ABU DHABI -- Sometimes slow and steady wins the race, and an apparent tortoise can outrun the quicker hare. Here in the United Arab Emirates, those adages could play out, eventually, on the tourism field.
Abu Dhabi, largest of the country's seven constituent emirates and home to its capital city of the same name, is working to catch up to its long-showier sister Dubai in upscale hotel inventory, travel-related infrastructure, leisure and cultural attractions and, perhaps most importantly, worldwide brand recognition.
Billions are being spent in the effort, which is just one component of a wider national development plan called Abu Dhabi 2030, but the destination is not there yet. It could be years, perhaps a decade or more, before this less well-known emirate, which attracted more than 2.1 million hotel visitors in 2011, becomes as popular a leisure destination as nearby Dubai, with its 9 million-plus arrivals last year.
Some unique attractions here, such as Ferrari World (the world's largest indoor theme park, boasting its fastest roller coaster) and the Yas Marina Circuit (site of an annual Formula One car-race championship), are already open and attracting visitors. Both are located on Yas Island, designated as Abu Dhabi's new entertainment nexus. (View a slideshow of Ken's visit to Abu Dhabi here or by clicking on the photos.)
But many of the emirate's biggest planned tourism draws, largely cultural in focus and located on Saadiyat Island, such as three new museums designed by world-famous architects, are still a few years from completion. These include Jean Nouvel's Louvre Abu Dhabi, to open in 2015, and an outpost of New York's Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry and planned for 2017.
And while Dubai's new cruise terminal welcomed 375,000 passengers last year, Abu Dhabi is still making do with a temporary facility that will be called on by 77 ships carrying 160,000 cruisers in the 2011-12 season. A permanent cruise terminal is planned within five years' time.
Even the enormous, gleaming-white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a house of worship but also arguably its biggest current cultural attraction, is still a work in progress 16 years after construction began.
59 new upscale hotels and resorts
What is largely in place, however, is a raft of new upscale hotels and resorts, built in anticipation of the eventual tourist influx. Six major properties opened in Abu Dhabi in the fourth quarter of 2011, for a total of 57, and two more are on tap for this year. Brands recently introduced to Abu Dhabi include Westin, Park Hyatt, Jumeirah and St. Regis, which will have opened two properties by August.
"This supply of hotel inventory comes in anticipation of the rapid and ambitious growth of the tourism sector over the next few years, all part of the economic diversification plan of the Abu Dhabi government," said Sultan Al Dhaheri, head of the tourism and strategy section of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. This year, the emirate is hoping to attract 2.3 million hotel guests, a 9% jump from last year, he said.
The surge in room supply could be good news for potential U.S. visitors because these currently (and, it's hoped, briefly) underutilized properties are offering relatively low rates unimaginable in Dubai, just an hour's drive away.
In fact, average room rates in Abu Dhabi dropped by 14% last year, to about $133 a night. According to a March 11 report in a local newspaper, Al-Rroya Al-Eqtisadiyya, the fall was attributable in part to 4,000 rooms coming online last year.
'Great value for your money'
Lindsey Wallace, CEO of Linara Travel in Eagle, Idaho, and a specialist in travel to the region, said the decline in rates makes now a great time to visit the U.A.E. at a discount. "If you're comparing a city hotel or a resort in a beach area, there's no question Abu Dhabi offers some great value for your money vs. Dubai," he said.
"Abu Dhabi now has a lot of really nice hotels that have opened, legitimate five-star hotels that are actually very affordable," Wallace said. "For example, at the Viceroy hotel [on Yas Island], rates can be found under $150 a night."
Hotel pricing mechanisms being fluid, an authoritative list of rock-bottom rates at luxury properties in Abu Dhabi can be difficult to compile. But a recent search on TripAdvisor.com for a one-night stay in May yielded rates from under $210 at both the
Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort & Spa and the Rocco Forte Hotel Abu Dhabi. A night at the exclusive Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, located in the dunes of the near-empty Liwa Desert two hours south of Abu Dhabi City, was priced at under $250.
The promotional opportunities afforded by what could be regarded, by some measures, as an overcapacity in accommodations are not lost on the tourism authority.
Al Dhaheri agreed that the destination is "certainly more affordable" now than it has been in at least five years.
"Travelers used to the market price range of luxurious properties such as the St. Regis, Park Hyatt and Shangri-La can find flagship accommodation here at a highly competitive price," he said. To capitalize on the current situation, the authority is working with accommodations providers to craft introductory deals, Al Dhaheri added.
In its same early March report, Al-Rroya Al-Eqtisadiyya, citing a tourism authority official, reported that Abu Dhabi's government had stopped issuing new licenses for hotel construction due to oversupply. Overseas news organizations following up on the report, which was picked up and distributed worldwide by Reuters, were unable to independently verify the claim.
Asked if Abu Dhabi had indeed overbuilt, Al Dhaheri pointed to "a measured approach to growth, and as such ... we are taking a highly considered approach to the issue of new hotel licenses."
Potential investors, he said, must now meet with authority officials for consultations before even submitting applications, which "are issued on a case-by-case basis to balance the supply and demand scenario."
Oversupply or no oversupply, it doesn't look as if Abu Dhabi hoteliers are actually suffering all that much, if the tourism authority's figures for 2011 and the first two months of 2012 are any indication.
Last year, hotel revenue grew by 3%, to $1.2 billion, and room revenue rose 2%, to $631 million. Guest nights rose 22%, to 6.3 million, and the average length of stay expanded by 5%, to 2.97 nights. Occupancy, meanwhile, stood at 69%, making for a year-over-year increase of 7%.
This year, some 382,435 guests checked into Abu Dhabi hotels in January and February, a 16% jump, compared with the same period in 2011, while guest nights rose 12%, to just over 1.1 million. There has been, however, what officials called "a slight slip" in the average length of stay, and hotel occupancy dipped to 68% for both months.
Al Dhaheri called the emirate's latest occupancy rates "an acceptable ... level anywhere in the world."
Brand recognition is a challenge
But just acceptable isn't good enough in Abu Dhabi, home to not only the world's fastest roller coaster but also its heaviest chandelier and largest hand-knotted carpet (both at the Grand Mosque), and the world's most inclined tower, the Hyatt Capital Gate hotel, which leans 18 degrees off-center.
To help return hotel occupancies to growth mode, Abu Dhabi officials understandably want to increase arrivals and build length of stay, which in 2011 was seven nights for leisure visitors, most of whom hailed from Arab countries, India or Europe. So the authority is launching what it terms a "trade-engagement program."
The program, Al Dhaheri said, is "a series of tailored initiatives designed to maximize travel trade capability and commitment to selling Abu Dhabi as a destination." Key trade contacts will be "equipped and motivated" to market the emirate and raise its international profile.
Abu Dhabi and its constituent brands, it can safely be said, do not yet enjoy the same level of name recognition abroad among average travel consumers, and even among some travel trade, as does Dubai.
While Dubai-based Emirates Airline has received much U.S. media attention in recent years for its massive aircraft purchases and transatlantic flights aboard double-decker Airbus A380 widebody jets, a mention of Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways -- officially the U.A.E.'s flag carrier -- can still elicit a blank stare.
Geert Boven, Etihad's New York-based senior vice president for the Americas, acknowledged as much, saying, "We are still on the way to achieving further brand recognition in the U.S."
The carrier, which currently flies nonstop to New York and Chicago and will serve Washington beginning next March, has to date been focusing on building travel trade ties in the U.S.
"With the limited funds we have available, we've concentrated first and foremost on B-to-B relationships, but gradually, step by step, we will expand our activities toward the U.S.," Boven said. He added that Etihad is "definitely gearing up for more investments in brand recognition in the States." (For more on Etihad, see report below).
There's some catching up to do. According to Wallace at Linara Travel, "With Emirates constantly adding new flights out of more U.S. cities, more people are heading to Dubai." (The airline will serve six U.S. cities by year's end.)
Synonymous with luxury
Ironically, the biggest -- and unsolicited and perhaps unwelcome -- recent publicity boost Abu Dhabi got in the U.S. was the 2010 film "Sex and the City 2." A major portion of the movie was ostensibly set in the emirate, but it was actually filmed in Morocco, after U.A.E. officials denied the producers of the racy movie permission to shoot in Abu Dhabi.
The rebuff was reminder that, for all the cosmopolitan consumerism on display and foreigners living in Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. is a Muslim country where visitors are asked to not dress provocatively, restrict alcohol consumption to licensed hotels and restaurants and refrain from eating or drinking in public during daylight hours in the holy month of Ramadan.
Still, "Sex and the City 2" was that year's top romantic comedy, grossing more than $300 million at the box office. It also likely rendered the words "Abu Dhabi" synonymous with luxury and leisure for fans of the movie, in which an upscale Middle Eastern airline (unnamed but looking very much like Etihad) and a palatial resort reminiscent of the legendary Emirates Palace played starring roles.
Taking a less controversial approach, Abu Dhabi's tourism authority will launch an inaugural multiplatform promotional campaign in the U.S. next month, timed to coincide with the official opening of its first office in New York.
Al Dhaheri said the debut campaign "will be geared initially to spark interest in the destination, which will translate to bookings in the long term."
"Our goal is to start to build destination awareness and make sure we have good product offerings and trade partners who are knowledgeable about selling them first," he said. "We hope to see the returns from [the second] year ... onward."
Travel agents will be crucial to establishing that stateside foothold.
"As Abu Dhabi is a 'new' destination for the U.S., working with the travel trade is hugely important for us," Al Dhaheri said. And because Abu Dhabi is a long-haul, unfamiliar destination for Americans, he said, "we believe most of our target audience will need the assistance of agents."
Readying for its New York debut, the authority has crafted educational presentations for U.S. retailers and will provide product updates through platforms such as webinars. It also is working with stateside tour operators and is exploring future partnerships with travel agent consortia.
"Having a U.S. office now also means travel agents can call us anytime for support, ... brochures or questions; we are here to enable them to provide the best services to their clients thinking of traveling to Abu Dhabi," Al Dhaheri said.
On the Abu Dhabi side of the equation, the tourism authority is "working hard with stakeholders" at home to increase product range and develop consumer promotions targeted at the golf, beach, nature, adventure and meetings-and-incentives market segments, said Director General Mubarak Al Muhairi.
In addition, the authority just recruited its largest-ever group of Abu Dhabi Ambassador Program trainees. Now in its fifth year and boasting more than 200 graduates to date, the annual 12-week program trains young Emirati nationals in visitor relations.
This year's 120 recruits will undergo a new curriculum enabling them "to experience Abu Dhabi as a visitor and learn to appreciate firsthand the skills of a tourist guide." The program is described as key to both improving the visitor experience and furthering the "Emiratization" of tourism in a land where locals comprise only 25% of the population.
Already big growth in bookings
The initial stages of all these efforts might already be having their desired effect in the U.S. Linara Travel's Wallace said that "even compared to just a couple of years ago, we're seeing big growth in bookings to Abu Dhabi," mainly as a stopover destination en route to Africa, India, the Maldives and the Seychelles. Client stays in the emirate currently range from one to five nights, with a minority of trips focused solely on the U.A.E. and pairing Abu Dhabi with Dubai and even Oman.
Wallace said that the recent drop in hotel prices is helping, too: "We're finding that if the focus of a client's trip is somewhere else and they want to spend the bulk of their money on that portion of the trip, they can save a fair bit by staying in ... Abu Dhabi for a couple of nights."
For all the value of short-stay visitors in transit, Abu Dhabi would, of course, prefer that vacationers spend their entire holidays there. "It is definitely a destination that warrants its own time and space within the international travel arena," Al Dhaheri said. "Abu Dhabi is definitely more than a stopover destination."
It's also different than Dubai, he noted: "Abu Dhabi is hallmarked by its focus on culture, heritage and the environment. This is destination where visitors can engage with a much-treasured heritage and traditions, which are still in evidence today."
Despite the U.A.E.'s reputation as a place of oil wealth, luxury shops and hotels, supersized construction projects and other superlatives, recent growth in Wallace's bookings to Abu Dhabi has not been restricted to upper-tier travelers.
Linara Travel is, in fact, seeing increased middle-market interest. "People can go and have a really cool experience, and it's not going to break the bank," Wallace said. "It's actually really good value for money."
Al Dhaheri echoed the point that Abu Dhabi is not just for the well-off traveler. It offers, in fact, a variety of mid-range hotel options such as the Al Ain Palace Hotel and the Park Inn. "It should also be pointed out that many of our three- and four-star products offer a level of facilities and service which often surpass expectations of similar products elsewhere."
For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.
Clarification: Abu Dhabi received 2.1 million hotel guests in 2011, according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. A previous version of this article reported that figure as the number of total visitors. The authority does not track overall visitor arrivals, as that figure, estimated to be higher, also includes day trippers from elsewhere in the United Arab Emirates.