13 August 2007

Al Ain Tourism

Where is it now
July 28 - August 10, 2007
Issue 28

Three years ago, the Al Ain Economic Development and Tourism Promotion Authority (AAEDTPA) has drawn plans and implemented strategies to turn the Garden City to what it is now, and etch it on the global tourism map. That was three years ago, and it has passed. Were the visions realised?

At first, they had thought of marketing Al Ain first to the country and then to the rest of the Middle Eastern region. They believed that that would eventually turn the international onlookers on. “In order to appeal internationally, Al Ain has to market itself in the UAE and regionally. There is no point trying to attract large numbers of tourists if you are not equipped to handle them,” said Mubarak Al Muhairi, Director General of AAEDTPA, during a press conference last 2004.

Their second tactic was to employ what the other emirates does not have and of course cannot offer – the thousand of years worth of heritage that started since the Stone Age, the largest animal sanctuary that homes several endangered animals, the tallest mountain in UAE that provides a picturesque view of the sun rising and setting down, the state university that educates its national citizens, the healthy dry desert climate that makes the summer cool, and the untouched desert sands that is only waiting to be crossed.

Then they unveiled an icon, a brand identity ‘created to mark a new wave of tourism growth in Abu Dhabi's oasis city.’ The image is taken from a 3,000 BC year-old building at the Hili Archaeological Park depicting gazelle-like animals framing two human outlines. “The brand identity fits totally with our commitment to heritage and cultural tourism, and the icon sums up Al Ain's appeal with a powerful international image.”

“Moreover, the image is intriguing and begs people to ask the story behind it. When the icon is rolled out through the infinite areas of application, it is powerful. Yet we believe it is a clever and courageous move in terms of branding. It is instantly recognisable… we expect it to become a symbol of Al Ain in much the way the pyramids are associated with Egypt,” His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al Nahyan, Chairman of AAEDTPA was noted saying.

But their efforts to promote Al Ain as a tourist destination did not stop there. Campaigns through a number of Arab, Asian and European tourism and travel fairs were conducted. There were also agreements with regional and international travel operators who Al Muhairi said were ‘keen to put Al Ain in their brochures.’

The Authority also formed a joint committee spearheaded by Ibrahim Ahli, Director of the Tourism Promotion Department of the AAEDTPA, with the Al Ain-based tourism and travel agents to helped them boost internal and inbound tourism, and categorise tourism organisations and services in the region.

From these foundations, the AAEDTPA went on expanding its own international airport; developing its agriculture, education and science; transforming its 42 forts, museums, craft centres and archaeological sites; and organising seminars and workshops for the secondary school and university students. They also held cultural events such as the International Flower Show, Al Ain Festival and Al Ain Aerobatic Show.

The city also maintained 70 public parks and gardens. And for its title to remain, they plotted an Afforestation Programme that would keep Al Ain green. More than 150 million trees were planted in the city’s fertile ground, and more are planted everyday. Its highest summit was adorned by a golf course and a clubhouse that was designed in association with the International Management Group, Inc (IMG).

A multi-million redevelopment plan was also schemed that included 10 new garden projects worth Dh95 million, a 8.7 hectare family garden in Al Salamat district, parks and landscape work for roads and roundabouts, and the development of the Zoological Park and Jebel Hafeet Spa & Resort, which would amount to Dh87 million.

Together with the Landor Associates, the AAEDTPA worked on a three-phase project, which aimed to create a strong destination brand that will build sustainable development not just in tourism but also in trade and investment. The first phase focused on re-establishing the Al Ain brand while the second phase called for the launching of exhibition stands and information booths that will be situated at key locations around the city. The final phase will be the production of a promotional video to be used as tourism materials.

But among of the ploys the department had applied, it was the ‘twin-centre trip’ that was the most appealing. Residents from the other emirates as well as foreign tourists can visit Abu Dhabi or Dubai and Al Ain in the same day as the city is only 140-150 kilometres away from the other two emirates.

Ongoing Projects

There were other projects that followed. But this time, it was not the government who initiated them but the private sectors. Although the city literally sits on water where three-storey buildings are the standard, real estate companies still considered Al Ain as a dreamland. Al Qudra Real Estate has already launched a sale in the first residential phase of the Ain Al Emarat, a 200-villa community with 40,000-seat sports stadium, leisure complex, business district and residential units. It will also have a 7-kilometre canal system integrated into the residential community and an 18-hole golf course.

ALDAR Properties, meanwhile, planned a $544.8 million mixed-use complex and multi-function shopping areas designed like the Darling Harbour at Sydney and the South Bank at Brisbane. The Noor Al Ain will consist of 1.8 million square feet land, which would be erected between Bin Hamdan and Mubarak Streets (beside Al Jimi Mall). It will feature a 300-room business hotel, department stores, cinemas, family entertainment facilities, luxury offices, terraced gardens, fine and family dining, a health and fitness club, waterpark and an indoor beach. It will also include seven towers (six of it would be residential towers with about 1300 apartments, while the remaining one would be a hotel), 8000 car-parking areas and 160,000 square metres of retail entertainment space.

Sorouh Real Estate will also be constructing a shopping and leisure destination in Al Ain. The Al Nagfa Hotel will be built atop the Al Nagfa Hill and will have 160 rooms ranging from standard to executive and ambassador suites. The site, which will be designed by the EWAN Architectural & Engineering Consultancy, will have a half a million square-feet of retail and entertainment space spread across four levels, 70 chalets, indoor and outdoor spa, gym, infinity pool, a kids club, tennis courts and a restaurant.

But the burnt of it all is to know if there had been a change since the plans were carried out. If they were seen and felt, were they that significant? Is it enough to claim that Al Ain has made it? Or the government needs to draft new laws on investment protection, encourage more participation of the private sector or broaden its regulations for foreign ownership? What would be the answers for these will not only not only tell whether Al Ain will be flooded by people with authentic tourist visas but also how it will be in general.

Going on
August 11 - August 24, 2007
Issue 29

More participation of the private sectors and foreign ownership will boost the tourism of Al Ain to greater heights, Pierre Zayoun, General Manager of Al Ain Rotana Hotel, and Guzman Muela, General Manager of Intercontinental Al Ain Resort said. Both of them also think that nothing cannot be done for this city, which can be a host to everyone and everything else.

But of course, putting Al Ain in the international travel map would take time. “It is not a short term process. We have to continue investing in the city and its attractions so that more investors would come and more events and activities would happen. It is fundamental that the private and the public sector work together in the same direction. Creating some new laws to benefit both the private sector and the city will also help,” said Muela. “At this moment, Al Ain is a baby in the process of growing as tourist destination. I am really looking forward to see Al Ain become one.”

Foreign ownership can also assist the growth of Al Ain like it has contributed to the progress of Dubai. “If it is successful in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, why not here in Al Ain? It is a nice place to live,” Zayoun said. “There are a lot of projects coming up, a lot of construction – there is demand. The Abu Dhabi Government, meanwhile, is working really hard, for tourism is not just for leisure; there is something for business too. We are very fortunate to have the Abu Dhabi Government working for us.”

There is another thing though that Muela has in mind to increase the chances of the city to a tourist’s eye, and that is to literally advertise. “We should also advertise this destination in international tourism forums and create awareness about all the tourist places [we have in the city]. Some of the things in Al Ain are really unique; a demand can be created around these things. Al Ain [also] has very good infrastructure and more hotel rooms are being build to accommodate international tourists. Developing the Al Ain Airport and extending its services can also be fruitful.”

Currently, tourism in Al Ain is transforming. “It is definitely changing. From 1999 to 2001, I remember that I used to go to Dubai with my wife twice a week to watch a movie or have a dinner, then come back, for there was nothing in Al Ain then. The guests we received were from corporations that are still booming. We did not have many tourists. Business started to pick up in 2003 and it is budding till now,” Zayoun recalled.

Muela has about the same experiences as Zayoun. “The occupancy of the hotel during the 90’s was for an average of 46.88%. From the beginning of the 90’s until 1996 the occupancy was below 40% and the lowest years were 1995 and 1996. It started to become better in 1997 and the best year was 1999.”

But last September 2004, a statutory body responsible for the promotion and development of the emirate’s international tourism industry was established. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority has worked in cooperation of different hotels, airlines, destination management companies and other travel-related organisations to raise its profile, drive and coordinate facilities and services, regulate the industry itself, ascertain the consistency of the indigenous cultural and social values of UAE society, preserve the environment, and encourage the participation of the private sector in the development process, among others. Al Ain began to improve.

At present, the UAE has crafted laws for foreign ownership and investment protection. Law No. 19 stipulates that GCC nationals and foreigners can own the surface rights – not the underlying land on which the building is situated – apartment units or entire floors in the designated investment zones. To own a land outside an investment zone though, a special dispensation from the Abu Dhabi Executive Council would be required from the non-UAE nationals. The proposal that allows companies in the financial sector to possess 100% foreign ownership, on the other hand, is still being studied.

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