For many Indians, Abu Dhabi is a poor country cousin compared to glitzy Dubai. But the staid capital of the
United Arab Emirates (UAE) is aiming to shed this image to become a favoured tourist destination.
A little over an hour's drive from Dubai, Abu Dhabi usually draws tourists on day visits. But next year, as travel picks up, it hopes to have upped its game enough to get them to stay at least overnight — and preferably for a few days. To achieve this, it has finalised a two-pronged strategy to attract tourists, a good number of them from India.
First is a marketing focus on a myriad offering. Abu Dhabi has been investing billions of dollars to build its tourism infrastructure. Many landmarks — including two global art and culture museums, the region’s largest aquarium, the biggest multi-purpose indoor facility in the Emirates and a beachfront club — will be inaugurated between year-end and 2021.
Second, it plans to leverage the opportunity when the world’s largest global trade exhibition is hosted in Dubai next October (it was postponed this year). Over 25 million visitors, including many from India, are expected to attend the event.
India remains Abu Dhabi’s top international source market, says Saeed Al Saeed, destination marketing director, Department of Culture & Tourism (DCT), Abu Dhabi. “In 2019, we welcomed 450,000 Indian tourists, registering a 12 per cent year-on-year increase in visitors from the country. We aim to further engage the Indian market and cater to the requirements of Indians through new offerings, travel packages and exclusive experiences.”
The Abu Dhabi numbers are, however, nowhere near the two million Indians who visited Dubai in 2019, accounting for about 12 per cent of the city’s tourist arrivals. Thanks to liberal quarantine rules, Dubai is the most travelled destination for tourists since the lockdown was partially lifted in India. In October, as many as 31,400 people flew to Dubai from Delhi. Less than 1,000 of them visited Abu Dhabi, which follows a 14-day quarantine rule. Saeed is hopeful this rule will be relaxed soon.
Last year, Abu Dhabi received 11.3 million international visitors (a bulk of them, 8.3 million, made day-long visits). Of these, 4.6 million were tourists, with the largest contingent being from India.
Travel experts say Abu Dhabi is trying to replicate Dubai’s model that has sold many of its hotspots as the world's or the region's highest, biggest or largest (Burj Khalifa, Palm Fountain, Dubai Shopping Mall). And so Abu Dhabi is selling the magnificent Etihad Arena — an entertainment and sporting destination — as the largest indoor multi-purpose venue in the Emirates with a capacity of over 18,000. The pandemic had delayed its launch.
Also planned is Al Qana, a canal project that will feature the region’s largest aquarium, and CLYMB, which is already open and houses the world’s biggest indoor skydiving flight chamber and the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall (141 feet).
For arts aficionados, Abu Dhabi is positioning itself as the museum capital of West Asia. Apart from the Louvre Abu Dhabi — the first Louvre outside of France that has completed three years — 2021 will see the opening of the Sheikh Zayed National Museum that has the British Museum as consulting partner. Also under construction is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, in a tie-up with New York's Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation.
And then there are attractions such as the Yas Island — a government built leisure island — where three-star to luxury hotels will offer discounts and even free tickets to theme parks such as Warner Brothers World, Ferrari World and Waterworld.
The average price differential on hotels between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, however, isn’t high. According to DCT data, average hotel room rates in Abu Dhabi are AED 430 (Rs 8,651) per day — only marginally lower than Dubai (AED 499).
Tour operators say the big challenge is that Abu Dhabi hasn’t really marketed its destinations and few people know about them still. “There is something for everyone in Dubai. It is an easy-going city with an international image. But Abu Dhabi has to incentivise the 2 million Indians tourists who go to Dubai every year as also the travel fraternity, besides marketing its offerings,” says Anil Kalsi, chairman, Amba Travels, who is part of various travel associations. “But that is not happening. I have been to Dubai 35 times and have made only one overnight trip to Abu Dhabi.”
The aim now is to transform the sleepy city into a hip and happening, something-for-everybody destination. But the question is: Will the magic work on Indian tourists?