Destination report: Abu Dhabi

AT FIRST GLANCE, ART AND AVIATION ARE CURRENTLY the prominent face of developments in UAE capital Abu Dhabi.

The ethereally beautiful Louvre art museum, which appears to float on the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf, is due to open this year. Meanwhile, looking out from the luxurious upper deck of my taxiing Etihad A380, the spectacular new $3bn Midfield Terminal is taking shape at Abu Dhabi airport. It’s due to open in 2019 – both these projects have seen delays, but compared to developments such as, say, a new runway at Heathrow, the terminal is happening in the blink of an eye.

National carrier Etihad sees the new Midfield Terminal project as a key factor in Abu Dhabi’s progress. “It will be a vital component in the continuing growth of Etihad Airways and the development of the region” says Linda Celestino, the airline’s VP of guest experience. “We are continuing to develop our supporting programmes, such as new lounge facilities, that will enable us to deliver strong passenger growth at the new facility.”

She says the new terminal will be a “fantastic venue” with 65 aircraft gates and 742,000sqm of space, including 35,000sqm for retail and F&B, and is a key element in Abu Dhabi’s strategies for growing tourism and business opportunities.

Over the bridge on Saadiyat Island, anticipation builds for the long-awaited opening of the Louvre, its cool interiors shaded under a white 180m-wide, 7,000-ton steel dome, with its interlaced palm-leaf design dappling the interior in a shifting ‘rain of light,’ according to architect Jean Nouvel.

Estimates on the cost of the project vary widely; Bloomberg cited just over US$1 billion when it recently described US$37 billion of Abu Dhabi projects due for completion by 2020. Nearby, the Guggenheim museum project is amassing a world-class permanent art collection, though construction on the fantastical Frank Gehry-designed building (set to be over 10 times the size of the Guggenheim in Manhattan) has not yet started.


As always in the UAE, the hotel pipeline is flowing. Recent and upcoming openings include brands such as Millennium, Hyatt, Rotana, Fairmont, Four Seasons and Marriott. Hotel data specialist STR noted for February this year, the UAE occupancy rate of 84 per cent was the highest for the period since 2008. 

I’m in town for the opening of the 400-room Marriott al Forsan (see review, p125) in the Khalifa City district, within the Al Forsan sports resort with its Olympic-standard facilities that include an equestrian centre, shooting ranges and wake-boarding park. This follows the opening late last year of the Marriott Downtown, and is the 12th Abu Dhabi property in the Marriott-Starwood portfolio – and the 47th in the UAE.

Before the hotel’s spectacular opening festivities I talk to Alex Kyriakidis, Marriott’s president and managing director for the Middle East & Africa region.  He views Abu Dhabi within a wider UAE context, leading growth in tandem with sister metropolis Dubai. He points out that the Marriott-Starwood conglomerate expects to open another 33 hotels in the UAE by 2020, bringing its total to 80 properties.

However, Kyriakidis is candid about the challenges the Gulf region faces. “Clearly, the decline in the oil price has taken its toll on the Gulf States, whose economies were totally dependent on oil.” This has driven some states to work on strategies aimed at diversifying the economy, he says, with Abu Dhabi focusing on travel and tourism, investing heavily in sport, leisure and culture.

But in the meantime, there’s an impact on business performance. He says the levels of conference activity taking place here when oil prices were over US$100 a barrel “have suffered, with cutbacks working their way through the system, adding: “What we’re going to see is the softening continuing  through 2017 and 2018.”

However, he sees positives in the current situation – that “softening” of hotel prices means buyers are seeing “greater value for money than Dubai, which is playing in the capital’s favour.” And he describes the “knock-on effect” of the Expo 2020 in Dubai – which is expected to attract more than 25 million visitors – from which he believes all the Emirates will benefit. “From 2018 we will see a ramp-up to 2020, and beyond,” he says, adding: “In a nutshell, we are optimistic.”


But for all the talk about Abu Dhabi’s focus on leisure tourism, there doesn’t seem to be a dramatic shift in what is still very much a business town – Kyriakidis says while the business-leisure guest ratio was 80:20 a couple of years ago, it’s now around 70:30. And the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) sector remains a key focus for all the big players, including Etihad, hotel groups and the Abu Dhabi tourism authorities.

A common goal is to increase the proportion of Etihad’s global hub passengers (transiting, say, between Europe and Asia) that actually stay in the region. Hala Abu Dhabi is the destination management and conference services arm of Etihad Airways. It is part of Etihad’s Hala Group, which includes the holidays and travel management company divisions.

Hala Group managing director Darren Peisley explains: “Hala Abu Dhabi’s trade and customer online booking systems allow both B2B and B2C capability, making it easy to book best-rate hotel accommodation, attractions and activities in real-time with instant confirmation. “It offers complete event and logistical planning services, delivered by a team of international event experts with experience of working in the UAE, from venue sourcing and delegate registration through to production and service delivery.”

The team offers customised add-ons, including visa processing, travel, accommodation, tours, venue selection and conference logistics, says Peisley. He sees a trend of a “fast-changing marketplace” that can mean event budgets being announced at short notice, with often very short lead times. Key growth sectors include ‘fintech’, and the auto industry for incentives and new car launch events.

Meanwhile, law, finance and medical sectors are regular conference stalwarts. Another trend he sees is increased twin-centre events, pairing Abu Dhabi with destinations including Oman, the Seychelles and the Maldives. And, he says clients who’ve previously booked events in Dubai are now looking at Abu Dhabi, encouraged by, among other factors, 20 per cent cheaper hotel rates.

Marriott’s Kyriakidis adds: “The UAE is now becoming top class in the world league for big conventions and congresses. We have great partnerships with both Etihad and Emirates. Working with those partnerships we are pursuing MICE from all segments, from small groups to mega conferences.”

He says MICE initiatives with the two airlines “makes it easy for the organiser – we work together to package and offer a one-stopshop to deal with logistics, and offer a total experience for organisers and delegates.”

Collaboration is also the name of the game at Etihad, according to Peisley, who says recent initiatives include hosting MICE development visits with the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Yas Viceroy and Ritz-Carlton, and adds that UK events buyers are a key target. Kyriakidis compares the drive to convert Etihad’s transit traffic to bona fide visitors with Emirates passengers in Dubai, where an increase of just a couple of percentage points makes “a seismic impact on occupancies and rates in the UAE market – that’s the mission.” 

THE MASDAR CITY PROJECT is a centre for renewable energy research and innovation. As often with this type of grand project, both phased and final completion dates are open, but its aim is to be a world-leading talent hub for renewable and sustainable energy technology, incorporating universities and institutes, tech development companies and zero-emission living. Masdar has been making the news with its pioneering of Total Recall-style driverless cabs, celebrating carrying its two millionth ‘Personal Rapid Transit pod’ passenger last year. Masdar hopes to host 40,000 residents plus 50,000 commuters.

At BBT’s sister title Business Traveller, Marisa Cannon highlights the latest on the meetings & events scene

• The convention bureau’s Abu Dhabi Advantage programme aims to attract business gatherings aligned with Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, the city’s longterm growth strategy, which aims to diversify the UAE’s economy beyond oil and gas, investing in industries such as aviation, tourism and financial services. It offers financial incentives and management and marketing support to events in these industries.

• High-octane experiences: Yas Marina Formula One Circuit – as the final race of the season, it’s one of the most expensive Grand Prix tickets. Corporate hospitality is well catered for with a variety of suites and venues on offer, while groups can organise track hire, circuit tours and driving experiences all year round. Activities range from drag racing on a National Hot Rod Association sanctioned strip to an escorted whizz around the track in an F1 car.

• Ferrari World Abu Dhabi has revealed plans for 19 new rides. Turbo Track, which opened in March this year, is based on a Ferrari driver training facility – a 180-metre track that extends out of the main building through a glass roof, reaching 62m above the park and speeds of 102km/h. Next door, Warner Brothers has announced plans for a new theme park offering immersive attractions, plus the world’s first Warner Bros-branded hotel.

• For larger events, consider Etihad Towers. This multi-use development on the Corniche contains apartments, offices, a shopping mall and convention centre with a 2,200-capacity ballroom. It includes a Jumeirah hotel with 383 rooms, 199 serviced apartments and a ballroom for 1,400 delegates.

• A two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi, organisers looking for an urban retreat can opt for a day trip to Al Ain Oasis, which opened last year to offer the emirate’s first custom-designed World Heritage experience. The 1,200-hectare site contains more than 147,000 date palm trees with 100 varieties, plus an Eco-Centre visitor experience with interactive exhibits displaying initiatives to conserve its ecosystem.

• Al Jahili Fort is the former headquarters of the Oman Trucial Scouts, who guarded the region’s mountain passes and maintained inter-tribal peace. Today, its north wing has been transformed into a captivating exhibition  all about British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, displaying  photos from his travels  with Bedouin tribes and Sheikh Zayed, whom he befriended, alongside  video footage and excerpts from his best-selling book,  Arabian Sands. 

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