As the profile of the UAE capital rises both in the region and abroad, Bench Events chairman Jonathan Worsley says he hopes the emirate receives fairer treatment than Dubai by global media

Jonathan Worsley
Jonathan Worsley

Last month I wrote about Dubai and the ridiculous over-reaction by the world media towards its economic woes. The storm has somewhat subsided — although the media still appears to enjoy putting the boot in whenever it sees the opportunity, as shown by a recent article in The Times which insisted that the opening of Burj Khalifa was an example of how, according to the headline, “Towering ambition always comes before a fall” (December 31, 2009,

The apparent rebuke by the journalist and sub-editors towards having vision and ambition is bizarre (though its analysis of the historic parallels between economic troubles and tall building completion interesting), but its conclusion is also telling, as it confidently tells its readers that “the new city of Masdar, now being built in Abu Dhabi as a carbon-neutral eco-city (call it the green suburb of Babel), will stand as an architectural rebuke to the great tower of hubris next door”.

The last 12 to 18 months has seen Abu Dhabi’s international profile rise as quickly as the Burj Dubai, or should I say Burj Khalifa. For anyone that has worked in the region this comes as no surprise — after all, it is the largest emirate and home to the national capital (something that has yet to be grasped by many) and as a tourism destination has always had plenty to offer.

Secure statistics

At the most basic level people are now able to easily get to Abu Dhabi, they have a place to stay and the industry is feeling confident. This was demonstrated by various statistics given out by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) at its first annual industry forum in October 2009; the international airport is now directly linked with 69 destinations, served by 32 airlines, and average occupancy rates for July 2008-October 2009 were still one of the world’s highest, at a healthy 77%. Significant additional room stock is being made available with approximately 10,000 rooms under construction to be delivered by the end of 2010 (based on Q3 2009 figures), with a further 7000 under construction to come on line in 2011.

All of this meant that in a comparative confidence survey by ADTA, based on the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) methodology for its global confidence index, questioning 120 local industry stakeholders, Abu Dhabi’s tourism industry registered a confidence rating of 96 – which is 39 points ahead of the UNWTO’s rating for the worldwide industry for January and April in 2009.

This survey came before a number of events which raised Abu Dhabi’s profile even further, including the Football Club World Cup and, more importantly, the F1 Grand Prix race. This could have contributed to the USA’s best selling travel guide, Frommer’s, listing Abu Dhabi as among its top 10 destinations to visit during 2010.

Economic Vision 2030

Events like this are all part of Abu Dhabi’s Economic Vision 2030, which has made tourism the corner stone of its plans to drive non-oil economic growth and sets an ambitious target of attracting 7.9 million visitors by 2030 (compared to 1.6 million in 2008), with 74,000 hotel rooms (up from around 18,300 currently). Ambitions of such magnitude, when backed by such a large investment in tourism infrastructure, provide a unique opportunity for hotel developers and investors.

Saadiyat Island is just one of the flagship projects being driven forward by Tourism Development & Investment Company, which is really at the forefront of Abu Dhabi’s tourism ambitions, and at the moment it has 13 major projects underway. This is one of the reasons that its chairman, HH Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, has been awarded the 2010 Leadership Award by the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference 2010 (, after being selected by the Advisory Board, which is comprised of more than 40 of the most influential names in hospitality in the Middle East.

All in all the outlook is extremely bright for the emirate’s tourism plans, and I firmly believe that success in Abu Dhabi will be to the benefit, not the detriment, of the other emirates, including Dubai — they have the chance to add a whole new type of visitor to the UAE and complement the existing offering.

However, given the scale of what they are aiming to achieve, I hope that any hiccups along the way do not lead the worldwide media to turn against their ambition and vision in the same way it has turned against Dubai’s.