Abu Dhabi’s grand designs

With a pair of major tourism infrastructure elements coming online this year, expect this intriguing destination to continue its leap from that other place you can fly into on the way to Europe to a genuine destination of choice writes Ben Alcock.

For centuries, pearls collected from the clean, shallow waters around Abu Dhabi were desired the world over. The local pearl trade declined in the 1930s with the arrival of cultured pearls from Japan sending prices into freefall. Fortuitously, however, international interest in the oil potential of the region was on the rise, and in 1958 a marine drilling platform struck oil, black gold flowed freely, changing Abu Dhabi’s fortunes dramatically.

With global energy industries now being disrupted by supply and renewables, it’s hardly surprising that tourism here is seen as another jewel of future fortune. Another pivot in Abu Dhabi’s economic focus and planning.

Abu Dhabi’s tourism masterplan was drawn up years ago now. At its core was the neat idea of leveraging some of Abu Dhabi’s best (and most unexpected) assets – its islands, and shaping them into districts and precincts offering specific experiences. A cultural district here, a leisure precinct there, a new CBD nestled in between, a remote eco-retreat down the coast, all making the most of the emirate’s 200 natural islands and 700 kilometres of glittering coastline.

Abu Dhabi’s approach to tourism has been measured. In part, to ensure that it develops sustainably. But also to ensure that it doesn’t run roughshod over its underlying culture and heritage. Yes, there are some remarkable developments afoot, but this is no rush job. After years of anticipation, it’s pleasing to see this masterplan emerging thoughtfully from the sea and sands of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

For a few years now, visitors have had a taste of Abu Dhabi’s primary leisure precinct on Yas Island. Located 30 minutes from the city centre, Yas is home to the world-class Yas Marina Circuit and the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Yas Waterworld – the largest water park in the Middle East, Yas Links Abu Dhabi golf course, and Yas Mall – Abu Dhabi’s largest shopping, dining and entertainment destinations.

In 2017 we will see two pieces of crucial tourism infrastructure add to Abu Dhabi’s offering: The Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) at Abu Dhabi Airport, and Louvre Abu Dhabi.

If you’ve flown through Abu Dhabi, you’ll know that its airport offers an eclectic, bursting-at-the-seams mix of old and recent. The opening of the multi-billion-dollar MTB, however, will revolutionise the home of the UAE’s flag carrier, Etihad Airways, and deliver an absolutely world class experience for up to 45 million passengers annually.

In town, Saadiyat Island will flex its cultural muscles for the first time with the opening of the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi. Just minutes from downtown Abu Dhabi city, this universal museum will display its treasures in pavilions, plazas, alleyways and canals beneath a low dome, 180 metres across, evoking a floating city. Perforated with intricate patterns, a ‘rain of light’ will filter through the roof illuminating the gallery spaces beneath.

It will, in time, be joined by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and Foster + Partners’ Zayed National Museum establishing Saadiyat Island as a cultural destination of global importance.

Constructing a globally significant tourism offering is risky. I don’t mind big-shiny attractions when I travel, but on their own they often leave me flat. Snap. Post. Hashtag. Next. Combine them with authentic micro-experiences when I’m with you, however, and you’ve got me. Hook, line and sinker.

By honouring local traditions and culture through its tourism destination development, Abu Dhabi has deftly created spaces for both the big and the small to thrive. I’ve gasped stepping into the massive courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Likewise, under the immense, red super-structure of Ferrari World Abu Dhabi – one of the world’s largest indoor theme parks. You could have pushed me over with a feather at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, an astonishing local institution. I’ve been handed dates to sample at the Al Mina Fruit & Vegetable Souk, heard the thump and whump of cleavers through flesh at the Fish Market, and admired the audacity of meals and coffee dusted in 24 karat gold at Emirates Palace hotel. I’ve enjoyed the attention of a butler, and the flash of smiles from Emirati kids and their kin at weekend picnics in equal measure.

Abu Dhabi’s big attractions are rightly gaining global attention. Yas Island already attracts some 25 million visitors annually, and has ambitious plans to be one of the world’s top-10 family destinations by 2022. Saadiyat Island’s cultural district is taking shape, and the city’s astonishing, welcoming Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was TripAdvisor’s second-most popular landmark in the world in 2016, pipped only by Machu Picchu.

There are more landmarks in the pipeline, new desirable pearls gleaming by the waters of the Arabian Gulf. As its tourism masterplan takes shape, the world is Abu Dhabi’s oyster.

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