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Abu Dhabi's drive to become a top tourist destination is continuing apace with new strategies to attract more visitors from Europe.

The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) has announced plans to establish links with British tour operators to market the emirate as a tourist destination.

The tourism industry is seen as an essential part of attempts to boost economic diversification and growth in the emirate, according to ADTA. To this end, it has introduced the "Abu Dhabi Champions Tourism Programme", which is a six-month online training course aimed at developing a core of specialist British tour operators and travel agents who can market Abu Dhabi in an increasingly competitive industry.

The programme consists of six modules carried out each month ranging from information on cultural traditions to hotel and holiday options. It has been promoted at road shows in Birmingham, Manchester and London. According to Jennifer Beggs, the International Communications Officer of ADTA, 250 tour agents have registered so far. They are largely small independent operators catering to a range of budgets and tourist preferences. However, there are plans to develop the programme with larger tour operators such as Thomas Cook.

ADTA's director general, Mubarak Hamad al-Muhairi, envisages the project as a means of carrying out focused and relevant market research, "One of the key objectives of the programme is to establish a comprehensive data base. It will start with subscribers from the UK and will be expanded later to others in Europe. The database will provide accurate information about members, their interests and needs."

This move is part of a wider strategy of diversifying Abu Dhabi's tourist base. ADTA is undertaking a move away from a reliance on business tourism and seeking to market the emirate as a prime leisure destination. Its stated aim is that 41% of Abu Dhabi's tourism will be leisure-based by 2015, a 21% rise on the 2004 figure. This will amount to 1.2m leisure visitors out of a total of 3m visitors a year.

As a consequence, there is a shift of focus to the European market. In 2004, European visitors only constituted 20% of Abu Dhabi's total number of hotel guests, numbering 193,303. The majority, 55%, came from within the Arab world, according to ADTA. However, the 2005 figures show that European visitors constituted the largest group of four- and five-star hotel foreign visitors to the emirate, comprising 29% of the total. Abu Dhabi also had one of the longest average lengths of stay in the region in 2005, with Europeans staying for an average of 3.5 days per visit. Even at this level, it will have some way to go to reach Dubai's total of 1.9m European visitors in 2005, an increase of 13% on 2004.

Nevertheless, ADTA hopes to build on its advances by implementing its training programme in other European countries after consolidating it in the UK. There is currently a small advertisement campaign for the "Abu Dhabi Champions Tourism Programme" in Scotland and Ireland and the programme will be launched through a series of road shows in Germany beginning on the July 18. As part of the German strategy, the programme will be launched to Thomas Cook in the country.

Wael Rashid, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Abu Dhabi, Resort and Towers, told OBG that there has been an increasing geographic mix of European leisure visitors over the past two years, which is partly attributable to the increased number of flights to Abu Dhabi generated by the new airline Etihad. "Although the German market is still our largest", Rashid said, "we are seeing increasing numbers from the UK and even other smaller European nations such as Belgium." Rashid is also confident that the growth in the number of leisure visitors can be sustained, "Our 2006 figures are keeping pace with 2005 which was an exceptionally good year and our occupancy rates are maintaining the market average of 80%."

As part of the ADTA's strategy of building on this success, the emirate is seeking to construct high-class, eye-catching developments. The Emirates Palace Hotel, constructed at a reputed cost of $3bn, has signalled Abu Dhabi's intent. The fact that it is being used to host world figures, such as George Bush Sr. and Gerhard Schroeder in November this year, at the "Abu Dhabi World Leadership Summit" only increases the areas profile and demonstrates that there is no need to outsource such events to other parts of the UAE.

This high class construction trend looks set to continue. The Tourism and Development Investment Company (TDIC), an independent public joint stock company empowered to manage the tourism investment zones of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, has recently announced the construction of two major tourist developments. The Emirates Pearl, a new Dh500m ($136m) five-star resort on the corniche in Abu Dhabi will consist of 352 rooms and 104 apartments as well as restaurants, meeting rooms, a business centre and shops. In the capital's eastern mangroves area, the TDIC is working with Angsana Resorts and Spa, a hotel development company owned by the Singaporean Wah Chang Group to create a $110m eco-spa resort.

The TDIC is also responsible for overseeing the Saadiyat Island project, a plan to turn the 27sq km island 500 metres off Abu Dhabi into a world-class tourist resort. An infrastructure programme has already been announced for the project, which is set to include 29 hotels, 3 marinas, and 2 golf courses as well as various leisure facilities and sea-view apartments.

These new developments not only raise the profile of Abu Dhabi but will also help to cater for the increased tourist volume as a result of ADTA's aggressive new marketing campaign. The authority aims to create 17,000 more hotel rooms by 2015, targeting a total figure of 25,000 hotel rooms in Abu Dhabi. At the current rate of construction such a target seems eminently achievable, signalling Abu Dhabi's intent to become a major player in the region's tourism industry.

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