Desert stars: Local authorities plan expansion of the region’s tourism sector

The development of Al Gharbia contributes to the region’s hope to build its tourism sector over the next decade. The sector accounted for Dh200m ($54m), or 1.3%, of the region’s GDP in 2010, according to the Statistics Centre – Abu Dhabi. As the targets of Plan Al Gharbia 2030 continue to be met, this figure is expected to hit Dh1.2bn ($327m), or 5.2%, by 2020.

Although it is ambitious, the goal appears to be matched by the scale of touristic developments that are springing up throughout Al Gharbia. In fact, the tourism segment is expanding throughout the emirate, as confirmed by a survey by US-based credit card firm Mastercard, which found that Abu Dhabi will see a 20.7% increase in tourism spending in 2012.

FESTIVALS: Emirati heritage is on display at a number of festivals, many of them attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year. “The Liwa Date Festival celebrates an old tradition at the town, whereby residents compete every year to produce the finest dates,” Mohamed Al Hosani, the director of the regional development division at the Western Region Development Council (WRDC), told OBG. In 2012 more than 70,000 residents and foreign tourists were expected to watch the date competition and associated activities, including a cooking event, an agricultural tradeshow, artistic displays and folkloric performances.

An annual camel festival at Al Dhafra is also said to be drawing growing numbers from around the region, including Saudis, Qataris and Omanis. “Around 26,000 camels were entered in the events at one recent festival, so there’s clearly a lot of work involved. There are the beauty contests and races, the auction, and the trading market. This all requires a lot of services,” Al Hosani told OBG. The camels form the centrepiece of the festival, but there is also a saluki dog race, a falconry contest and a photography competition.

SPORTING: Alongside these events, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (now part of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority) set up some 160 stands in traditional a souk to showcase handicrafts.

Entertainment of a more contemporary kind is to be found at the annual Al Gharbia Watersports Festival at Mirfa – arguably the region’s leading watersports event, attracting 70,000 visitors in 2010.

Inland, the desert is also ripe for competition: at the Festival of Tel Moreeb (the scary mountain), four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorbikes attempt to scale enormous sand dunes. Similarly, in Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, rally drivers can score points as part of the international FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup.

RESORTS: In addition to events which bring a large number of tourists to the area for a short period of time, a more steady flow of touristic revenue is being earned by a growing number of hotels and resorts, both in Al Gharbia and more generally in the emirate. Combination tour packages could see the region benefit from development elsewhere in the emirate.

For example, following the opening of its third hotel in Abu Dhabi City in mid-2012, Thai hotel developer Anantara plans to offer deals that will send guests out of the city to two of Al Gharbia’s foremost hospitality facilities: Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort and Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara on Sir Bani Yas Island. The former is a five-star hotel situated in the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest uninterrupted body of sand. The latter is a combined beach resort and safari lodge on an island full of African and Arabian wildlife. Sir Bani Yas Island is one of several desert islands that, according to Plan Al Gharbia 2030, are to receive around $3bn in investment and generate some 6500 jobs. From 2012, Desert Islands Resort & Spa will be home to a 540-guest conference centre and a watersports facility, while the Al Yamm Lodge is due to open in 2013.

Complementing the Watersports Festival at Mirfa, Al Marfa Pearl Hotels Management is in the midst of upgrading an existing 50-room hotel, adding an extra 50 rooms and new watersports facilities. But as in the case of Sir Bani Yas, this is just the beginning: by 2030, Mirfa is envisaged as becoming a major luxury resort, with beach villas, a racecourse and a centre for tennis.


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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

Al Gharbia chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

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