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Sun 30 May 2004 04:00 AM

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Al Ain positions itself as Abu Dhabi’s heart

Abu Dhabi’s second city looks set to play main role in developing emirate’s tourism.

Delegates at the recent Arabian Travel Market were treated with a brand new tourism product. Step aside Dubai, this year’s regional travel trade event was marked by the entry onto the tourism map of Abu Dhabi, but more significantly the city of Al Ain.

From newspapers to turnstiles to street advertising hoardings, visitors were welcomed with one slogan: 3000BC is just 90 minutes away.

The city, which is the capital of the Abu Dhabi eastern region, is seeking to position itself as the cultural capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“There is a niche market in the UAE tourism sector, Al Ain complements the other cities as the cultural and historical hub,” explains Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of Al Ain Economic Development and Tourism Board. Al Ain has much to offer.

It is known as the Garden City thanks to a combination of fertile land, natural water supply and extensive forestation and planting. All this sits in the heart of the desert with mountains extending to one side. Compared to the coastal towns in the Emirates, often sweltering with humidity in the summer, it also boasts a fresher climate.

However, as its advertising campaign suggests, it is the rich archaeological and historical heritage that helps it stand out from elsewhere in the UAE. Remains date back to the Stone Age from the Umm Al Naar civilisation along with 42 forts in the city, built to protect the oasis.

“We signed a protocol deal with UNESCO to develop the sites and some have been added to the World Heritage List. This will serve our vision as we are also exploring desert tourism, and eco tourism because we have the best quality of sand and wonderful topography,” says Sheikh Sultan.

Quite what that vision is, however, remains to be seen. At present, Al Ain’s five international hotels only have capacity for several hundred visitors. By 2010, the plan is to increase the number to 3000 rooms catering to 1 million tourists annually. Al Ain has initiated a blitzkrieg advertising and marketing campaign across the region. Its new logo, conceived by branding agency Landor, aims to highlight its true essence.

The icon, taken from an ancient building, depicts gazelle-like animals framing two human outlines. Likewise, at ATM, Al Ain had the largest stand, clearly outlining its intent. Nevertheless, the plan echoes other tourism drives in recent years. Saudi Arabia, for example, was the buzz at the 2003 ATM, but little was heard of them in 2004. So how realistic is Al Ain’s tourism plan?

When it comes to facts, figures and concrete plans, Sheikh Sultan is non-committal. The master plan, according to him, is still under development, as are the strategies and the business plan. New hotels have yet to be announced, but 2004 will reveal all, he insists.

“From my point of view, one of our mandates is to encourage the private sector to come and invest in this project,” he says. “We don’t want the government to be involved in the plan, unless it needs real government spending and support in terms of infrastructure.”

So what will he be doing to encourage private investment? At present, investors must have local backing. This often frightens international investors away from potentially lucrative projects. Sheikh Tahnoon agrees that something must be done to attract investors, although what, how and when remain unanswered questions. “We need to provide the data, rules, and laws and from that point on, we can promote ourselves as a package to investors.”

As always with emerging markets, the fear of introducing too many tourists too quickly applies to Al Ain. Although, the city expects a 30% annual growth over the next few years, this will come as a side dish to Abu Dhabi’s own tourism expansion. “We will sell ourselves as one emirate, two cities, but we shall complement Abu Dhabi’s tourism.”

It might well be that Al Ain leads the way for the emirate as a whole. Although HH Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan suggested Abu Dhabi would launch a tourism promotion board within the next two months to position the emirate as an emerging tourist destination in the Middle East, those comments have since been retracted.

The promotion of Abu Dhabi, according to Arabic daily newspaper Al Khaleej, will fall firmly under the auspices of Al Ain. Whatever happens in the coming months, it is clear the emirate of Abu Dhabi and the city of Al Ain have stepped onto the tourism ladder. The plan is to complement the ever-growing metropolis of Dubai by offering an alternative. How quickly and how steadfast the Abu Dhabi authorities are, remains to be seen.

However, as past experiences with other tourism plans across the region indicate, Al Ain’s recent efforts are only the first step in a long process.

“The tendency in this region is to develop a master plan, send it out to the public and investors and get a sense of what is there,” says Chris Maloney, CEO, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Middle East and Africa. “Then they start to see the investment coming and then they phase the developments according to these funds.”

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