DUBAI – The Middle East’s largest wind turbine sits on an island as big as Abu Dhabi city, surrounded by hundreds of Oryx, sand gazelles, and other types of antelope. Around 40 giraffes peer over the tops of trees and no more than 100 cars have the roads to themselves – even if their maximum speed can only ever reach 50 kilometers per hour.
Sir Bani Yas Island is a haven for animals. Animals come first, in fact, and anybody who forgets that will be deported. One of Shaikh Zayed’s great legacies left behind is now open for the public to enjoy, namely the tranquility of the mangroves, and the sights of leaping deer or proud blackbucks grazing.
The island is far from an eco-destination with so much water used to irrigate the thousands of trees, plants and special grasses used for fodder while private jets, sea planes, and soon a 50-seater carrier will bring people to the island. No carbon offset program is in place either to avoid placing any responsibility on elite guests, but the wind turbine churns and does provide 2 percent of the electricity needs of the island – specifically for the 64-room Desert Islands Resort and Spa.
The island has undergone a massive amount of land reclamation, planting, irrigation, and wildlife husbandry but a sustainability model has been put in place, according to Lars Neilsen, marketing manager of Desert Islands destination offshore Abu Dhabi’s Al Gharbia, the western region.
“It’s not eco-tourism, it is nature-based tourism. The island’s [ecological] footprint is very low. The hotel is an original building built by Shaikh Zayed and is on the reclaimed part of the island, so it is not impacting fertile ground at all,” he said.
Desert Islands will be made up of eight natural islands including Sir Bani Yas Island, the historical Delma Island, and the previously unexplored Discovery Islands. Four of these will remain untouched as they are turtle breeding grounds.
Development of the destination is to be phased, at an estimated total investment from both the government and private sector, at more than US$3 billion (Dh11.5 billion). Towards the completion of Desert Islands, it is projected to generate around 6,500 jobs.
In the very near future, Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s clean technology initiative, will implement solar panels and more wind turbines to fully power the island. The idea behind the island is to conserve and preserve nature. There are free roaming animals, however, Arabian and African animals are in separate multi-hectare pens ‘to keep it authentic,’ said Neilsen. “Eighty percent of the island is for animals to roam free,” he said.
So far the resort is only opened for hotel guests but come January, the island will develop a day-tripper scheme for daily visitors. Access to the island for non jet-setters is by ferry from Jebel Dhanna, south-west of Abu Dhabi very near Saudi Arabia.
According to Tourism and Development and Investment Company (TDIC), Desert Islands will be a model of sustainable development that will meet the needs of the present without compromising future needs. A desalination plant powered by Masdar’s alternative energy plant on the island will provide water for the island’s animals and vegetation.
According to Neilsen, there are 3 million trees on the island. The wind turbine which was installed in 2004, but only made operational last year, powers a lot of the irrigation pumps for watering. Different types of grasses have also been planted to test for one that uses the least water. All in all though, 30,000 tons of animal feed is sent to the island each week – mainly cut grass from Delma Island.
For each visitor to the resort a mangrove is planted. Visitors can actually get up close to the mangroves and kayak around them as part of the activities on offer. Biking, snorkeling, and trekking are also available. Game drives take visitors around the island to see all the animals. It is believed that Arabian Oryx are extinct in the wild, but there are around 400 on Sir Bani Yas. Six striped hyenas were recently added. Cheetahs could also be arriving next year.