By the end of November 2009, Abu Dhabi will have staged its first Formula 1 Grand Prix, and the emirate will be enjoying the thrill of having the eyes of millions of motor-sports fans trained upon it. Abu Dhabi’s tourism chiefs, meanwhile, will be expectant, looking for an increase in visitor numbers on the back of the event.

As the Grand Prix demonstrates, Abu Dhabi wants to be noticed as a tourism destination. The authorities have set the ambitious target of attracting 3 million tourists by 2013, more than twice the number expected this year.

Hosting the Formula 1 event is a funda-mental part of this plan, intended not just to draw in 50,000 spectators, but to also showcase the emirate on the world stage. The motor race will be televised in more than 180 countries, reaching 600 million viewers. “The Grand Prix will focus the eyes of the world on Abu Dhabi, so we can show the world what it wants to do in business, culture and sport,” said Philippe Gurdjian, chief executive officer (CEO) of Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management, speaking on the second day of The Abu Dhabi Conference.

Art and culture are at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s tourism strategy. In a bid to carve out a separate niche in the sector from its sister emirate Dubai, billions of dollars are being invested in establishing Abu Dhabi as a regional hub for culture.

Outposts of Paris’s Louvre and New York’s Guggenheim museums are being built on the flagship Saadiyat island, a $27-29bn luxury mixed-use development from the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC).

“The market that Abu Dhabi is seeking to attract is educated, sophisticated people who are interested in the culture of the UAE,” said Lawrence Franklin, director of strategy at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

“Tourism development will be a constrained and sustainable exercise. It will not be development at any cost.”

To accommodate the expected influx of visitors, Abu Dhabi plans to boost the number of hotel rooms on offer from 13,000 today to 30,000 by 2013. About 8,000 additional rooms are expected to become available next year. However, as a result of the global financial crisis, some tourism-related construction projects are likely to be postponed until market conditions improve.

“Reprioritisation needs to be looked at in association with the government, for pure tourism projects that are hard to finance commercially,” said Lee Tabler, CEO of TDIC.

He added that schemes yet to be launched will be reviewed, but those under construction will move ahead.

“Abu Dhabi is still in a very strong position,” Franklin told the conference. “A lot of demand for tourism products and services in Abu Dhabi is generated from within the region, and as the region remains strong, that demand will [also] remain strong.”

Rising numbers

Abu Dhabi’s shortage of hotel beds will ensure that occupancy levels remain high, despite the global economic slowdown.

With business also an important driver of visitor numbers to Abu Dhabi, recent investments in state-of-the-art facilities for hosting conferences and exhibitions are expected to ensure continued growth in the business tourism market. “There will be a slowing of projects and a reduction in the number of hotels coming on stream, but there will be this continued growth,” Paul MacPherson, director of the Jumeirah Group, told delegates.

Panel

  • Lawrence Franklin, director of strategy and policy, Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority

  • Philippe Gurdjian, CEO, Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management

  • Imma Plana, strategic planner, Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage

  • Paul MacPherson, chief development officer, Jumeirah Group

  • Ivor McBurney, vice-president, development, Hilton Hotels, Middle East

  • Aman Sachdev, corporate vice-president, research and development, Rotana Hotels