In a country that has the highest per capita consumption of natural resources in the world, creating a tourism industry for 2.3 million visitors a year with a credible environmental protection framework is an unlikely proposition.

However, years of bad publicity about the UAE’s conspicuous consumption of natural resources has prompted the Abu Dhabi government to address the issue in earnest. With the development of its tourism industry forming such a major part of the Abu Dhabi 2030 master-plan for long-term development, the emirate is serious about establishing its environmental credentials in an industry in which investments are predicted by the emirate’s Chamber of Commerce to reach AED290bn ($78bn) next year.

Speaking in Abu Dhabi on the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (Adta) in October, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun al-Nahyan, chairman of the authority, made reference to Abu Dhabi’s environmental aspirations: “We share one common aim: delivery of an internationally recognisable, sustainable tourism product. Preservation of the environment, heritage and our traditions are crucial. Looking to the future, we will not lose sight of this.”

Sustainable development

In May 2008, Abu Dhabi announced the creation of Estidama, a programme to support the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan and ensure it is a model of sustainable urbanisation in the region. Estidama – ‘sustainability’ in Arabic – will ensure sustainable development guidelines are followed on construction projects in the emirate, using a rating system that ranks designs on their use of materials, energy and water.

The most high-profile environmental project under way in Abu Dhabi is Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company’s (Masdar’s) carbon-neutral $22bn Masdar City. But Masdar is not a tourism project. State bodies including the Environment Agency, Adta and the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) are working together to form policies that will influence the design and construction of flagship tourism projects including Saadiyat Island, Sir Bani Yas Island in the Western Region and Lulu Island near Abu Dhabi city.

Despite the negative reports about Abu Dhabi’s environmental management, the emirate has been home to wildlife conservation projects for decades, thanks to the late president and founder of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. Under his leadership, a sanctuary was established on Sir Bani Yas Island to safeguard endangered species including the Arabian oryx and the sand gazelle.

The late president’s reputation for protecting the UAE’s desert environment has provided inspiration to a new generation of ecological protection projects that combine the environment with tourism and economic diversification.

Frederic Launay, chief executive officer of Al-Ain Wildlife Park & Resort (AWPR), says the project, an existing zoo being significantly expanded in Sheikh Zayed’s home town, is building on what the late president started. “We will use the park as a showcase of the various environmental and conservation initiatives that were taken by the late president, and expand on them to educate more people about the arid desert ecology in the UAE,” he says.

The expansion of AWPR, which was established in 1969 by Sheikh Zayed and opened to the public in 1972, is one of the emirate’s major environmental tourism projects and will both generate jobs and protect endangered animal and plant species. Under the Abu Dhabi 2030 Urban Framework Plan, the AWPR will become a model for cultural and ecological sustainability, conservation and education. “The plan focuses on heritage, nature and the environment, which were the core interests of the late president,” says Launay.

The AWPR expansion will create a 9-square-kilometre wildlife park and safari resort. A new walk-in park will be 5 sq km in size, five safari areas will each cover more than 1 sq km, and there will be residential and retail buildings to accommodate visitors.

Education facilities

Central to the plan is the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre. This will educate visitors about the AWPR’s wildlife conservation projects, including the protection of the Arabian oryx and the rare Arabian tahr goat, which is critically endangered due to construction and mining projects in the UAE. AWPR has a 20-year partner-ship agreement with San Diego Zoo, signed in 2008, to help the UAE institution with its wildlife protection and reintroduction programmes.

Infrastructure work on the park expansion project is ongoing, and construction of the learning centre is expected to start in November. Building work on the hotel is expected to begin before the end of 2009.

The project is being carried out in three phases, with the first phase due for completion in October 2011. This will involve building a third of the walk-in park, one safari area, a 200-bed four/five-star hotel, 500 villas and office accommodation for AWPR staff. Phase two, scheduled for completion in October 2012, will include the completion of the walk-in zoo, two more safari areas, more office space and another cluster of residential buildings. By 2013, the final stages of the project will involve two safari camps being built in the park and a cluster of residential buildings.

The design of the buildings is intended to be within the Estidama guidelines, a set of environmental credentials that need to be met to secure ‘green’ accreditation for a building. The residential clusters in AWPR will seek the top accreditation of five pearls – equivalent to the more widely known Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (Leed) gold rating. The learning centre will seek the equivalent of a Leed platinum rating and the animal facilities and shelters will seek at least an Estidama three-pearl rating.

Visitor numbers to the Al-Ain zoo are already high, and have grown 15 per cent this year, compared with January to October 2008, at 850,000. Once completed, AWPR hopes to attract 2.5 million visitors in 2015, most of whom are expected to be GCC nationals. About 70 per cent of visitors are already within this demographic, and Launay says the family and GCC visitor focus will continue.

“With the downturn we saw last year and this year, having the GCC focus makes us more resilient in terms of visitor numbers,” says Launay. “We have a very strong base of visitors from the GCC, and over the past five years we have seen huge growth in numbers.”

The park will also contribute significantly to the economy. It currently employs about 300 people, and by 2014 it will employ 3,000, including in the hotels and retail outlets. Recruitment will prioritise Al-Ain residents.

Another major flagship environmental protection project is Sir Bani Yas Island. Nasser al-Shaiba, director of environmental affairs at the TDIC, says Bani Yas is being built “on a sustainable model”.

Bani Yas lies 170km west of Abu Dhabi, 9km offshore from the Jebel Dhanna area. At the request of Sheikh Zayed, a wildlife reserve was created on the island more than 25 years ago, and the island has since undergone significant land reclamation, irrigation and development. However, since TDIC took over development of the island in October 2008, the government body has started to implement a coherent environmental policy for Bani Yas, which is bigger than Abu Dhabi island.

Guest supervision

With TDIC running all the tourist activities at the island’s hotel, the Desert Islands Resort & Spa, the government can safeguard the rare animal and plant species – for example, guests cannot roam unsupervised around the island.

Al-Shaiba says marine, wildlife and mangrove protection currently form the core of the Bani Yas environmental protection programme, and a policy of encouraging each guest on the island to plant a mangrove tree is part of a wider education programme.

TDIC it also practising ‘social sustainability’, trying to encourage the Western Region’s small population of just over 100,000 people to stay in the region rather than migrate to cities such as Al-Ain or Abu Dhabi by introducing new tourism developments, such as Desert Islands, to create jobs. A centre of excellence opened in 2008 on nearby Delma Island to develop local talent and prepare residents for the jobs market.

While Al-Shaiba says the island will not be self-sufficient in terms of power and water for many years, there are also plans to generate power from renewable-energy sources on Bani Yas. The island is home to the region’s first wind turbine, a pilot project that will be expanded to include more turbines and solar panels. But the turbine only generates 850kW of energy, which is not enough, Al-Shaiba concedes, to fuel power-hungry air-conditioning units in the island’s five-star resort.

“We have to start by taking small steps,” he says. “Self-sufficiency takes time. We are hoping to have 50 per cent of the island’s power needs generated from renewable sources by 2012. But we will need time to find alternatives to technologies such as desalination for fresh water.”

Bani Yas currently uses desalinated water imported from the mainland. But it is working with Masdar to develop renewable energies that meet the island’s requirements. “We are ready to buy the technology that fits in with our project, but the technology is not there yet,” says Al-Shaiba.

With the local environment typically humid, condensate water capture could be an option. “The most challenging thing as an island in the UAE is fresh water,” says Al-Shaiba.

However, suitable technologies are still underdeveloped.

Just as the Bani Yas project will benefit from the research being carried out at Masdar, international conservation groups have also been consulted, presenting considerable business opportunities.

For example, the consultancy arm of the UK’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust was appointed to review the island’s master-plan proposal for tourism development and the potential disturbance this may cause to the existing wetlands and associated wildlife.