Abu Dhabi vies for spot on tourism map

Abu Dhabi, looking to tap into the thriving tourism market in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), plans to offer a cultural bonanza rather than follow Dubai in focusing on shopping holidays.

Centrepiece of the quiet emirate’s mega project to lure tourists is the construction of four museums, including a Guggenheim and, perhaps, a local version of the famous Louvre of Paris, as well as an art centre.

This week, the projects that will be built on the island of Saadiyat, were unveiled in the presence of four world-renowned architects, organisers said.

Other projects include the development of a beach resort at the entrance of Abu Dhabi and turning several natural islands, including Reem, Yas and mainly Saadiyat, into popular tourist destinations.

Only about 1,35-million tourists visited Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, in 2006 — a modest figure that the authorities intend to increase to three million by 2015.

By contrast, Dubai remains the top tourist destination in the Gulf, attracting over six million visitors in 2005 and now making plans to receive about 15-million a year from 2010.

To cope with its own expected influx of visitors, Abu Dhabi is planning to increase hotel capacity from 11 500 rooms to 25 000 rooms by 2015, according to the government-run Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

The emirate is rich enough to do so. It pumps 90% of the country’s crude-oil production of 2,5-million barrels per day, making the UAE an influential Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries member.

But it has been seeking to diversify its economy and modernise its image since the death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan — the founder and first president of the UAE — in November 2004.

The inauguration in 2005 of the Emirates Palace — a gigantic luxurious hotel built in the shape of a royal palace — has revealed the standards set by the rich city, which until recently, never liked to flaunt its wealth.

Encouraged by colossal receipts of oil revenues following the surge in world crude prices, Abu Dhabi has kicked off construction projects representing investments of about $300-billion, with tourism topping the agenda.

The first of the four museums to be built in the “cultural district” on Saadiyat will be the “Guggenheim Abu Dhabi”, which will be the largest in the world among the museums of the Guggenheim foundation.

In addition to this contemporary art museum, Saadiyat will have a museum for classical art, for which local authorities are negotiating with the Louvre.

Completing the cultural quarter will be a maritime museum and an Islamic art museum.

AlDar Properties, a construction company founded by the government of Abu Dhabi in 2004, plans to build 29 hotels — one a seven-star facility — on Saadiyat island, which would bring 7 000 rooms on to the market.

It will also feature three marinas that can handle 1 000 yachts, in addition to 8 000 villas and 38 000 apartments that will be available also for foreign buyers.

About $27-billion are earmarked for investment in Saadiyat, which stretches over 27 square kilometres and sits only 500m offshore.

Because Abu Dhabi is still inspired by Dubai, it has begun organising international sports events, such as the Abu Dhabi Open golf tournament.

It will also host, on February 3 2007, the first “festival of Formula One,” in preparation for the new season of the grand prix motor racing series. — AFP

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