While beaches and golf courses may attract some of Abu Dhabi’s leisure tourists, the emirate’s cultural offerings are also draw domestic and international visitors. Major cultural attractions include the historical city of Al Ain, which was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2011 and is home to the oldest museum in the UAE. In Abu Dhabi City, Saadiyat Island is being positioned as a centre for cultural activity and already features Manarat Al Saadiyat, a purpose-built visitor centre and museum, which will soon be joined by local branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums.
DESERT OASIS: Located 160 km east of Abu Dhabi City, Al Ain (see Al Ain Chapter) shares an oasis with the neighbouring Omani city of Buraimi. Its historical remnants, varied wildlife and mountainous surroundings have long made it a tourism destination. The city is also the site of the Al Ain National Museum, which opened in 1971 and highlights the area’s heritage and long history. Located in the same complex as the Sultan bin Zayed Fort, this attraction showcases items such as Bedouin jewellery and musical instruments. The museum’s archaeological displays include artefacts dating back to the first millennium BCE and were drawn from Hili and Garn Bint Saud nearby.
Indeed, Hili is one of four cultural sites located in Al Ain that were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2011, along with Hafi, Bidaa Bint Saud and the oases areas. According to UNESCO, these sites “constitute a serial property that testifies to sedentary human occupation of a desert region since the Neolithic period with vestiges of many prehistoric cultures”. Important historical remnants include circular stone tombs from 2500 BCE, a wide range of adobe constructions and one of the oldest examples of an aflaj irrigation system, dating back to the Iron Age.
At present, visitors can access parts of Hili via the Hili Archaeological Park, which will soon benefit from a government-backed project to update the ancient site. Plans are being drawn up for a new learning centre in which visitors will be able to learn about the earliest cultures that inhabited the modern-day UAE. The Al Ain National Museum will also be subject to a three-year renewal project led by the government.
Other local attractions include the Al Ain Zoo, founded in 1968 and a centre of endangered species conservation that is well-known for its breeding of desert antelopes, particularly the Arabian oryx. The zoo is home to 4300 animals of 186 different species and is located at the centre of the Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort, a development that will eventually cover more than 900 ha of land. The combination of natural wildlife, educational centres and themed desert safaris, will provide both a centre of learning and a leisure destination.
NEW DRAW: While the historical heartland of the emirate may be Al Ain, Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi City is being developed into a major cultural centre by the Tourism Development and Investment Company, a government-owned entity. The 27-sq-km island will eventually house at least three new museums: the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum. The Louvre, scheduled to open in 2015, has been designed by Jean Nouvel, while architect Frank Gehry was responsible for the Guggenheim, expected to open in 2017. Meanwhile, the Zayed National Museum, which is set to launch in 2016, will tell the story of the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and explore the country’s culture and history. Detailed architectural designs for all three facilities have been completed, and teams that will operate each institution are now undergoing training.
While Saadiyat has yet to fulfil its potential, it is already a well-established tourist destination, in part thanks to two new hotels located on the island – the St. Regis and Park Hyatt – that opened in late 2011. It is also home to the Manarat Al Saadiyat, which will continue attracting attention to the emirate by promoting the arrival and performance of international artists and exhibitions. The facility has two galleries open to visitors, and features an exhibit showing visitors a picture of the government’s long-term plans for the island.
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