Highlighted by the government as a key sector to support diversification in its Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 strategy, tourism is of growing importance to Abu Dhabi’s economy. As a result, the past decade has seen significant sums invested in developing facilities and infrastructure to help the emirate break into the highly competitive global leisure market. So far, the strategy appears to be paying off, with visitor numbers surging and breaking the 3mmark for 2014. Considerable efforts have been made to develop the emirate’s principal tourism hubs, and the coming three years will prove crucial as flagship investments such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi open their doors on Saadiyat Island and as new attractions and events are launched on Yas Island.
Travel and tourism contributed Dh56.5bn ($15.4bn) to the UAE economy in 2013, representing 4% of total GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), an industry body. Although no industry-wide figures are available at the emirate level, the Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD) measured the contribution of accommodation and food services as Dh9.5bn ($2.5bn) at current prices in 2012, equivalent to 1% of GDP.
The figure represented growth of 11.5%, beating the average of 7.7%. The tourism sector is also a key employer, supporting almost half a million jobs directly and indirectly across the UAE, equivalent to 9.1% of total employment, while investment in the sector was worth Dh21bn ($5.7bn) to the economy, or 6.2% of total investment. The macroeconomic figures are borne out by increasing visitor numbers, as well as positive industry-level indicators.
Around 3.5m guests stayed in Abu Dhabi in 2014, an increase of 25% on the previous year. The encouraging growth in visitors, if sustained, will enable the government to reach its target of 8m visitors per year comfortably ahead of its 2030 deadline. The rapid increase in visitor numbers has meant that, despite adding almost 3000 rooms to hotel inventory since 2013, occupancy rates and revenue per available room (RevPAR) have both risen.
Full-year occupancy for 2014 was 75%, six percentage points higher than the comparable figure for 2013 (which was already up on the previous year), while RevPAR for 2014 rose 4% to Dh331 ($90), according to government figures. Despite these positive indicators, average daily rates in the city of Abu Dhabi have declined somewhat due to the increased supply and intense pricing competition.
“There is not a concern of oversupply. While the number of hotel rooms has increased considerably and continues to grow, there is an ever-increasing number of tourists that are coming to Abu Dhabi. Not only are there more tourists, they are also creating more revenue. This trend will continue as Abu Dhabi attracts different kinds of tourists, such as eco-tourists or tourists looking to take advantage of the cultural facilities that are being created,” Ali Al Hammadi, CEO of the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), told OBG.
Abu Dhabi’s strong growth has contributed to the UAE’s emergence as the region’s leading tourism destination. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) recently ranked the UAE first in the Middle East in terms of tourism receipts at $10.4bn (2012), and second after Saudi Arabia in terms of arrivals (the latter’s position owing chiefly to religious pilgrimage). Moreover, with both Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways and Dubai-based Emirates seeking to establish the UAE as a major international transfer hub, and in light of continued volatility in traditional Middle East tourism markets such as Egypt, it would seem that the UAE is likely to further consolidate this position in the coming years.
Abu Dhabi’s tourism sector has benefitted from the coordination provided by the government regulator, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) – which was rebranded in February 2013 from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority following its integration with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage.
As well as licensing and regulating the various tourist establishments, TCA Abu Dhabi takes an active role in the strategic development of the industry, sponsoring trade fairs and foreign roadshows, and promoting the emirate abroad as a destination. This role has been particularly important in the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) segment, with TCA Abu Dhabi offering two packages through its subsidiary, the Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, under the “Advantage Abu Dhabi” brand, to attract corporate events and conference business to the emirate and raise Abu Dhabi’s international profile. TCA Abu Dhabi’s initiatives have been well received by both market players and consumers alike, and they are recognised as one of the major contributors to the increase in visitors and hotel occupancy rates across the emirate.
The Advantage 1 scheme – which focuses on bringing larger-scale conferences and exhibitions to Abu Dhabi – is the more established package, and in keeping with the government’s Economic Vision 2030 strategy has targeted events related to the 13 sectors of the economy identified for diversification. Support offered under the Advantage 1 scheme typically takes the form of start-up grants, rebates and marketing assistance, as well as potential sponsorship from leading government entities.
Advantage 1 has proved to be a major success, with Abu Dhabi breaking into the top 100 cities on the International Congress and Convention Association’s global rankings in 2012 – jumping 134 places in the process. TCA Abu Dhabi is hoping for a similar level of success from its more recent Advantage 2 scheme, which is aimed at smaller meetings and events.
In addition to coordination, the government also provides strong leadership in the sector, with government-related entities (GREs) largely responsible for driving the development of infrastructure. The most important of these GREs are Etihad Airways, TDIC, Miral Asset Management (a real estate investment company), Aldar Properties (a real estate development company) and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC).
In May 2014 ADNEC announced its goal of making it into the top 50 of the International Congress and Convention Association’s rankings. ADNEC kicked off this effort with the World Ophthalmology Congress, the largest convention held to date in Abu Dhabi, with more than 10,000 delegates.
Among the various GREs, Etihad Airways has arguably had the greatest impact on tourism growth. Having been established little more than a decade ago, the UAE flag carrier has grown to a fleet of 110 aircraft servicing a total of 111 routes, with equity stakes in a further eight airlines including Virgin Australia, Alitalia, Aer Lingus and Air Berlin. The airline has plans to expand to approximately 160 destinations worldwide by 2025, and it currently has more than 200 additional aircraft on order to help meet that goal.
Abu Dhabi International Airport is also being expanded, with a new terminal under construction that will be able to handle up to 30m passengers a year initially (see analysis). The comparative advantage for the domestic tourism sector of having a major international air traffic hub on the doorstep has not been lost on local businesses: Etihad Airways and TCA Abu Dhabi coordinate incentive packages with local operators to drive traffic through the airline’s newly opened routes, as well as running industry roadshows in target markets such as East Asia.
This strategy is now proving successful, with 2014 seeing the UAE attract 14,500 employees of Chinese cosmetics firm Nu Skin – the largest outbound incentive travel group in the Chinese direct sales industry’s history. The capacity to attract such large-scale groups offers Abu Dhabi a key advantage in the Chinese MICE industry, valued at $150bn annually.
As might be anticipated, however, the logistical capacity to transport such large numbers would be nothing without the facilities and infrastructure within Abu Dhabi to accommodate and entertain them – fields in which TDIC, Aldar Properties, Miral and ADNEC have proved invaluable.
Aldar Properties and TDIC are the lead developers behind, respectively, Yas Island and Saadiyat Island – with Miral responsible for managing the former. These two island developments represent a major plank in the government’s strategy for attracting a broad and diverse range of international leisure tourists to Abu Dhabi. The strategy has been to address distinct, clearly defined market segments through different “precincts” or hubs, with the goal being not so much to limit visitors to one island or the other (in fact, there is a free shuttle service linking the two), but to separate the types of visitor experiences on offer, and thus encourage visitors to perhaps stay longer and explore both.
Activity & Experience
Located a 10-minute drive from Abu Dhabi International Airport, Yas Island – the emirate’s entertainment destination – has been designated as a hub for activity-based tourism within Abu Dhabi. Launched in the fourth quarter of 2006, the project covers a total area of 2500 ha and will include 1700 ha of buildings and parks, 32 km of beachfront shoreline as well as parking capacity for up to 130,000 vehicles.
One of the core goals of the dedicated tourism site is to help instil Emirati business owners with a visitor-oriented mindset.
“Businesses in Abu Dhabi typically cater primarily to locals,” Clive Dwyer, director of destination management at Miral, told OBG. “However, with visitor numbers rising, those businesses – both big and small – that are able to tap into this growing market are likely to see significantly more activity.”
Indeed, even in the design of Yas Island, planners considered how to make the layout of the island more visitor-friendly to ensure that tourists are able to easily reach their destinations.
Yas Island includes a wide range of offerings designed to attract both the general population and specific market segments. One of the first to be completed was the Yas Links golf course, which opened to the public in March 2009. The development includes an 18-hole course, a clubhouse and a nine-hole golf academy – with the latter being one of only two academies in the region that offers Trackman high-tech teaching tools.
For water activities, the island hosts the Yas Marina, which caters to yachts ranging from 8 metres to 150 metres and includes 192 berths and seven waterside restaurants. A number of tour operators currently also provide boating excursions from the site, and the contract for the development of a second marina was awarded in 2013 to Greek construction company J&P AVAX.
For those seeking beach recreation, Yas Beach is a private beach club offering memberships as well as access for guests at the island’s various hotels.
Two theme parks are currently located on Yas Island: Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas Waterworld. With over 86,000 sq metres of enclosed area, the former is one of the largest theme parks in the world and it offers a variety of Ferrari-themed attractions including a rollercoaster, cinema, restaurants, history museum and go-karting, among others. Expansion at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is also ongoing, as plans have been announced to introduce seven new rides over the next three years, which should increase visitor capacity by 40%. For its part, Yas Waterworld covers 150,000 sq metres and features 43 rides, slides and attractions. The facility has the capacity to accommodate 6000 visitors a day and was initially expected to attract up to 800,000 visitors per year.
In addition to the island’s permanent attractions, the project includes facilities for hosting large-scale events such as the du Forum, which has a capacity of 5000 people, and the du Arena, which can accommodate 20,000 people. In recent years these have allowed the emirate to host a number of high-profile musical acts including the Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams, while efforts are also being taken to include a range of family-friendly events such as the theatrical performance of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”.
The Yas Marina Circuit has hosted the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix since 2009, with 2014 witnessing the season finale. With the signing of a new multi-year contract in November 2014, the race is set to remain in the emirate past 2016, and over the year the Yas Marina Circuit increased its capacity by 20% to 60,000, making it an attractive location for not just the race itself, but other large events as well.
Al Tareq Al Ameri, the CEO of Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, told OBG, “While the Grand Prix will continue to be our flagship event, Yas Marina Circuit will play an increasingly larger role in terms of developing Yas Island and Abu Dhabi as a destination for entertainment. We have created a full year’s worth of events that includes not only motorsports-related events, but community health and fitness programmes as well.”
The F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has proven a success year after year, having the largest paddock club of any F1 event at 7500 tickets, while the track itself has been a major driver of footfall to the island. Beyond the race, the site has a number of other offers including driving lessons and opportunities to test-drive personal or high-end vehicles on the racetrack, which helped attract over 140,000 of the 500,000 visitors it received in 2014. In addition to motorsports, the facility is currently open to the public twice a week for running and cycling (which attracted 180,000 visitors in 2014), while conferences and events were attended by around 35,000 people during the year, including the incentive event for China’s Nu Skin that saw the track host some 8000 diners seated end to end.
Shopping & Hotels
Although Yas Island has been open to the public for several years now, new attractions continue to be added. The 2014 F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, for instance, saw the grand opening of Yas Mall, which at 235,000 sq metres is the largest in Abu Dhabi and the second largest in the UAE. The complex has nearly 10,000 covered parking spaces and over 370 stores (60 of which are international restaurants), as well as a 20-screen cinema and a family entertainment centre.
Yas Mall was designed to achieve a “two pearl” rating from Estidama (meaning “sustainability” in Arabic), the emirate’s framework for green building and sustainable design, construction and operation. All buildings in the emirate must meet a minimum Estidama rating of one pearl (see Real Estate chapter). To achieve its two pearl rating the shopping mall integrates a series of green strategies, which include the use of regionally sourced and durable materials and shading strategies, such as vertical glazing, that help to protect it from direct sun via deep insets, canopies and a brise-soleil system.
In terms of other shopping options, Yas Island also includes a 33,000-sq-metre IKEA store, which is the largest in the MENA region, and an outlet of American home and lifestyle brand ACE.
For accommodation, the island hosts seven hotels including the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi (499 rooms); a Radisson Blu (397 rooms); a Crowne Plaza (428 rooms); the Yas Island Rotana (308 rooms); a Park Inn (204 rooms); Centro Yas Island (259 rooms); and a Staybridge Suites (164 rooms). In addition to providing a number of on-site amenities such as swimming pools and restaurants, all hotels are within close proximity to the island’s various destinations.
Complementing Yas Island’s more active offerings is Saadiyat Island’s focus on culture and relaxation. The island is already home to The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, as well as the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi and a number of high-end residential developments. The coming three years will see the opening of three major cultural institutions on the island as well: Louvre Abu Dhabi, scheduled for completion in 2015, followed by Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Each of these projects has involved a partnership with its international namesake (in the case of Zayed National Museum, the partner institution has been the British Museum), and the buildings themselves have been designed by leading international architecture firms such as Gehry Partners. As well as the three museums, the planned 6300-seat Performing Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid will provide a venue for visiting international artists.
The museum offerings are not the only developments set to attract visitors. In September 2014 the Monte-Carlo Beach Club on Saadiyat Island rebranded as the Saadiyat Beach Club. The club offers four restaurants and lounges, a 650-sq-metre pool, a spa, gymnasium and private access to Saadiyat’s 9-km beach. With the rebranding timed relatively closely to the launches of new museums, local authorities are hoping to see more depth in the visitor profile. Angus Woodhead, general manager of TDIC Food & Beverage, told OBG, “Saadiyat is really starting to develop a sense of community. The fact we have university campuses here, as well as facilities like the beach club, means that it is more than just a resort or tourist destination; it’s a neighbourhood.”
Additionally, TDIC has also developed the Eastern Mangroves complex of hotels, which offers guests the chance to enjoy Abu Dhabi’s natural heritage in five-star surroundings, and a new retail and dining destination called The Collection.
Efforts have been under way to expand access to the Eastern Mangroves for visitors, while simultaneously improving the sustainability of this natural resource. The new Eastern Mangrove Complex, Eastern Mangrove Residences, Eastern Mangroves Promenade, and the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara provide luxury accommodation for aspiring ecotourists.
With all of these projects dependent upon the long-term sustainability of the mangroves, TDIC has been closely monitoring their status for any signs of damage due to projects or illegal harvesting and has been acting to replace any lost vegetation.
TDIC said it had removed some 7000 mangroves on Saadiyat Island but replanted 400,000 in other locations, while about 1000 mangroves were removed from the Eastern Mangroves area and 60,000 were planted in their place.
In addition, the company has also provided more than 300,000 mangrove saplings for replanting efforts. This additional vegetation provides a robust buffer against erosion due to climate change and development. “The Eastern Mangroves is an area of great ecological richness for Abu Dhabi,” Nehme Darwiche, the CEO of Jannah Hotels and Resorts, told OBG. “The area offers important economic benefits and gives visitors and residents the opportunity to enjoy an area that has a natural vibrancy to it, which is a rarity within the city centre.”
While Yas and Saadiyat provide facilities for Abu Dhabi’s leisure tourism market, ADNEC provides the central infrastructure for the emirate’s thriving conference and exhibition sector. According to TCA Abu Dhabi’s destination visitor survey (DVS), 12% of international visitors to Abu Dhabi are business travellers, equivalent to around 300,000 visitors per year. ADNEC services this segment through its complex of meetings and exhibition venues located on the south-eastern edge of downtown, comprising a total of 133,000 sq metres of flexible event space that is available for organisers of exhibitions, conferences, meetings and live events.
ADNEC offers 73,000 sq metres of indoor exhibition space, two conference halls, 20 meeting rooms and a 6000-seat international convention centre, as well as 55,900 sq metres of outdoor event space. It also has a further 20,000 sq metres of conference and exhibition space in Al Ain.
ADNEC hosted 28 exhibitions in first-half 2014, representing year-on-year (y-o-y) growth of 56%, and has also expanded into the global conference market through its 2008 purchase of ExCeL, London’s only international convention centre. The company has helped Abu Dhabi develop some of the region’s largest industry fairs, including ADIPEC, the largest oil and gas exhibition outside of North America, and IDEX, the only international defence exhibition in the MENA region that demonstrates the latest technology for land, sea and air.
Meanwhile, Yas Island is also seeking to leverage its ability to host large-scale events, centred on the 1000-person-capacity conference room at Yas Marina Circuit and the site’s capacity to accommodate large volumes of people. Yas Island also benefits from its close proximity to Abu Dhabi’s main airport and the concentration of hotels on the island, which have a combined total of around 2500 rooms.
As a major driver of visitor traffic to the UAE, the conference and exhibitions industry has knock-on effects for the entire tourism sector, with incentive packages in particular encouraging conference guests to make full use of the nation’s various attractions. Tourism industry officials will therefore be hoping that the Dubai World Expo 2020, awarded to the emirate in November 2013, will have a beneficial impact on Abu Dhabi as well.
As well as conferences and exhibitions, Abu Dhabi is also increasingly becoming a destination for major sporting events. Guided by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC), which has a mandate for promoting sports participation among the population and building up the emirate’s reputation as a sporting and tourism destination, the emirate has succeeded in attracting a number of international events. Already home to the HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, Mubadala Tennis Tournament, F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Volvo Ocean Race, in 2015 Abu Dhabi will add two new events to its sporting calendar. The emirate will host the opening event in the World Triathlon Series in March, as well as its first pro-cycling race, the Abu Dhabi Tour, in October as part of Union Cycliste Internationale. The ADSC is participating in bids to host other events, such as Club World Cups 2017 and 2018 and the Asian Cup football tournament in 2019.
“Given the natural climate and the existing infrastructure, Abu Dhabi has all the necessary requirements to become a destination for major sporting events. The key will be to continue working with international governing bodies so that we can gain further experience and in time attract the most highly competitive world events to the emirate,” Aref Al Awani, general secretary of the ADSC, told OBG.
Attracting major international events ties into the ADSC’s wider objective of integrating sports in the creation of a healthy environment for the emirate’s population. This has been the impetus behind initiatives such as the construction of a health and fitness centre for women in Al Ain and the launch of fitness events to coincide with National Day, for example. Such developments are designed to ensure that as well as hosting sporting events, the emirate also has strong contenders in the race.
As of 2014, Abu Dhabi’s hospitality sector comprised 160 hotel establishments, of which 58 are hotel apartments. This figure represents growth of 7% on 2013. Total room inventory for 2014 stood at 28,374 rooms (9% y-o-y growth), of which 22,080 were in hotels and 6366 hotel apartments. Significant recent openings include the fivestar Dusit Thani Abu Dhabi, Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, The St. Regis Abu Dhabi, Rosewood Abu Dhabi, Hilton Capital Grand, Park Hyatt, and Jannah Hotels and Resorts, which have added a combined total of 2042 keys to the segment.
The hospitality sector is currently dominated by high-grade supply: 46% of hotel rooms are graded five star (9981 keys), while 49% of hotel apartments are graded “deluxe” (3071 keys). One- and two-star hotel facilities, by contrast, comprise less than 4% of total rooms. The four-star segment, however, has recently experienced significant growth, with 1008 keys added between 2013 and 2014 (19% growth y-o-y), and a significant portion of the hotel rooms in the pipeline also fall in this category.
The relative oversupply of high-grade facilities is reflected in occupancy and RevPAR figures. For the first half of 2014 occupancy rates for the five-star segment averaged 66%, compared to 72% for four-star hotels and 78% for three-star hotels. Higher occupancy rates translated into improved RevPAR for both of these latter segments, rising to Dh249 ($68) and Dh212 ($58), respectively; RevPAR in the five-star segment, by contrast, fell somewhat to Dh416 ($113) on the back of greater price competition.
On the demand side, while total guest nights rose across all segments, average length of stay declined in both five-star and four-star hotels, falling to 2.78 and 2.43 days, respectively. Average length of stay across the sector fell to 2.99 nights, while increased visitor numbers were not sufficient to prevent average room rates falling somewhat to Dh447 ($122).
TCA Abu Dhabi has historically relied on figures obtained through hotel establishments to determine the profile of visitors to Abu Dhabi, and thus the general structure of demand; since 2012, however, the government regulator has been transitioning towards a DVS approach, which involves random sampling of visitors at major exit and entry points and key attractions to gain a more accurate picture of the market.
The results of the first wave of DVS (covering the period 2012/13) revealed that 49% of international visitors originated from Europe, with the largest share arriving from the UK (13%) and Germany (11%). Of the remainder, 24% were from the Middle East, 18% from Asia and 7% from the Americas. These figures portray a significantly different picture to that gleaned through hotel establishment reporting, which placed India as the largest international market at 124,912 visitors for the first half of 2014, growth of 35% y-o-y. The UK and Germany, by contrast, came in second and third at 108,456 and 72,641, respectively, growth of 26% and 7%.
Regardless of which is more accurate, both methods illustrate the combined importance of the European and Asian markets to Abu Dhabi’s tourism industry. The European market provides a solid core of visitors who, while having shorter average length of stay, nonetheless bring high average spend.
DVS figures demonstrated that average spend by UK and German leisure tourists was $2988 and $2667 respectively, despite relatively short average length of stay of 3.8 and 4.39 days.
Indian leisure visitors, by contrast, stayed longer in the emirate (6.53 days), but spent less at $1686, while Chinese visitors stayed the shortest of all (2.41 days), but brought a comparatively high spend of $1946. As the hotel establishment report illustrates, the Chinese market is currently experiencing the most rapid growth of all origin destinations, with the first half of 2014 seeing a 182% increase in Chinese visitors, bringing the total to 66,516, and making China the fifth-largest market for Abu Dhabi.
Meeting The Needs
The growing importance of the Asian market to Abu Dhabi was underscored by KPMG, which predicted that visitors from Asia are likely to grow at a faster rate than European travellers, and would require facilities “tailored to their requirements accordingly”. As the success with corporate MICE events has demonstrated, the sector is already moving to meet such requirements, and several key figures within the industry told OBG that Mandarin-speaking personnel had recently been recruited to meet further demand. Beyond discovering the precise breakdown of visitors by nationality, the DVS was also designed to capture the structure of the market according to visitor’s preferences. Visitors were broken down into six categories by the purpose of their visit, such as “escape”, “experience, “indulge” and “status”. The survey discovered that international visitors to Abu Dhabi were predominantly drawn from the “experience” and “cherish” categories (26% and 24%, respectively).
“Experience” includes sporting and cultural event-driven visitors, who according to interview results associate Abu Dhabi with major international sporting events. “Cherish” visitors, by contrast, tend to be slightly older (40-65), look upon visiting the emirate as a chance to reinforce bonds of family and friendship, and are drawn to Abu Dhabi due to its reputation for safety and high service standards.
The DVS and hotel establishment figures both serve to underline the most significant recent trend in the tourism sector, which relates to the rapid growth in the Asian visitor market.
As well as China and India, TCA Abu Dhabi and Etihad Airways are coordinating a big industry push into Japan and South Korea, which are both seen as large potential growth markets.
Indeed, Abu Dhabi’s success in rapidly ramping up Asian visitor numbers is a vindication of the authorities’ initial strategic vision for the sector, which was predicated on leveraging the unique geographical location of the Gulf, which (in an oft-cited statistic) puts around one-third of the world’s population within a four-hour flight radius of Abu Dhabi, and bridges Europe and Asia.
Recently, the tourism authorities have attempted to leverage this geographical advantage further through link-ups with other industries. A prominent placing for Abu Dhabi in a number of Bollywood films, including the blockbuster “Bang Bang”, helped raise the emirate’s profile on the subcontinent, while a similar effect was achieved in both the US and Europe through “Furious 7”.
Behind these shoots was Abu Dhabi’s emerging media powerhouse, comprising free zone twofour54, film producers Image Nation and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (see Media & Advertising chapter).
A more long-term trend in the sector relates to Emiratisation of the tourism workforce, with the authorities attempting to raise the level of local participation in the sector from its current low of only 1%. TCA Abu Dhabi has established programmes to train and accredit local would-be hoteliers and hospitality workers, as well as to engage in industry awareness outreach to counter negative perceptions regarding working in the service sector.
Updating Standards & Guidelines
Finally, TCA Abu Dhabi has also been at work on updating its regulatory guidelines for the industry. New quality management standards were introduced in mid-2014 for the emirate’s beaches, in collaboration with the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.
The new regulations, which exceed Blue Flag standards, will apply to the emirate’s 24 beachfront hotels and resorts, and lay out the required approach to dealing with pollution, as well as measuring and monitoring water quality.
As well as beach quality, TCA Abu Dhabi has also been working on a new set of classification guidelines for the hotel sector, which could see Abu Dhabi become the world’s first tourist destination to include social media ratings in its hotel star system.
While both the Swiss and German hotel bodies have previously used social media to influence hotel star classification, it is believed that TCA Abu Dhabi’s move would make it the first industry regulator to formally adopt social media reviews into an official classification system.
The authority has been working on the new classification system since its rebranding in 2013, with the regulator especially keen to further differentiate the overcrowded high-end sector through the introduction of a new category for hotels deemed to be outside the normal five-star criteria. Any such moves are likely to be highly contested, however, as high-end hoteliers fight to stay in the top classification category, which – despite the attempts of some enterprising travel journalists to invent a “seven-star” category for hotels such as Dubai’s Burj Al Arab – nonetheless remains five star.
While it may seem like the breakneck pace of growth in 2014 might be difficult to extend into the future, with Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi galleries set to open in the coming years, Abu Dhabi will continue to push itself to the top of the tourism and travel agenda. However, while big-ticket openings may raise the emirate’s profile internationally, the industry’s true strength is the strategic coordination that has underpinned such growth. Links between government and industry have enabled Abu Dhabi to seize the initiative in a number of new markets – particularly in South and East Asia – whose true potential has still hardly been tapped.
The principle risk for the local tourism sector will be managing the hotel inventory pipeline, and in particular avoiding an overhang in new supply, which could threaten the current nascent recovery in RevPAR. Regardless of these short-term market fluctuations, Abu Dhabi’s long-term fundamentals seem unimpeachable: quality infrastructure, first-class transport connections and a thriving events industry will combine to make the emirate an enticing offer for ever-increasing numbers of tourists.
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