BALANCING ACT

Abu Dhabi 2019 | CULTURE & TOURISM | FOCUS: TOURISM STRATEGY

Striking a balance between more sophisticated Western visitors and increasing the number of tourists from Asia will prove crucial in ensuring the Emirate's attractiveness.

In September 2018, a delegation led by the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) Abu Dhabi, comprised of travel agents and the country's national airline Etihad Airways, visited Shanghai, Kunming, and Shenzhen. The stated goal of the five-day trip was to further grow the attractiveness of the Emirate in the eyes of Chinese people, which is the largest overseas source market for Abu Dhabi, with 2017 seeing 373,400 Chinese arrivals—an increase of more than 60% over 2016. Up until July, 2018 saw more than 242,000 visitors to the Emirate, an increase of almost 14% over the same period in 2017, as reported by Gulf News. However, these numbers fail to show the larger picture, one that seeks to increase at the same time visitors coming from Western markets.

The openings of the Louvre and Warner Bros. amusement park represent a clear movement toward the goal of increasing Abu Dhabi's cultural and leisure reputation among Westerners. Newly introduced regulations allow for transit visitors to spend up to 48 hours in the Emirate, with both the Louvre and Warner Bros. likely to top the list of tourist's pit stops. Since the opening of the Louvre museum in November 2017, Abu Dhabi witnessed a 31% increase of visitors from the UK, as well as increases in arrivals from France (27%), Germany (23%), and the US (16%).

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, declared that the Louvre Abu Dhabi represented an effort to “defend beauty, universality, creativity, reason, and fraternity" during the opening ceremony. In the words of Parisian designer Jean Nouvel, the museum's dome allows light and shade to filter through, similar to how light would pass through the roof of a souk or the leaves of a palm tree. Credited as being the “first universal museum in the Arab world," the Louvre further establishes Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island as a place where heritage co-exists alongside modernity. Indeed, the Louvre is the first of three proposed museum projects, or “cultural beacons," that will also include the Guggenheim and the Sheikh Zayed Museum.

If Saadiyat Island serves as a designated area to attract visitors for art and culture, Yas Island has developed a similar anchor for family leisure attractions. In 2018, Yas Island saw the opening of Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, in a strong signal of confidence in the Emirate's ability to become a hub for theme parks. The Warner Bros. amusement park offers six purposefully designed zones highlighting some of the company's best-known franchises such as Batman, Superman, the Looney Tunes, and the Flintstones. The 29 rides will increase Yas Island's offering, which already includes Ferrari world, home of the world's fastest roller-coaster, and Yas Waterworld, an award-winning water park. Even SeaWorld will open a park in 2022.
Increasing visitors from Asia, including China, seems more aligned with Yas Island's growth as Asia generally lags behind the West in terms of museum visits and beach stays, despite young Chinese from big cities showcasing a growing interest in art. This concept bears two implications. First, Yas Island's growth must happen gradually, as it will play a crucial role in balancing the ratio of more sophisticated tourism and revenues. Second, to tap into its potential to attract a larger share of the Asian market, Yas needs to build an attraction that appeals to Eastern travelers.

Adopting a localized growth strategy based on two ecosystems, Saadiyat and Yas, will broaden the spectrum of Abu Dhabi's tourism source markets. As such, DCT must weigh the benefits of more visitors with the desire to keep Abu Dhabi away from mass tourism—another balance the Emirate must contemplate while implementing its tourism strategy.