More than a stopover

For so long overshadowed by its fellow emirate Dubai, Abu Dhabi is shedding that ‘underdog’ status after a couple of years of sustained growth and a more focused approach to what it offers its visitors – both business and leisure.


As the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the largest of the seven UAE member emirates, there should be no reason for Abu Dhabi to have to flex its muscles and jostle for position alongside its arguably more high-profile neighbour Dubai.

Yet it does, and there’s no getting away from the perception that Abu Dhabi is the ‘poorer’ UAE cousin, despite its obvious wealth.

But that’s just perception, and Abu Dhabi has spent the last few years working hard at breaking that down. That hard work has paid dividends.

2016 saw Abu Dhabi ranked among the fastest-growing destinations in the world, and the fastest-growing destination in the Middle East, in a report by financial services giant MasterCard.

The Global Cities Index Report recognised the UAE capital’s compound annual growth rate of 19.81% in overnight visitors between 2009 and 2016, which placed the emirate in third place alongside major upcoming destinations such as Osaka in Japan and Chengdu in China, and above established hubs such as Tokyo, Riyadh and Taipei in Taiwan.

The report is produced on an annual basis, and features results gathered by field specialists through extensive research.

Abu Dhabi was one of only three Arabian Gulf cities to make it into the top 50 overall rankings for destination cities in the world, and posted record-breaking results in 2016, with more than four million guests checking into the emirate’s 168 hotel and hotel apartments in the first 11 months of the year.

The strong performance of the emirate was underpinned by the UAE capital hosting world-class events such as Abu Dhabi Summer Season, Abu Dhabi Food Festival, the Qasr Al Hosn Festival and a comprehensive programme of events to celebrate New Year in the city, as well as successes in the MICE sector, with Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau – part of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority – having a record-breaking year by securing agreements to host 14 conferences, which are expected to attract more than 35,000 delegates to the emirate in upcoming years.

Other notable factors included the opening to the public of Al Ain Oasis World Heritage Site and impressive growth in Abu Dhabi’s cruise sector following the opening of the city’s permanent cruise terminal and the opening of the region’s first ever beach destination for cruise ships on Sir Bani Yas Island.

“The outstanding results offered in this year’s Global Destination Cities Index Report reflect Abu Dhabi’s ongoing successes in achieving global recognition as a leading international destination,” said Saif Saeed Ghobash, Director General, TCA Abu Dhabi ,at the end of 2016.

The Global Destination Cities Index Report conducted by MasterCard covered 132 cities, investigating global cross-border travel and spending in order to speculate on the growth trajectories of the many increasingly dynamic global destinations cities that are on the rise around the world.

MasterCard concluded that their study into the fastest-growing destination cities has revealed that there are strong and multi-faceted sources of momentum propelling cities such as Abu Dhabi into newly established positions as international hubs of business, tourism and commerce.

Airports & Airline

Abu Dhabi International Airport is one of the fastest growing airport hubs in the world, currently serving in the region of a hundred destinations in over 50 countries.

Within the next couple of years, over 20 million passengers are expected to pass through AUH. To meet this growing demand, Abu Dhabi Airports is already well into its construction of the Midfield Terminal Building, a key element of the future Midfield Terminal Complex (MTC), which will include cargo and catering facilities, utilities and related infrastructure.

Totalling 700,000m2, the new terminal will be designed to minimise environmental impact and will also feature 27,500m2 of lounges, an 8,400m2 indoor park and a museum of Emirati culture, along with state-of-the-art passenger systems and a vast array of retail and food beverage outlets, entertainment and leisure facilities.

Among those ‘state-of-the-art systems’, smart technology and self-service kiosks will be introduced in the new terminal to streamline passenger processing.

“The Midfield Terminal building will be an airport terminal as never before seen,” says Ali Al Mansoori, Chairman of Abu Dhabi Airports. “No other country has built infrastructure like this.”
One example is the new bag-check system, which will handle more than 19,000 bags an hour. Passengers will place their luggage on a belt, where it will then be assigned a barcode and a tray for easy tracking. Passport processing will also be much faster with advanced biometric technology.
“You’ll just swipe your hand and you’re good to go,” says Al Mansoori.

The MTB will become the primary gateway for passengers travelling through Abu Dhabi, and the future home of Etihad Airways, the national carrier. It is due to be complete this year.

Abu Dhabi International Airport’s traffic has grown consistently over the past few years, and a large proportion of the increase in traffic can be attributed to the strong performance of Etihad, which serves over 120 passenger and cargo destinations around the world. Included in that are 10 African destinations (including codeshares), with Etihad making sure it covers the African business travel hotspots of Johannesburg, Lagos, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, along with Cairo, Entebbe, Casablanca, Mahe, Rabat and Khartoum.

Abu Dhabi’s second airport, Al Ain International Airport is located 18 kilometres north-west of Al Ain City and is set to gain global recognition as a centre of excellence for technology and innovation through its collaboration with Mubadala Aerospace.

Al Bateen Executive Airport is the first dedicated business aviation and private jet airport in the Middle East and North Africa, and enjoys a strategic position in the heart of Abu Dhabi. The airport currently has a stand capacity for up to 90 private jets.

Delma Airport plays a vital role in the development of the island, linking its local population of 6,000 to Abu Dhabi.

Sir Bani Yas Island Airport caters mainly to tourists visiting the natural island located 250 kilometres south-west of the Abu Dhabi coast, in partnership with Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC).

Hotel Landscape

As with Dubai, Abu Dhabi has a wide selection of internationally-branded hotel properties, and that selection is growing.

There are currently in the region of 30 five-star hotels in Abu Dhabi, with the international brands led by Marriott (12 properties, which includes seven Starwood-branded hotels), Accor (10), IHG (6), Hilton (2), and Hyatt (2), whilst local hotel operator Rotana has 13 properties.

In the luxury space, the seven-star Kempinski-run Emirates Palace is an iconic landmark in Abu Dhabi.

Marriott’s diverse hotel offering in Abu Dhabi covers nine brands – four Marriott and five Starwood – whilst Accor has eight and IHG four, with two Holiday Inns, two Crowne Plazas, an InterContinental and a Staybridge Suites. South Africans will recognise the Southern Sun Abu Dhabi – the group’s only hotel in the UAE, whilst Carlson Rezidor’s sole representatives in Abu Dhabi are the Radisson Blu and Park Inn by Radisson properties on Yas Island. (see Yas Island section for more four-star hotels)

Saadiyat Island is currently a focus for expansion in terms of hotel development and Yas Island offers a good mix of different hotel experiences, predominantly in the four-star space.

Getting Around

Taxis in Abu Dhabi are regulated by the Centre for Regulation of Transport by Hire Cars, a government organisation established in 2006.

In line with its mission of establishing a safe, secure, accessible and efficient public transportation system in Abu Dhabi, the centre works in collaboration with the Emirates Driving Company to create a system whereby drivers undergo an orientation course and assessment to develop and enhance their driving skills.

Most taxis in Abu Dhabi come in either gold and white (older taxis) owned by individuals, or silver (newer taxis).

The new taxis are operated by seven authorised national companies, including: Al Ghazal Transport, Arabia Taxi, Cars Taxi, Emirates Taxi, National Taxi, Q-Link Transport, and Tawasul Transport.

Both old and new taxis are provided with a meter system, yet many of the old taxis may negotiate the fare in advance. The older taxis are being phased out.

Pink taxis have also been introduced. The pink taxis are driven by women and meant solely for women and children younger than 10 years old. The fare for the pink taxis remains the same as the other taxis.

Except for shopping centres, there is no specific inter-city taxi stand. Taxis can be hired from almost any area at any time. Most drivers in Abu Dhabi speak Arabic, English, Urdu, and Filipino. Drivers are familiar with landmarks more than streets names. Hence, it always helps to mention parks, banks, shopping malls or hotel names when giving directions. Some of the taxis are equipped with GPS.

In terms of taxi fares, you’re looking at approximately $0.45 per kilometre for every kilometre up to 50 kilometres, and slightly more for distances over that.

All taxi companies service the airport in addition to specially registered airport taxis. The journey into town from the airport costs approximately $30, including a minimum flag fall of $5.50. Passengers leaving Abu Dhabi International can also opt for luxury taxis which are available round-the-clock from Terminals 1,2 and 3. A Mercedes-Benz Vito van can be hired at a flag fall cost of $6.80, but the rate per kilometre will be the same as the conventional taxis.

Taxis that travel long distances, including from one emirate to another, are available in the main bus station on the intersection of Al Muroor and Defence roads. Fares are determined by the meter.


Abu Dhabi broke into the International Congress & Convention Association’s top 100 busiest meeting destinations in 2012 and the emirate’s business events industry is growing.

Geographically, Abu Dhabi is well placed for association meetings and global access, situated on the crossroads between Europe, Asia, Africa and India. Further to that, its event scene is diverse, with intimate events for between 50 and 150 people to gatherings of upwards of 3,000 delegates.

Abu Dhabi’s competitiveness is also strong. In 2016 it fought off competitive bids from both Rio de Janeiro and St Petersburg to host the 2019 World Energy Congress, and in 2017 will host the World Diabetes Congress. Investment will continue to be made in the MICE industry as part of the government’s drive to create a diversified, sustainable economy by 2030.

Abu Dhabi has also held a number of events for more than 3,000 delegates, including the World Conference on Tobacco or Health. Future events like the aforementioned World Energy Congress are expected to draw upwards of 5,000 delegates.

The destination’s event scene can’t be discussed without reference to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, which offers 73,000m2 of event space and is the largest in the Middle East. For those seeking more unique event spaces, venues in the area include Yas Marina and Yacht Club, Zayed Sports City Stadium and Abu Dhabi Country Club, whilst most of the hotels are equipped to maximise the MICE opportunities available.

There is also support from the Abu Dhabi government, with the objective to offer government support in the planning and execution of all upcoming events within the Convention Bureau, whilst championing the emirate as a dynamic global business events leader. The task force works alongside the bureau to identify bid development opportunities and develop a strong foundation in the execution of upcoming business events to strengthen the chance of winning international bids.

Established in 2013, the TCA Abu Dhabi-led Industry Development Committee structure was formed to facilitate wider and closer interaction with the private sector to develop improved communication and align industry efforts to increase the volume of visitors to the emirate, and the quarterly ADCB-driven gatherings come together to create bid development strategies aimed at increasing international conventions held in Abu Dhabi.

Yas Island

Located just 25 minutes from Abu Dhabi and only seven minutes from the airport, Yas Island has been billed as the region’s premier leisure and entertainment destination.

There are seven hotels on offer, but only one five-star property in the form of the Yas Viceroy, which straddles the Yas Marina Circuit. Trumped as an architectural masterpiece, the hotel is a sweeping expanse of glass with approximately 5,000 LED lights, an award-winning spa, two rooftop swimming pools and 11 dining options.

For a region renowned for its ultra-luxury hotel offerings, it’s interesting that the remaining six Yas Island hotel properties are all in the three (Park Inn by Radisson and Centro) and four-star range (Crowne Plaza, Radisson Blu, Rotana and Staybridge Suites). All six hotels are positioned within Yas Plaza, overlooking the waters of the Arabian Gulf and Yas Links Abu Dhabi golf course.

If you’re a Ferrari fan you won’t be disappointed, as Yas Island features the first and only Ferrari-branded and largest indoor theme park in the world, offering high-adrenaline rides (including the world’s fastest rollercoaster), state-of-the-art simulators, live shows, racing memorabilia, two stores and a selection of restaurants.

The island’s other major theme park attraction is Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi, spread over 15 hectares with 45 exhilarating rides, slides and attractions.

If Yas Waterworld hasn’t exhausted you, there are a host of other leisure and sport offerings on the island, perhaps headlined by the Yas Marina Circuit, which plays host to the annual Formula 1 grand prix. Yas Marina has 222 berths and an assortment of restaurants, whilst you can also catch a seaplane tour from here; Yas Links is the island’s 18-hole championship golf course; Yas Beach offers a host of watersport activities; and Captain Tony’s Cruises is the first eco-conscious boat tour operator in Abu Dhabi.

You also won’t go hungry, with approximately 60 official food and beverage options on Yas Island, with everything from fast food, cafes and bakeries to the following international cuisine: Arabic, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, South-East Asian and Spanish.

Once you’ve refuelled and if you still have something left in the tank, take in what Yas Island has to offer in terms of nightlife. That could be in the form of a concert at du Arena, the largest outdoor concert arena in the Middle East, able to accommodate 20,000 people. Alternatively, du Forum is a state-of-the-art entertainment venue kitted out with the latest audio-visual technology, and has hosted a series of big-name acts.

Lastly, there’s O1NE Yas Island, which claims to be “more than a nightclub”, as an “impressive monument mixing art, luxury and technology.” On the outside, the venue features the world’s largest privately-owned graffiti wall – a 3000m2 surface area painted by 19 renowned graffiti artists.

With that out of your system and after a good night’s sleep, wake up and engage in some retail therapy at Yas Mall, before departure. One of the island’s more recent openings, Yas Mall claims to offer an “experiential shopping destination” with three floors of international and regional retail and restaurant brands, a 20-screen state-of-the-art cinema operated by VOX Cinemas, and a family entertainment zone by Funworks.

Abu Dhabi’s ‘Big Five’
  1. UAE Theme Parks (September)

    From the world’s fastest and steepest roller coasters to all your favourite superheroes and cartoon characters, the theme parks of the UAE are geared towards the whole family. For a thousand thrills a minute, you can choose from a range of world-class theme parks across the destination, including Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld and MOTIONGATE™ Dubai, Legoland, Bollywood and Warner Bros Theme Park, which is currently being built.

  2. Emirates Palace (October)

    Emirates Palace’s golden sandy hue and green gardens stand out against the azure blue Arabian Gulf, while at night the hotel’s lighting changes subtly, featuring a majestic rainbow-changing effect over the main dome. The main palace building stretches over a kilometre from wing to wing, and its gardens and surroundings spread across 100 hectares. The hotel features 114 domes, with the central dome at an imposing 72.6 metres above ground. Gold, mother of pearl and Swarovski crystals dominate the interior and the ATM dispensing gold memorabilia and the gold leaf cappuccino and Palace Cake are an absolute highlight.

  3. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (November)

    The striking white Alabaster-clad Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque looms impressively on the horizon for miles, shimmering in enchanting blue and pink hues at night. Welcoming up to 40,000 worshippers simultaneously, the Grand Mosque’s 82 white marble domes, intricate floral motifs created with semi-precious stones and mother of pearl, 5,627 square hand-woven Persian carpet and Swarovski crystal chandelier, the third-largest in the world, has earned it the distinction of the most famous landmark in Abu Dhabi. Closed on Fridays to visitors, the Mosque welcomes travellers (dressed appropriately) to admire its beautiful interiors at their own pace, or as part of one of the free guided tours.

  4. The Empty Quarter (December)

    The world’s largest interrupted desert, spanning some 1,000 kilometres long and 500 kilometres wide, promises a soulful sojourn away from the crowds. Journey to Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter through the Liwa Oasis, the gateway to an extraordinary desert setting that most recently featured in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Tap your inner captain and commandeer a desert ship as the sun sets over dunes rising hundreds of metres, conquer the dunes in a 4X4 at stomach-churning speeds, or gain an insider view of one of the oldest Arabian traditional sports – falconry and hunting with the intelligent Arabian Saluki, renowned for their stamina and speed.

  5. Louvre Abu Dhabi (January)

    Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island is set to take the art world by storm with the completion of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. With a focus on bridging the gap between the eastern and western world of arts and culture, the museum will display a universal collection of art intended to promote discovery, exchange and education. The establishment of a new Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi forms part of a 30-year agreement between Abu Dhabi and the French Government. Visitors will set off on a chronological journey through time as they witness the development of different civilisations.

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