Abu Dhabi: A shift in focus

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With Abu Dhabi having invested heavily in building new attractions to draw in visitors, tourism officials are now busy promoting the emirate in a number of other markets, such as China and Saudi Arabia. Their efforts appear to be paying off, with a rise in the number of hotel guests coming from key source markets during the first half of 2012.

In early September, a group of 76 Chinese tour operators made a four-day trip to Abu Dhabi, visiting several of the emirate’s major attractions, including the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Ferrari World and the Falcon Hospital. According to Rob Nicholas, the managing director at Nicholas Publishing International, a marketing firm and co-organiser of the visit, the purpose of the tour was to boost Chinese tourism in the emirate and the UAE as a whole.

“The UAE is receiving just a tiny fraction of outbound Chinese travellers, which numbered 70m in 2011, and China is expected to become the world’s leading source market for tourism within the next few years,” Nicholas told local newspaper The National in early September.

Despite the relatively small number of Chinese tourists who visit the country each year, they are among the top spenders in the UAE, according to a June 2012 survey by US credit card firm Visa. Visitors from the Asian nation spent on average $700 per Visa transaction during 2011, equivalent to a total of $225m in spending over the course of the year. According to Nicholas, luxury retailers in the UAE consider Chinese tourists among their “best customers”.

The UAE has been among the list of approved countries for Chinese citizens to visit since 2009, but its popularity has rapidly increased. Data released by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) shows that the emirate’s hotels registered 15,297 visitors from China during the first six months of 2012, an 84% increase over the same period in 2011. Other well-performing markets during the first half of the year included Germany (44% increase), Qatar (41%), Oman (38%), Saudi Arabia (36%), and India and Russia (both 31%).

Saudi Arabia accounted for 36,430 hotel guests during the first two quarters of 2012, making it the sixth-largest source market outside of the UAE. Part of the explanation for the emirate’s popularity with Saudi visitors is its location, according to Mubarak Al Shamisi, the Saudi Arabia country manager for TCA Abu Dhabi.

“Geographic proximity is one of Abu Dhabi’s many selling points to Saudi tourists. As well as sharing borders, our two peoples are united in various aspects of our cultures. Abu Dhabi has become a home-away-from-home for thousands of Saudis eyeing short leisure breaks, cultural excursions and business trips in a familiar and nearby environment,” Al Shamisi said in a public statement.

Most leisure travel between Abu Dhabi and its GCC neighbour has traditionally been by car. However, improved air links have made it even easier for Saudi tourists to reach the emirate, with Etihad Airways, the UAE’s national carrier, offering 42 weekly services between Abu Dhabi International Airport and three Saudi cities: Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh. In addition, Saudi Airlines operates daily services to Abu Dhabi from both Riyadh and Jeddah.

TCA Abu Dhabi has also increasingly focused its efforts on the Saudi Arabian market, opening a new office in Jeddah earlier in 2012. More recently, the authority organised a multi-day road show neighbouring the Kingdom, stopping at three cities – Jeddah (August 26), Riyadh (August 27) and Dammam (August 28).

The delegation from Abu Dhabi – which included more than 20 sector stakeholders, including airlines, hotels and tour operators – updated Saudi trade representatives on the latest developments in the emirate’s tourism offerings, including new hotels and attractions, such as Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi. The 43-ride waterpark, located on Yas Island close to Ferrari World and the Yas Marina Circuit, is more than 90% finished and is expected to open in December, Mike Oswald, the park’s manager told The National in late August.

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