Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, is stepping out of the shadow of its sister Dubai, says Halima Ali
Larger, more populated and wealthier than flashier neighbour Dubai, Abu Dhabi takes a different approach to tourism, shunning the ‘look at me’ route and instead building a solid tourism infrastructure based on art, culture and sport in a an effort to offset its reliance on oil revenue.
Attractions such as the white-marbled, 82-domed Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Yas Marina circuit — which hosts the final Formula 1 race of the season — and the Ferrari World theme park have put Abu Dhabi on the international map, with more developments to come.
Construction is well under way on the much-anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi in the cultural district on Saadiyat Island, with plans for a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum. There’s also been a drive to strengthen the emirate’s standing as a premier golfing destination.
“The introduction of world-class cultural attractions such as the Louvre, Opera House, and the whole cultural quarter, will provide visitors with a high level of alternative activities to complement the beach and tourist attractions already there. This should encourage longer stays and second-and third-time visitors to Abu Dhabi,” says Sheena Paton, Kuoni’s commercial and product manager.
Hayes and Jarvis Middle East destination manager, Sheryl Drane agrees: “The new developments will continue to attract visitors from around the world, and open its doors for tourists looking for adventure and culture as well as a relaxing holiday.”
The 2016 cruise season is set to be a big one, with the Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal having opened at the end of last year. Located in Zayed Port, the new building covers 86,111sq ft and is a statement of just how serious Abu Dhabi is about cruise tourism. It’s designed to celebrate the UAE’s cultural heritage, with a latticework roof inspired by the UAE’s national tree — the ghaf — and features including traditional Arabic motifs, colours and shapes. Hoping to establish the emirate as one of the world’s leading winter sun cruise destinations, it’s expected to welcome 220,000 passengers from 113 ship calls. Celebrity Cruises has announced it will use Abu Dhabi as a homeport from the winter of 2016/17. Celebrity Constellation — a Millennium-class ship — is the co-flagship of the Celebrity Cruises fleet. It will offer guests nine- to 14-night sailings from November 2016 until January 2017, beginning and ending in the UAE capital.
Art of the matter
Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island is set to become a global cultural hub, with a number of planned developments. First up is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, due for completion by the end of 2016/ early 2017. The building will have over 99,000sq ft of gallery space, with a permanent collection of over 500 pieces. Leading French cultural institutions will lend artwork, including Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, currently in the Palace of Versailles; a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait from the Musée d’Orsay; and Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman, from the Musee du Louvre. Also currently in development is the Zayed National Museum, which will become the UAE’s national museum. The district will also be home to the world’s largest Guggenheim museum. Designed by Frank Gehry, it will house permanent and temporary collections of art belonging to the Guggenheim Foundation. louvreabudhabi.ae zayednationalmuseum.ae guggenheimabudhabi.ae
The emirate is teeing up an ambitious drive to strengthen its standing as a world-class golfing destination by targeting expanding markets in China, India, across the GCC, the UAE and Europe. A dedicated nine-language golf portal is the focus of the marketing drive, serving as a one-stop shop where enthusiasts can book everything, including course rates and package deals. Abu Dhabi currently has six pay-and-play golf courses — all with certified PGA professionals on the books — and three championship-standard courses can be found within a 20-minute drive of the city, including the award-winning Abu Dhabi Golf Club, home of the annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, a European PGA Tour event. There’s also Yas Links, on Yas Island, Arabia’s only true links golf course and the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, the first ocean course in the region. golfinabudhabi.com
Beyond the city
Just a 90-minute drive from Abu Dhabi city, Al Ain oasis is one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Al Jahili Fort, built in 1891, is home to a permanent exhibition. Guests can explore the shady walkways and 3,000-year-old falaj irrigation system, while Jebel Hafeet, the emirate’s highest peak, offers stunning city views. Elsewhere, more than half of Sir Bani Yas Island
— one of Al Gharbia’s eight desert islands — is given over to the Arabian Wildlife Park, home to over 10,000 free-roaming animals, including Arabian oryx, giraffes and cheetahs. Al Gharbia also offers some of the UAE’s most adventurous off-road driving, including the biggest dunes this side of the Sahara. Liwa, the oasis town at the edge to the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter), the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, is home to a vast date palm plantation and the magnificent Qasr Al Sarab hotel. visitabudhabi.ae
Attractions across the Emirates
Dubai: Visitors to this glamorous destination can explore Dubai Mall, the largest shopping complex in the world, or head up to the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure, to see the entire city stretch out before them. The Deira Souqs and the Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood offer more traditional experiences, while the Heritage and Diving Village provides fascinating insights into the region’s rich maritime history.
Sharjah: History buffs will be delighted with Sharjah Archaeological Museum, the Heritage Museum and Museum of Islamic Civilization, and the Cultural Palace Square. The Al Qasba district features cafes, restaurants, an art gallery, and boat rides across the lagoon, while nearby Al Majaz offers family fun time with water parks and playgrounds. A visit to Sharjah wouldn’t be complete without getting lost in the Souq Al Asrah, the oldest market in all the emirates.
Ras Al Khaimah: A mere 40 minutes by car from Dubai International Airport, Ras Al Khaimah is a lesser known gem that offers spectacular dunes and azure beaches, mangroves, mountains and hiking trails like the Stairway to Heaven. Travellers are encouraged to see the moon-white Sheikh Zayed Mosque and its vast, gleaming marble courtyard. Foodies will enjoy the local cuisine, influenced by dishes from across