You’ve seen the ads. Desert dunes, cutting-edge architecture, an azure sea dotted with white sails…all made accessible with a single tagline: “Travelers welcome.” Abu Dhabi is ramping up its tourism promotion, and it’s paying off. Over 2.1 million people stayed in the emirate’s hotels in 2011, beating the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority’s target figure of 2 million. A beefed-up marketing campaign by Etihad Airways, the national airline of the UAE, is also helping position Abu Dhabi as a must-visit destination, not just a stopover between long-haul flights.
On a recent trip to Abu Dhabi, Travel Agent had a chance to crisscross the emirate that comprises more than 80 percent of the landmass of the UAE. Of Abu Dhabi’s many wonders (and there are many), we were most struck by the dizzying pace with which it’s been built. Shortly after the discovery of oil in 1958, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan—then ruler of Abu Dhabi—brought the seven emirates together in a union. An entire country was built from scratch in a matter of decades. A desert backwater with no infrastructure has seen unprecedented development, as oil revenues have created a cosmopolitan metropolis (Abu Dhabi City) and transformed the society with accessible health care, housing and education—with many more Emirati women enrolling in higher education than Emirati men.
Though Abu Dhabi is one of the world’s largest producers of oil, economic diversification through tourism is a key initiative. To make this happen, the workforce has been imported from abroad, and today expatriates make up over 80 percent of the population. Strategically, the main focus for Abu Dhabi is culture, both in the contemporary arts and authentic heritage. While sister emirate Dubai has developed a reputation for Vegas-style decadence (home to the world’s largest shopping mall, the tallest building and an indoor ski resort), Abu Dhabi aims to engage the international community through other channels.
A Cultural Hub
Pritzker prize-winning “starchitects” have been recruited to build iconic landmarks that will draw the world’s culturati. Just one of these buildings could accomplish for Abu Dhabi what Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim did for Bilbao: thrust the city onto the world stage. Five museums are slated for the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island, just off the coast: the flagship Guggenheim museum (Frank Gehry), a performing arts center (Zaha Hadid), the Zayed National Museum (Norman Foster), the Maritime Museum (Tadao Ando) and the Louvre (Jean Nouvel)—the first international outpost for the world’s oldest and most visited museum. To get an overview of these projects and the vision behind Saadiyat Island, clients should pay a visit to the Manarat Al Saadiyat, an impressive exhibition space.
Another architectural landmark: The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, its 80 marble domes rising from the hazy horizon like a desert mirage. Built as a symbol of the country’s tolerance, the mosque is open to everyone (including non-Muslims) daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., except for Friday morning service, when 40,000 worshippers fill one of the largest mosques in the world. Master craftsmen decorated 1,000 columns with semiprecious stones and affixed 24-carat gold to the top of domes. Inside, a 9.5-ton chandelier (studded with Swarovski crystal and Murano glass) hangs over the world’s largest handmade carpet.
There’s also been significant investment in showcasing the emirate’s traditional Bedouin culture. In Al Ain, the ancestral home of the UAE’s founder, the oasis has been restored so that visitors can stroll through the cool palm plantation, watered by the ancient falaj irrigation system. Get the lay of the land from the rocky mountaintop of Jebel Hafeet, overlooking Al Ain and its surrounding ochre-colored canyons, reminiscent of the American Southwest. Visitors can visit the camel market, see the Al Ain Palace Museum (the modest, former home of the Sheikh in the pre-oil days), and discover the historic desert fort called Al Jahili.
Clients who stay at the
, will find the massive dunes of the
are at their doorstep. Situated in Abu Dhabi’s western
region, this terrain is part of the
, the largest continuous sand desert in the world. Here recreational pursuits like camel rides and falconry are the order of the day. Guests can learn more about the national pastime at
, the world’s biggest facility of its kind and now a tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi City.
Abu Dhabi is also drawing tourists with a string of high-profile concerts and sporting events. Rock stars such as Madonna routinely headline concerts; Tiger Woods kicked off his season at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January; the prestigious Volvo Ocean Race finished a leg in Abu Dhabi; and the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has one of the most unique racetracks in the world— straddled by the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, clad in a metallic armor of LED lights. Next door to the Yas Marina racetrack, the Ferrari Amusement Park has the fastest roller coaster in the world. Abu Dhabi is betting that these events, coupled with its natural and man-made attractions, will bring in the tourists to fill the hotels that are popping up at record speed.
More than 15 four- and five-star hotels opened in 2011, and in November alone, several major brands—including Westin, Rocco Forte and Jumeirah—all debuted within days of each other. Hotel occupancy levels were at 69 percent in 2011, a 7 percent increase over 2010, but the number of hotel rooms is expected to double in the next four years. As the hotel industry heads into an oversupply phase, consumers are spoiled for choice. There’s a wide array of beautiful hotels with competitive rates that represent a real value for the service standards. Industry analysts say this won’t last long, as the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority ramps up its promotional efforts and selectively limits the issuance of new hotel licenses.
The Corniche, the city’s landscaped boulevard that overlooks the turquoise Gulf, is anchored by the Emirates Palace, one of the most expensive hotels ever built at $3 billion. Another record-breaker is the Hyatt Capital Gate, which opened in December 2011 inside the “World’s Furthest Leaning Man-made Tower,” as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.
On Saadiyat Island, new resorts from St. Regis and Park Hyatt opened in late 2011 and March 2012 respectively; guests can take advantage of their setting on one of the region’s prettiest beaches. Straight from Monaco, the neighboring Monte Carlo Beach Club brings Riviera-style glamour to the Middle East. Joining the ranks of the established five-star properties such as the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri will be the new Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal; a Rosewood on Al Maryah Island; and Eastern Mangroves by Anantara, all slated to open this year. Le Bristol Abu Dhabi is in the pipeline for 2013.
A number of these hotels will likley be accommodating nearly 1,000 members of the World Travel & Tourism Council for its 13th Global Summit, April 8-10, 2013. The Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority and Eithad Airways will be the official hosts.
Getting There: Etihad Airways
From the U.S., Etihad Airways—the national airline of the United Arab Emirates—offers a daily nonstop flight to Abu Dhabi from both Chicago and New York, and plans to launch Washington, D.C., service in March 2013. Awarded “World’s Leading Airline” at the World Travel Awards for the last three years, Etihad has garnered praise for its premium product and service in particular.
The only airline with full food and beverage managers onboard, Etihad recently rolled out its First-Class Chef Program, whereby trained chefs with a minimum of five years’ restaurant experience customize meals for first-class passengers. Hot soups are ladled at each passenger’s seat, and chefs use whisks and mixing bowls to whip up requests on the spot.
The Diamond First Class Suite features sliding doors that ensure privacy, and the Poltrona Frau leather seat converts to a bed, with a 23-inch personal screen, wardrobe and personal minibar close at hand. First Class passengers get his and her pajamas, and special amenity kits that include a black cosmetic purse studded with Swarovski crystals for the ladies, and a cuff link box for the gentlemen. Both kits are filled with La Prairie toiletries.
In Pearl Business Class, too, each new Poltrona Frau seat converts to a fully flatbed, and has direct aisle access. Eat whenever you like, choosing from a menu that includes at least one local destination choice and one Arabic one. On our roundtrip from Paris to Abu Dhabi, we found that time flew by—especially with the Panasonic eX2 in-flight entertainment system.
Clients who choose to fly Coral Ecomony Class will enjoy the comfort of wide, ergonomically designed cradle seats that provide great support and space, with a seat pitch of between 32 and 34 inches. Adjustable headrests and integrated footrests enhance the comfort factor. A choice of up to three main courses are available. Individual 10.4-inch touchscreens, the largest economy class screens in the industry, provide 600 hours of on-demand entertainment, including the latest movies, TV shows, music and interactive games.