Abu Dhabi is on a drive to change perception of what it is, what it offers, and what role it believes it can play in both the business and leisure travel spaces.
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 is working hard at breaking that down, along with investing in its future by diversifying its economy.
Abu Dhabi’s oil supply remains the backbone of its economic success – in 2014 and 2015 oil accounted for roughly 50% of the emirate’s GDP, although that figure is dropping.
Statistical Centre Abu Dhabi (SCAD) said in late-2015 that its annual economic surveys showed that the non-oil sector in the previous year accounted for slightly more than half the emirate’s economy at 50.2% of GDP, with sectors including real estate and financial services accounting for an outsized share of the 4.4% growth of inflation-adjusted GDP.
“These figures attest to the progress made in implementing the emirate’s plans for expansion of the economic base and diversification of the economy,” said a SCAD statement.
That diversification is key to Abu Dhabi’s future, as its reserves of black gold are only forecast to last for the next 150 years. No surprise then that the emirate has put together a back-up plan.
Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030 states: “The emirate’s drive for a more sustainable and diversified economy is intended to reduce the relatively high dependence on oil…The aim is to reach equilibrium in non-oil trade by 2028…Human capital will be enhanced through the improvement of education, training, and other methods to improve both the employability of nationals and the productivity and competitiveness of the workforce.”
Aims such as reducing unemployment among the national population to 5% by 2030, and expanding Abu Dhabi’s economic performance in sectors other than oil are also mentioned. These fields include metals; aviation, aerospace and defence; pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and life sciences; tourism; healthcare equipment and services; transportation, trade and logistics; education; media; finance; and telecommunications.
As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al?Nahyan said at a summit in 2015: “Maybe in 50 years, we might have the last barrel of oil. The question is: will we be sad? If today we are investing in the right sectors, we will celebrate that moment.”
Pick tourism out of that list of industries and it’s obvious that Abu Dhabi is on a marketing drive to ensure global visibility and awareness, as well as increased visitor numbers, with Dubai a great example of what can be achieved in this sector – tourism now makes up roughly 20% of Dubai’s GDP.
Already Abu Dhabi is seeing some success. By way of example, since the opening of a dedicated Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) office in Johannesburg in March 2015, tourist arrivals from South Africa have grown over 50%.
“South Africans typically see the Middle East as a stopover destination, as they have for many years transited via hubs such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai to popular destinations in Europe and the Far East,” says Jean Martins, TCA Abu Dhabi South Africa Country Manager.
But Martins and co want to move away from that perception and are keen to promote Abu Dhabi as ‘More than a Stopover’.
“Abu Dhabi is no longer viewed as a destination that South Africans transit through to get to somewhere else,” she says. “Rather, it is increasingly being seen as a destination in which corporates, families, and couples can explore a range of tourist experiences, from beach to desert, rollercoasters and golf.”
Ultimately, Abu Dhabi’s aspirations are about balance, and it already has much in place, in terms of existing infrastructure and ‘big sky thinking’.
Airports & Airline
Abu Dhabi International Airport is one of the fastest growing airport hubs in the world, currently serving over 96 destinations in 56 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 has begun the 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.
“In terms of passenger experience, MTB will be revolutionary,” says Tony Douglas, CEO of Abu Dhabi Airports. “Passengers will enjoy state-of-the-art systems to support their journey and a vast array of retail and food beverage outlets, entertainment and leisure facilities.”
The MTB will become the primary gateway for passengers travelling through Abu Dhabi, and the future home of Etihad Airways, the national carrier. The MTB is due to be completed in mid-2017.
Abu Dhabi International Airport achieved record traffic figures in 2015, with more than 23 million passengers passing through its terminals, according to annual results released in January. For the first time in its history the airport crossed the two million passengers a month mark, with its four busiest periods ever in July, August, September and December.
“During the first quarter we opened expanded facilities in Terminal 1, part of a broader capacity enhancement programme, to ensure that passengers using Abu Dhabi International Airport will always enjoy a world class experience,” said Ahmad Al Haddabi, Chief Operations Officer at Abu Dhabi Airports.
A large proportion of the increase in traffic can be attributed to the strong performance of Etihad, which serves 116 passenger and cargo destinations around the world. Included in that is 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.
“Etihad contributed significantly to the traffic figures as more than 74% of the total passengers to and from Abu Dhabi International Airport in 2015 were carried by our national airline,” added Al Haddabi.
The airline’s introduction of Airbus A380s on its Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow route helped to deliver a strong increase in passengers to the UK, with 27.5% growth registered in 2015. Other busy routes from AUH included Australia, up 30%, and Germany, up 15%.
The strongest five country destinations in 2015 were India, UK, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the USA.
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).
As with Dubai, Abu Dhabi has a wide selection of internationally-branded hotel properties, and that selection is growing.
“We currently have almost 35,000 rooms, with the hotels running at an average occupancy of 75.4%,” says Martins. “We anticipate another 8,000 rooms coming on stream by 2017.”
There are currently in the region of 30 five-star hotels in Abu Dhabi city and on the mainland, with the international brands led by Starwood (5 properties), Hilton (2), Hyatt (2), and IHG (2), whilst local hotel operator Rotana has three properties. Overall, Rotana has 12 properties across Abu Dhabi, covering its Rotana, Arjaan and Centro brands.
Also in the luxury space, the seven-star Kempinski-run Emirates Palace is an iconic landmark in Abu Dhabi.
Starwood has two properties in the four-star range – a Le Meridien and an Aloft property – whilst IHG has four, with two Holiday Inns, a Crowne Plaza, and a Staybridge Suites on Yas Island. 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)
Accor is another group with a diverse offering, with two Novotels, two Grand Mercures, a Sofitel, an ibis, and an Aparthotel Adagio.
Rotana also has a significant presence in the mid-market range with its Centro brand.
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.
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.
Recent statistics from ICCA show that the number of events taking place in the destination has grown from four in 2005 to 24 in 2013, dropping marginally to 22 in 2014.
“China has been the best performing market in terms of growth, recording a 69% increase in visitor numbers year-on-year,” says Nabeel Al Zarouni, UK Country Manager for the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. “South Africa was another top performer in 2015.”
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. It recently fought off competitive bids from both Rio de Janeiro and St Petersburg to host the 2019 World Energy Congress, and has also been named as host of the 2017 World Diabetes Congress. Investment will continue to 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.
Abu Dhabi is also working hard at the back end of its MICE offering.
An improved website and initiatives to garner multi-stakeholder and partner bid development support for the emirate’s business events sector were rolled out by the Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau at ibtm Arabia in Abu Dhabi in February.
Commenting before the event, Mubarak Al Shamisi, ADCB Director, said: “Our emphasis at ibtm Arabia will be to enhance awareness of the expanding range of business events facilities and outline a new compelling range of support which will solidify Abu Dhabi’s appeal as an international business events and incentives hub, focused towards driving the emirate as a dynamic global business events leader.”
The website offers a portal to direct proposal submissions with a new, user-friendly, four-stage Request For Proposal form ensuring tailored and relevant assistance, an interactive venue finder featuring all of the capital’s venues with business facilities, a mash-up map and TripAdvisor integration, as well as comparable case studies featuring Abu Dhabi events.
The website features an image-driven interface that is packed full of new content, a comprehensive events calendar that can be filtered by business and leisure, the ability to download useful information and multimedia about business-related facts, figures, case studies and useful guides about Abu Dhabi as a meeting destination, as well as dedicated social media channels launched in July 2015 to ease event planning usability—all on a platform optimised for mobile devices.
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.
“The launch of a brand new Convention Bureau website allows event organisers to directly submit proposals and for stakeholders to work collaboratively on bids, and the two new industry development committees offer a unique bid development network with stakeholders, government entities, hoteliers, and service providers, in a collaborative, accessible and resourceful way,” added Al Shamisi.
Later in the year, the bureau will launch a new ambassador programme initiative involving local experts, academia, business leaders and government officials. The programme will see reputable ambassadors displaying Abu Dhabi’s strengths and advancements in various industries and therefore advocating the capital as an events destination within their specified economic categories.
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 Viceroywhich 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.
Business Traveller UK editorial director Tom Otley visited Yas Waterworld in late 2014 and was impressed by its broad appeal.
“What’s impressive is the way the 40-plus rides blur the line between theme park thrills and swimming pool splashes, yet also appeal to everyone from small children to overgrown kids of the adult variety,” he said. “Avoiding the serious adrenalin action, we still found enough for all ages to occupy us for an entire day. I rode the water slides, then found a relatively quiet corner and read a magazine.”
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 57 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.
10 Things to Do
1. Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
2. Take in a desert safari
3. Go on a Belevari catamaran cruise
4. Find time for Friday brunch
5. Visit Manarat al Saadiyat for some arts & culture
6. Check out Abu Dhabi’s Falcon Hospital
7. Pop in to the Emirates Palace hotel
8. Wow yourself at Ferrari World & Yas Waterworld
9. Kayak in the mangroves
10. Hit the beach
SAA pulls Abu Dhabi route
At the end of January, South Africa’s Minister of Finance granted approval for South African Airways to cease operating the route between Johannesburg and Abu Dhabi. SAA’s interventions to improve the financial performance on this route, which was launched in March 2015, had not yielded the desired results, warranting that decisive action be taken to mitigate the negative impact on the airline, the Treasury said in a statement.
The goal was to use this new route as a gateway to the Far East for SAA passengers into China and India, and that it would operate at a substantial profit, as the current routes into those destinations were causing losses to SAA in excess of R400m ($25m) a year.
SAA announced in January that while its domestic operations remained profitable and grew during the 2013-14 financial year, and regional African routes performed positively, the group’s losses on its long-haul operations grew to R1.6bn ($101m).
SAA operated the Abu Dhabi route in codeshare with Etihad Airways.
The Treasury said that Etihad would still fly between Johannesburg and Abu Dhabi, offering SAA passengers the opportunity to connect to a range of destinations in China, India and Asia as well as in Europe and the Middle East.
“TCA Abu Dhabi is obviously disappointed that SAA will be cancelling its flights to Abu Dhabi, as it reduces access to the destination from a double daily to one flight daily,” said Jean Martins, TCA Abu Dhabi South Africa Country Manager. “Good news for travellers, however, is that Etihad will be introducing an A330 to the route in April and a B787 in November.”
An Expat Perspective
“I lived in Abu Dhabi for seven years and worked as a general manager on a construction company. Setting up a company out there was an incredibly bureaucratic experience – it took us four to five months to do it. Working in construction was amazing – you would never work on projects in the UK that were the same size of those in the Middle East – but sometimes you did wonder, ‘Do they need this?’
“Giving 51% of my business to an Emirati partner worked for me. You always have side agreements, and you give that percentage of ownership, not the profit. We were sponsored by a sheikh, and he gave us all control of the business – as a lot of Emiratis will. In reality, all they are is a name on a bit of paper and they get a retainer or a percentage of the payment.
“Within the expat community, everyone tries to help each other, because it’s a transient society. If something goes wrong, you don’t have a family network around you, so everyone is there for each other in both a business and a social sense.
“Living in Abu Dhabi can be like living in a village, it’s such a small place. You could be having a discussion with a client on Thursday afternoon and then on Friday morning you’re sitting around the pool with him having a beer, or bumping into him in the supermarket – you can’t hide.”
Abu Dhabi as a ‘Culture Capital’
The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been postponed until late-2016 because building work will not be completed on schedule.
The museum was initially scheduled to open in 2012.
“Attention will now turn to the remaining work on the underside of the cladding, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi remains on track for opening in the second half of 2016,” said Ali Majed Al Mansoori, the Chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC).
In 2007, Abu Dhabi signed a deal with French officials worth over $959m to buy the use of the Louvre’s name, to construct the Jean Nouvel-designed building that will house the art, and to facilitate special exhibitions and cultural loans from French institutions. Artwork from around the world will be showcased at the museum, with particular focus placed upon bridging the gap between Eastern and Western art.
According to louvreabudhabi.ae, “The museum will present major objects from the fields of archaeology, fine arts and decorative arts. It will also represent all regions and periods, including contemporary art and the narrative of art history.”
Measuring 565.5 metres in circumference and composed of 400,000 individual elements, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s roof sits on top of four towers that have been carefully concealed inside the museum buildings, creating the illusion that the whole 7,000-tonne structure is hovering in mid-air.
TDIC is developing a cultural district on Saadiyat Island that will house branches of the Louvre, Guggenheim and Zayed National museums, as well as the Performing Arts Centre.
“Abu Dhabi is working actively to position itself as a preferred arts, culture and heritage destination, introducing international and iconic brands and standards that will appeal to visitors seeking that kind of experience,” says Jean Martins, TCA Abu Dhabi South Africa Country Manager.
Designed by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, the 450,000-square-foot Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum will house its own major modern and contemporary art collection and present special exhibitions that will include works from the Guggenheim Foundation’s extensive collection. The museum, the largest Guggenheim in the world, will have global art, exhibitions, and education programmes with particular focus on Middle Eastern contemporary art, but at the time of going to press, construction had yet to get under way, with the construction contract yet to be awarded.
The Zayed National Museum will be the centrepiece of the Saadiyat Island Cultural District and will showcase the history, culture and more recently the social and economic transformation of the Emirates.
The five steely towers that protrude from the Norman Foster-designed museum – each one curved to mimic a falcon’s wing – will represent the five pillars of Sheikh Zayed’s vision for his country, and will be surrounded by a lush park, a testament to the late president’s passion for preserving the natural landscape. The venue will present exhibitions about Emirati culture and is expected to open in 2016.