Island race: Major new developments are set to offer a variety of attractions

The emirate of Abu Dhabi is made up of a collection of islands, many of them largely uninhabited, creating a natural platform for the zoning of new tourism master projects. Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) believes that making each island a distinct development node to showcase a particular offering should lead to a greater variety of options and length of stay for prospective visitors, as well as helping avoid the potential for excessive competition between the destinations.

Spreading visitors throughout the emirate also encourages economic expansion in some of the less-developed regions, as the projects are not focused on developing tourism attractions in isolation, and include mixed-use infrastructure that should stand to benefit the local communities.

Entertainment Offerings

 The 2500-ha Yas Island is a 30-minute drive from the city centre of Abu Dhabi and a 45-minute drive from Dubai. It is being developed as an integrated resort centred around theme parks and other attractions. Master planner Aldar, a property development, management and investment company, is unveiling the island’s attractions in stages.

The first of these was the Yas Marina Circuit, which is the venue for the annual F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. This major event serves double duty as a tourism contributor, bringing in spectators for the race itself and also attracting a large global TV audience, which exposes international viewers to what Abu Dhabi has to offer.

The next main attraction to launch was Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the only theme park to which the car brand has lent its name. Opened in 2010, it is the world’s largest indoor theme park. The most recent park to have come on-stream, Yas Waterworld, opened in January 2013.

Unique Appeal

 According to Craig McIntyre, the chief operating officer at Miral Asset Management, tasked with coordinating and packaging the island’s assets into a single destination, the mix of flagship attractions was chosen based on a desire to offer something for all segments of the market.

Ferrari World, which occupies a premium position, is a unique draw in the region. Yas Waterworld, in contrast, caters mostly for local residents and families, while at the same time offering something additional to incentivise international visitors to convert their stay in into a multi-day experience.

Surrounding the main attractions are a plethora of dining and retail options, including Yas Mall, which is set to become the country’s second-largest after Dubai Mall when it opens in 2014.

Du Arena allows entertainment seekers to keep busy into the evening, and has featured international music artists such as Elton John, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Rihanna and Madonna.

In addition, a number of new and revamped food and beverage outlets in the Yas Marina area are designed to appeal to a wide range of locals and expatriates. The redeveloped marina now includes five new restaurants, along with the refurbishment of two existing outlets. The island is also the setting for Yas Links Abu Dhabi, which has been voted the 24th-best golf course in the world outside the US.

Mice Destination

According to Clive Dwyer, Miral’s director of destination management, Yas Island is also seeking to establish itself as a MICE destination, and is currently running a campaign positioning the island as a place to “meet, stay and play”.

“We are now seeing strong growth in business events bookings due to the compact and modern nature of our meeting spaces and entertainment facilities. This is significant for Abu Dhabi, because business events not only attract high-yielding delegates, but also corporate and academic decision-makers from around the world. In addition, we are seeing pleasing growth in the number of leisure events and festivals evolving on the island,” Ziad Hourani, chief executive officer of Miral, told OBG.

Planners are currently looking to secure events with a capacity range of between 250 and 1200 attendees. These can be held at any number of the island’s hotels with meeting facilities, or at dedicated venues that include the Du Arena and Marina Circuit conference centre. “Looking at the bigger picture, in terms of where Yas Island now fits within the emirate’s overall tourism proposition, the attractions are serving as an extension and complement to the heritage and culture,” said Hourani.

Saadiyat Island

 Located just 500 metres off Abu Dhabi City’s mainland, Saadiyat Island is being developed into a cultural district, and is set to feature local branches of two of the world’s most renowned museums, the Louvre and the Guggenheim, both of which will be anchored by the Zayed National Museum as the district’s centrepiece.

Each of the museums will be architecturally significant in its own right, with Frank Gehry designing the Guggenheim; Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi; and Foster + Partners designing the National Museum. The construction of each of them is already under way, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi scheduled to open in 2015, the National Museum in 2016 and the Guggenheim set for 2017.

The 2.4m-sq-metre cultural district will also have a performing arts centre that is set to open in 2016, a 168,000-sq-metre shopping mall connecting the three museums expected for 2017, boutique hotels, a canal, a souk and luxury homes.

Culture will not be the island’s sole attraction, and visitors looking for beaches and marine activities can look to one of the luxury hotels in Saadiyat’s marina district, where real estate projects are under way to house 145,000 future residents.

In addition to a beachfront and the 1000-berth marina, features will include a maritime museum, a promenade with shopping complexes and restaurants, and a golf course. A New York University campus, which is expected to eventually enrol as many as 2500 students, will also be located in the district, and the British independent school Cranleigh is set to open the largest primary and secondary schools in the emirate. The island’s eastern coast has been divided into three sections – a secluded retreat area, a lagoon with housing scattered around islets, and a wetlands and mangrove reserve.

The developer tasked with overseeing the project’s master plan, which is expected to run until 2020, is the government-owned Tourism Development & Investment Company, established in 2006 with a portfolio of partnerships formed with international culture, hospitality and leisure brands.

In addition to the cultural partnerships secured with the Louvre, Guggenheim and the British Museum (which will be advising on the Zayed National Museum), partner hotel brands that have committed to properties on the island, all of which are expected to be of the five-star beach resort variety, include the already operational Monte Carlo, St. Regis and Park Hyatt, with a Rotana and Shangri-La expected to open in the coming years.

Converting Business Into Leisure

 As the emirate continues to expand as a regional business centre, the authorities are seeking ways to convert this traffic into extended leisure visits, enticing people to prolong their stay in the emirate by offering them a variety of things to see and do.

Though it will take time for all of the attractions to come on-stream, this is in a way fortuitous, as the emirate is seeking to avoid the pitfalls that have affected other destinations where too many competing attractions opened at the same time.

It is hoped that clearly distinguishing the main theme of each development will reduce the potential for clutter and duplication, with each island becoming a drawing card on its own. It is also hoped that with diverse attractions including entertainment, heritage and nature on offer, whatever one’s interests as a leisure visitor might be, one of the new island developments will be able to cater to it.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2014

Tourism & Culture chapter from The Report: Abu Dhabi 2014

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