Last month the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) launched a three-year initiative aimed at making the emirate's meeting, incentives, conference and exhibitions (MICE) segment even more competitive by offering viable business events a helping hand in getting off the ground. ADTA's Advantage Abu Dhabi (AAD) initiative, which is structured along a venture capital model, will offer financial and/or non-financial resources to aid the organisers of potential exhibitions and conferences in a bid to develop new events that are in line with the government's economic vision for the capital.
In creating the initiative, 12 sectors of strategic importance to the economy were selected: energy, petrochemicals, metals, aviation/aerospace/defence, pharmaceuticals/biotech/life sciences, tourism, health care, education, transport/trade/logistics, media, financial services and telecommunications.
The organisation of business events and conferences in these particular areas are important because they are considered to be strategic growth pillars that will contribute to the emirate's overall development goals.
Financial grants, governmental endorsement, leadership patronage, cost rebates and marketing support will be offered by the ADTA to successful applicants. On top of this an ADTA industry-wide professional development and training programme will make hospitality service providers the key differentiator between Abu Dhabi and its competition.
Given the capital's increasing reputation as a financial and business centre, it stands to reason that enhancing MICE could contribute significantly to the tourism sector and the economy as a whole. "To date, most of the demand witnessed by the emirate has been business-based tourism – both from the MICE segment and from people visiting to conduct business," Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of ADTA, told OBG.
As it stands around 80% of hotel guests in Abu Dhabi are business tourists, with 10% of this directly linked to the MICE segment, according to the ADTA. In order to tap this demand Abu Dhabi has invested heavily in the necessary infrastructure in recent years. The Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), the largest facility of its kind in the Middle East, was opened in February 2007 and has already successfully staged some of the biggest trade exhibitions in the world, such as the International Defence Exhibition and Conference and the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference.
"The conference and exhibition industry within Abu Dhabi continues to be of great importance to us and in ADNEC we have the infrastructure to continue to excel in this area," Mubarak Hamad Al Muhairi, the director-general of ADTA, told OBG.
The only potential obstacle is the current global economic recession, which is biting particularly hard on international tourism. In the second half of 2008 global tourism shrank 1%, dropping after a 5% expansion in the first half, and prospects for 2009 look pretty grim globally, according to the UN World Travel Organisation (UNWTO).
"In the face of the economic downturn, the tourism industry is expected to continue its decline – at least in the short to medium term. UNWTO expects international tourism to stagnate or even decline slightly (-1% to -2%) throughout 2009," a UNWTO statement said.
Against a backdrop of such scepticism, however, is a slightly more positive forecast for the Middle East, as the UNWTO expects tourism figures here to continue to grow – albeit at a more measured rate than in previous years.
The story in Abu Dhabi seems to be even more optimistic. "Our hotels are currently running at 75-80% occupancy, and hoteliers remain bullish about prospects for 2009," Al Nayhan told OBG.
Although business tourism will not go untouched, it is expected to be more resilient than the leisure segment thanks to the necessity of most business travel. The fact that Abu Dhabi is in much better shape economically than most other places in the world also means more business travellers will come to these shores seeking profitable opportunities.