Touting Tourism

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While one of the main focal points for the Middle East's booming tourism industry is Dubai, its neighbour Abu Dhabi is also seeking to cash in on the bonanza. The opening last week of a new coastal resort in the emirate underscored this new determination, which will likely see a flourishing of hotel complexes in the years ahead.



Regional experts predict that Middle Eastern tourism receipts, which stood at $108bn for last year, will rise to $193bn by 2014, while visitor numbers are projected to increase at a steady 3.9% annually.



It is this potential that Abu Dhabi, the largest and most prosperous of the seven small emirates that comprise the UAE, is seeking to tap into.



Abu Dhabi is looking to increase its present slice of the tourism pie threefold from the 1m visitors it welcomed in 2004. As part of the push to both promote the emirate as a destination and to provide the infrastructure for visitors when they arrive, Abu Dhabi is planning to invest more than $10bn in tourism projects over the next 10 years.



One of the big-ticket items that is a cornerstone in Abu Dhabi's aggressive policy of encouraging tourism is a new international airport, being built at a cost of $5.7bn. When completed in 2010, the airport will have the capacity to handle 20m passengers annually.



However, apart from a new gateway, Abu Dhabi is working to put in place more of everything else the anticipated flood of visitors will need or want once they come through the door.



With government encouragement, the number of hotel rooms in the emirate will increase from the 7500 presently available to 20,000, with many of them in establishments targeting the high end of the market. Up to 40 new hotels and resorts are expected to open their doors within the next five years.



One step taken by the government that has helped encourage the development of tourism facilities was to liberalise the property market, easing controls on land sales and encouraging investment. The government is also opening up many of Abu Dhabi's 200 islands for development, with plans already in the pipeline for resorts on a number of them.



One of the latest additions to Abu Dhabi's range of five-star hotels and resorts was the Danat Resort Jebel Dhanna on the emirate's western coast, which had its formal opening at the beginning of December.



According to Manoj Kanwal, Jebel Dhanna's general manager, the attraction for visitors, especially those from Europe, is the rich tradition of Arabian hospitality combined with the relaxed resort atmosphere. It is only a matter of time before word spreads, he says.



In line with the increased focus in the emirate on tourism, Abu Dhabi's own flag carrier, Etihad, is also expanding. Launched in late 2003, the airline already serves 19 destinations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Etihad plans to have a fleet of up to 50 planes by 2009 and fly to 70 destinations by the following year.



Much of the drive to equip Abu Dhabi for the anticipated tourism boom comes from the National Corporation for Tourism and Hotels, which has funded many of the recent tourism developments in the emirate, and from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ABTA).



For Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of the ABTA, tourism is one of the keys to the emirate's drive to diversify its economy.



"Tourism has long been considered the driver of economic success," Sheikh Sultan told reporters in late November. "However, the infrastructure needs to be in place, which is why the new island and coastal projects are underway alongside the new airport terminal, for example."



Within 10 years, he says, Abu Dhabi will be a major business, commercial and tourism sector within Arabia, though the government will ensure the close ties to its culture and heritage are preserved.



The ADTA is also working overseas to promote the emirate as a tourism destination, taking part in international fairs in Europe, Asia and closer to home in the Middle East. It also sponsors sporting events such as tennis tournaments and car rallies - and next January's Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, which will be part of the European tour.



With an estimated 9% of the world's proven reserves, oil will long remain the backbone of Abu Dhabi's economy. Yet heavy investment in tourism will likely give the emirate another major well to tap into in the future.

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