are coming here, the MICE market is now attracting companies like Reed, dmg and IIR.