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If there is anywhere in the world where wild imaginings can become reality, it's the UAE. But while Dubai builds the Middle East's playground with the world's media on its tail, the capital Abu Dhabi, has taken a more considered approach to its own development.
Janet Abrahams, executive director of sales and marketing at luxury hotel Emirates Palace, says:" Abu Dhabi is very different from Dubai and the only reason they are used in the same sentence is because they are in the same country. It's like trying to compare Paris with London--they have such different identifies. Dubai was built from the beginning on tourism, the media and the free zone of Jebel Ali Port, whereas Abu Dhabi's base was oil. Now, imagine if you build a capital city and cover every single aspect of life from culture to sport to entertainment. That's Abu Dhabi--you can do everything."
Mubarak Hamad Al Muhairi, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), explains the process behind the capital's development. "When Abu Dhabi Tourism was formed, we looked at well-established destinations--be they in other emirates, or in the region, or globally--to see how we could differentiate ourselves. By doing so we could learn from what went wrong and what went right in other places."
Despite the difficult economic times, the emirate is still pulling in the crowds. The number of hotel guests in Abu Dhabi in the first six months of this year was almost the same as in the same period in 2008--about 800,000--with occupancy at 79 per cent. Last year saw 1.5 million hotel guests, something that 60 years ago would have seemed only a dream.
Abu Dhabi started life as a small island town, with pearling its main industry, but in 1958 the discovery of oil changed its fate forever. The emirate holds about 10 per cent of the world's proven oil reserves and 5 per cent of its gas reserves. The wealth from the oil was used to improve the infrastructure of the capital city, and today it continues to flourish.
Al Muhairi says:" On the business side, the economy has been growing and two years ago the government announced the 2030 economic plan. We have totally revamped our exhibition centre, and have worked closely with the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC) to promote business and build our calendar of events from only eight or ten in 2005 to almost 40 or 50 this year. In the next two years there are plans to take it to 100 events in the centre."
Simon Stamper, General Manager, InterContinental Abu Dhabi & Al Ain has been in the city for 12 years and tracked its progress. He is full of praise for the Abu Dhabi authorities' role in developing the city as a destination: "The ADTA have done a fantastic job of marketing Abu Dhabi and I think the creation of Etihad Airways has put the city on the world map, especially with its strategic sponsorship of Manchester City and Harlequins rugby club in London.
"The projects and activities in Abu Dhabi, for example the way the corniche beaches are being developed and the way ADNEC has really focused on big exhibitions have really [promoted] Abu Dhabi."
The layout of Abu Dhabi is changing rapidly as Urban Plan 2030 starts to take shape." Soon there will be several centres in different districts," Al Muhairi says. "There will be a cultural area, an industrial area and so on, and you can see this now with the new Saadiyat bridge, which will connect Abu Dhabi city to Yas and Saadiyat islands. The bridge [which opened last month, and will be followed by Sheikh Zayed bridge in 2010], will change the orientation of Abu Dhabi, because for hundreds of years Abu Dhabi Island was always accessed from the same point, at Al …