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LUXURY NOW / MEETING OF MINDS / ABU DHABI'S CULTURAL DREAMSCAPE

Mubarak Al Muhairi, the Director General of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, discusses the emirate's ambitious plan to become an international cultural destination.

As Abu Dhabi unveils it plan to become an international arts and culture capital, the Director General of Abu Dhabi's Tourism Authority, Mubarak Al Muhairi, discusses the emirate's ambitious tourist development project.



As today's travelers crave intelligent, life-enriching experiences over the standard circuits of sand and sun, a new destination emerges out of the Persian Gulf that promises to raise tourism to a new cultural high. Amidst the desert dunes, turquoise waters, and mountain peaks of Abu Dhabi, a 21st century cultural dreamscape is breathtakingly imminent. By 2015, the capital of the United Arab Emirate plans to triple its tourist figures as part of an astounding leisure development project. But unlike its neighboring emirate, Dubai, which in the last decade has blasted onto the luxury world map as a futuristic megalopolis of seven-star hotels, designer shops and artificial islands, Abu Dhabi has placed art and culture at the top of its agenda.

Unveiled to the press in January 2007, Abu Dhabi's extraordinary Cultural District of Saadiyat Island project reaches deep into the region's past, while pioneering a prestigious place for its future. Located on an a pristine offshore desert island (one of the 200+ unspoilt islands that the emirate possesses) the Cultural District is slated to turn this once-sleepy Gulf region into an international artistic hub, bridging disparate cultures and communities through expression and exchange.

The architectural dream team commissioned to revolutionize this 270-hectare desert landscape is a constellation of diverse visions and talents. Seasoned museum masters builders Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry and Tadao Ando will each sign their name to expansive freestanding exhibition sites — Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Gehry, a Maritime Museum by Ando; and a rumored outpost of the Louvre Museum by Nouvel— while Zaha Hadid's dramatic web-like Performing Arts Center will house five theatres.


In a recent article you said, "We believe that the best vehicle for crossing borders is art." Is the Cultural District's main goal to link the West to the Middle East or to unite the many local customs and cultures?
The intention behind the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island is to create a cultural asset for the world. It will be a gateway for cultural experience and exchange. We firmly believe that culture truly does cross all boundaries and therefore, the Saadiyat Cultural District will belong to the people of the UAE, the greater Middle East and the world. It will most certainly be a cultural hub geographically positioned between East and West.

Is it Abu Dhabi's intention to use its financial riches to help others discover its lesser know attributes?
Abu Dhabi has embarked on a widespread economic diversification program under the leadership of its Ruler and UAE President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and its Crown Prince and Executive Council Chairman, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Tourism is integral to this economic diversification and we have a strategy to achieve three million tourists to the UAE capital by 2015 – which is two million more than current levels. The transformation of Saadiyat Island is a key element of our tourism infrastructure and the Cultural District is a major project which will assist in promoting Abu Dhabi as a truly world-class cultural destination appealing to our market segment target of upscale tourism.

Frank Gehry began the trend in modern architecture destination travel with the Guggenheim Bilbao. How attentive to this emerging trend were you when conceiving of the project?
By working with the Guggenheim Foundation we are very well aware of the ability of a major cultural asset in developing a sustainable tourism base. As Bilbao proved, a cultural asset of international renown not only attracts upscale tourists – but a high level of repeat visitation. This matches our ambitions perfectly.

Today's travelers are looking less for standard sand and sun vacations and are seeking authentic, enriching experiences. How will Abu Dhabi's short and long-term projects cater to this emerging breed of "intelligent" experience-driven travelers?
Abu Dhabi will be blessed with being able to serve both segments. Our research shows that even at the upscale end of the tourism market, visitors still want sand and sun, which Abu Dhabi has in abundance. They do, however, also require a myriad of other experiences and we will work to provide them. We already have a number of experiences in place – desert and dune safaris, watersports, heritage facilities and a world-class golf course. We intend to build on this with other offerings, both on the coast, on our offshore islands and in our inland areas, which will expand the UAE capital's entire tourism proposition.

Eco-tourism is the industry buzzword as travels become more and more conscious of the harmful impact their "carbon prints" have on the environment. How will Abu Dhabi's approach towards tourism reflect this growing trend?

Abu Dhabi has established the Tourism Development & Investment Company as its infrastructure developer of its tourism assets. TDIC has sustainability drilled into its operating ethos and is perhaps one of the only developers in the country that has a full time, highly qualified environmental advisor assisting its projects. Every project it undertakes will remain cognicent of the need for development to be sensitive to, and protective of, its natural surroundings. Sustainability requires permanence and we are building not for the short-term, but for the long-term and to leave a heritage for generations to come.

As Abu Dhabi is blessed with an abundance of natural resources – around 200 offshore islands, some with turtle breeding grounds, mangroves which are teeming with birdlife and rich marine life in our seas, we will have much to offer in the eco-tourism field. Our offering, however, will be developed cautiously ensuring we live up to our commitment to the environment.

Following ADTA's mandate to build Abu Dhabi into a multi-cultural destination, the magazine Shawati was conceived as a celebration of the region's diversity and interest in cultural exchange. How do you anticipate this project, as well as others, will help promote Abu Dhabi as a leading lifestyle destination?

We welcome all first-class initiatives to create greater awareness of cultural development in the region as they can only assist in expanding understanding of Abu Dhabi's initiatives and ambitions.

With its opulent shopping centers and 7-star hotels, Dubai has become a gilded luxury paradise. What notion of luxury does Abu Dhabi wish to project to the world?
Luxury will be inherent in many things we do – in our hospitality offerings, in our eco-destination programs and our cultural assets. We will provide first-class facilities and services on a par with anything experienced elsewhere – we are currently working closely with investors and the private sector to ensure this ethos is maintained throughout the quality chain.

How will you control the development of Abu Dhabi's leisure sector in terms of foreign investors in order to protect your vision and preserve your culture?
TDIC has laid down strict development regulations for all its investors – whether they be local or foreign. These regulations will be rigidly monitored to ensure their adherence by all involved.

The press has asserted that the Cultural District was not intended to compete with, but enhance, Dubai's tourist sector. How is each emirate's unique breed of tourism complementary towards the other?
They are complementary and we believe we can all benefit from each other leading to the increasing development of two and three center vacations where tourists spend some time in Abu Dhabi, move on to Dubai and then over to Oman or another Gulf destination. The skill will be in ensuring individuality of offering.

Dubai has bolted onto the scene as a leading tourist destination within the last five years. How long of a maturation phase will Abu Dhabi require before it becomes a regional leader?

Abu Dhabi has adopted a deeply considered approach and we are not eager to 'rush to market.' As previously mentioned, we hope to achieve a tourism intake of three million by 2015 – current progress suggests we can reach, if not exceed this target.


What is your definition of luxury?
Art is ultimate luxury

If luxury were a place where would it be?
Presidential Suite at Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi

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