Executive Talk: Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan

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During a recent trip to the Emirates, eTN has had the pleasure of witnessing new development project announcements made by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), the apex body that manages the tourism industry in the seat of government of the Middle East’s most progressive nation today. ADTA was established in September 2004. It has wide-ranging responsibilities for building and developing the emirate’s tourism industry. These include; destination marketing; infrastructure and product development; and regulation and classification. A key role is to create synergy in the international promotion of Abu Dhabi through close coordination with the emirate’s hotels, destination management companies, airlines and other public and private sector travel-related organizations.

Abu Dhabi, the largest of seven emirates within the United Arab Emirates and home to the country’s capital city, has raised hotel guest projections for the coming five years from the original targets set in 2004. Abu Dhabi has emerged as one of the world’s most rapidly developing destinations in recent years following the government’s decision to promote tourism as a key priority sector in its diversification strategy. Besides year-round sunshine, fine hotels and excellent facilities for leisure, sport, shopping and dining, the emirate offers an authentic taste of traditional Arabian culture and outstanding natural beauty, including vast tracts of spectacular unspoiled desert dunes, green oases and miles of pristine sandy beaches.

The upgrade, revealed in the authority’s five-year plan for 2008-2012, puts projected annual hotel guests at 2.7 million by the end of 2012 – 12.5 percent more than initially envisaged. The new target also calls for the emirate to have 25,000 hotel rooms by 2012 end – 4,000 more than originally forecast. The plan means the emirate’s hotel stock will jump by 13,000 rooms on its current available inventory.

“The plan has emerged after an extensive strategic planning process which addressed the incredible opportunity Abu Dhabi has to capitalize on its advantageous location, natural assets, climate and unique culture,” said His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, chairman of ADTA. This initiative is in line with the direction of His Highnesses Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, United Arab Emirates’ President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi and General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

Abu Dhabi has emerged as one of the world’s most rapidly developing destinations in recent years following the government’s decision to promote tourism as a key priority sector in its diversification strategy. Besides year-round sunshine, fine hotels and excellent facilities for leisure, sport, shopping and dining, the emirate offers an authentic taste of traditional Arabian culture and outstanding natural beauty, including vast tracts of spectacular unspoiled desert dunes, green oases and miles of pristine sandy beaches.

Sheikh Sultan added: “The plan is closely aligned to, and totally reflects, the Abu Dhabi government’s intention of maintaining and enhancing its confident and secure society in an open, global and sustainable economy and one which is diversified away from hydrocarbon dependency. “As our economy evolves, we have an opportunity to become an internationally recognized business and leisure destination. However, along with this comes a responsibility to ensure that we develop a tourism strategy that respects our culture, values and heritage and supports other government initiatives, including the attraction of inward investment. We believe our new five-year plan addresses this potential and need for accountability.”

Asked about whether there have been any evaluations performed previously on the tourism economy’s contribution to GDP, His Highness Sheikh Sultan told eTurboNews he knows their target is 12,000 rooms in 2012. “However, it may be difficult to give accurate statistics right now in this regard. It’s not easy to give a number in the last 5-6 years, but we have laws in place to be followed by stakeholders in order for us to achieve our goals, as well as determine the contribution of tourism, hotels, conferences, fairs and exhibitions, aviation etc. to the general economy of Abu Dhabi. We are currently creating a system that will help us work with international partners and assist with the share of the private sector to the GDP.”

In order to compete with the city of Dubai, Abu Dhabi’s civil aviation needs to speed up operations and receive more flights to the emirate to come up with the forecast traffic of 2.7 million visitors. Asked if they intend to increase flights to the capital, Sheikh Sultan said that the most important branch office will be opened in Germany, Abu Dhabi’s top market. “Etihad Airways now flies to 45 destinations all over the world. We will have more scheduled flights as well as brand-new aircrafts to be added to our existing fleet. Expansions have taken place at our airport. In seven years, Abu Dhabi International Airport will cater to 20 million passengers. This comes in line with our initiatives to make the airport ready to embrace all the incoming airline companies. We encourage all partnerships with all flag carriers,” Sheikh Sultan said.

His Highness Sheikh Sultan indicated Abu Dhabi is going after a special market niche, not the mass market or package tourists. “Our emirate is not going to do any mass catering. We have identified and will attract the high-end market,” he said.

Keen about the new Saadiyat Island, a large, low lying island 500 meters off the coast of Abu Dhabi to be developed to the tune of US$ 27 billion in a mixed commercial, residential, and leisure project design, Sheikh Sultan said, “The Emirates is characterized by a legacy of culture and heritage. In a 2003 study we did with UNESCO, careful examination of the final report showed we have many areas that can be put on the World Heritage List. When we created ADTA in 2004, our most important task was to create the Saadiyat Island. We had the concept of opening museums consistent with the vision of the Abu Dhabi leaders, whose objective is to preserve culture and make it part and parcel of local education. When we launched the master plan in 2007, we also opened two new museums representing top foreign fine arts.”

In light of the overwhelming growth in hotels in the Emirates, Sheikh Sultan talked about the reality saying, “The cost of construction has caused a dilemma not only in Abu Dhabi but all around the world. Thankfully, we have international developers and contractors contributing to the construction process. We know this poses a serious challenge, thus it won’t be easy to do a quick fix on any one part. The second challenge is training human resources with the increased number of hotel rooms here. Hence, we have launched training programs and in the coming years we will be working into the educational curriculum our hospitality programs for our nationals who need better and bigger job opportunities never there before. We have imposed on hotels to include a service charge in order to support our programs which hotels readily accommodated; after all this will qualify their staff and internally upgrade hotel service, by and large.”

It seems the boom has come to Abu Dhabi, spilling over from Dubai. Can they handle such rush of real estate resort projects? Sheikh Sultan said they have very close coordination with the real estate developers. “But ADTA does not develop hotels, rather creates the facilities for the private sector to develop their own. The commitment our government has is too large esp. when it comes to mega-projects meant for attracting tourists to Abu Dhabi. What we are trying to do is to facilitate processing of licenses and permits for investors and developers. We seek to create a segment of tourism that requires housing, accommodation, recreation and leisure. We would like to see more products be brought to us by the private sector.”