In 2016, the UAE capital welcomed 4.4 million visitors, up 8 percent over the previous year. Events such as the Abu Dhabi Summer Season, Abu Dhabi Food Festival and Qasr Al Hosn Festival, which celebrates the emirate’s history and heritage, have helped to tempt tourists.
Last year, Abu Dhabi was ranked one of the world’s fastest-growing destinations by Mastercard. It is gearing up for an eventful few years, with the long-awaited opening of the Louvre in November and other impressive new attractions under development.
Visitor numbers are likely to grow still further when Abu Dhabi airport opens its new Midfield Terminal. The project’s completion date, originally set for the end of this year, has recently been pushed back to 2019. When it opens, the terminal is expected to increase annual capacity to 30 million passengers, offering over 300,000 square feet of retail and dining space, eight airline lounges and a 163-room transit hotel.
Still, the emirate is not only looking to pull in tourists – it also wants to attract meeting and event planners. The convention bureau has developed the Advantage Abu Dhabi program to attract business gatherings aligned with the “Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030,” the city’s long-term growth strategy. Its central aim is to diversify the UAE’s economy beyond oil and gas by investing in sectors such as aviation, tourism and financial services.
The program offers financial incentives and marketing support to events that show their value within these industries. It seems to be working – a record 14 conferences were secured last year, and are expected to draw more than 35,000 attendees to the region.
The French Connection
The most anticipated of Abu Dhabi’s upcoming openings, and one that should be on any future event itinerary, is the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Originally due for 2012, the dome-shaped building constructed on the manmade Saadiyat Island was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel.
Two-thirds of the museum is covered by a white latticework disk, inspired by the interlacing of palm leaves, traditionally used as roofing in the region. The $650 million museum contains 600 pieces of art across 23 halls, with works borrowed from the Louvre in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou and Château de Versailles.
Also on Saadiyat Island, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is expected to be 12 times larger than its New York counterpart, although a contract has yet to be awarded for its construction. The Zayed National Museum is on track to open within the next few years – backed by the British Museum, it documents the history and unification of the UAE.
Alongside its growing cultural scene, Abu Dhabi also offers an impressive range of high-octane experiences. Chief among these is Yas Marina Formula One Circuit, which, as the final race of the season, is one of the tournament’s most expensive tickets. Corporate hospitality is well looked after with a variety of venues on offer, while groups can organize track rental, circuit tours and a number of driving experiences. Activities range from drag racing on a National Hot Rod Association-sanctioned strip to an escorted whizz around the track in an F1 car.
The world’s largest indoor theme park, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, has revealed plans for 19 new rides. The first is the Turbo Track, which is based on a Ferrari driver training facility. It’s made up of a circuit almost twice the length of a football field, that reaches 200 feet above the park and speeds of more than 63 mph.
Next door, Warner Bros has announced plans for a new theme park offering immersive attractions, plus the world’s first Warner Bros-branded hotel.
For aviation buffs, the Etihad Airways Innovation Centre in the city’s Al Maqta district features a walk-through reconstruction of the airline’s A380 and 787 aircraft cabins, including mock-ups of the luxurious A380 Residence and first class Apartments. It is also set up for events, with two meeting rooms, an auditorium and ten classrooms, often used by cabin safety instructors from the airline’s training academy.
Organizers planning larger-scale gatherings could consider Etihad Towers. This multi-use development on the Corniche contains apartments, offices, a shopping mall and a convention center with a ballroom that can host 2,200 guests. Within the complex, the luxurious Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel has 382 rooms and 199 serviced apartments as well as 13 meeting rooms and the Mezzoon ballroom, with a capacity of 1,400.
A two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi, event planners looking for a day out of the city can opt to visit Al Ain Oasis, which opened last year. The 3,000-acre site contains more than 147,000 date palm trees in 100 varieties plus an Eco-Centre visitor experience that shows what measures are being taken to conserve the environment.
Another highlight is Al Jahili Fort, the former headquarters of the Trucial Oman Scouts, who guarded the region’s mountain passes and maintained inter-tribal peace. Its north wing is now home to a captivating exhibition on British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, displaying photographs from his travels with Bedouin tribes and Sheikh Zayed, whom he befriended, alongside video footage and excerpts from his best-selling book, Arabian Sands.