When you think of the world's great yachting destinations, images of crystal waters in the Caribbean and celebrities basking in the Mediterranean sun spring to mind.
But if you ask foreign sailing enthusiasts for their perception of Abu Dhabi, they are likely to speak of oil tankers, not luxury yachts. Berend Lens van Rijn, 35, a Dutchman, thinks all that is about to change as the capital goes on a marina building spree that he hopes to cash in on. "In five years you will see the change," says Mr van Rijn, who provides consultancy and charter services through a yachting company, Belevari Marine, that he set up in Abu Dhabi. "They're catching up really fast. They're taking the expertise from around the world and they're [the capital's officials] pumping it into Abu Dhabi."
Although there are obstacles to overcome and a long way to go, with some 200 natural islands and sandbanks, and plans for 45 marinas, experts believe there is great potential for the capital to become a boating destination. Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), says the yachting industry is "an emerging sector - and we know demand exists". The new Yas Marina, which attracted superyachts from as far afield as Australia for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, is just the start, even though the costs of such developments are astronomical.
A typical luxury yacht berth costs between Dh100,000 (US$27,225) and Dh200,000 to develop, but some cost as much as Dh300,000, according to Septech, the Dubai-based company that built the Yas Marina and works on marine projects throughout the GCC. But the returns can be rich. The minimum annual charge for a berth at Yas Marina, which is part of the $40 billion Yas Island development, is Dh45,900 for a 10-metre yacht. And keeping a 70-metre boat there for a year costs Dh642,600.
Cedric Le Rest, the manager at Yas Marina, says the facility is hosting yachts belonging to high-rolling individuals, "from Etihad pilots to members of the Royal Family". There is also substantial job creation, with several crew members required to permanently staff the larger yachts. The 143-berth marina, located next to the F1 circuit and the futuristic Yas Hotel, with the Links golf course nearby, has been designed as an exclusive superyacht venue, but some of the other marinas are being built to appeal to those with a lower budget. Another four marinas are planned for Yas Island alone.
But Abu Dhabi will still face an uphill challenge to become a major international yachting destination. Work will have to be done to lure sailors away from long-established yachting playgrounds such as the Mediterranean, experts say. According to a survey by The Yacht Report tracking more than 100 superyachts around the world, the Mediterranean was the leading destination, with a vast number of ports of call for cruising. France's 115km Mediterranean coastline alone has 35 marinas that can accommodate large yachts.
But that is not stopping UAE boat dealers and builders, who are hoping the new marinas will boost demand from local residents. Globally, boat sales have fallen sharply as big spenders have tightened their belts and financing has been difficult to secure. "The sales in Abu Dhabi are limited because of a lack of infrastructure at this point," says Hamad Bachi, the chief executive of Emocean Marine, based in the capital. "We expect a lot of growth for sure when the infrastructure comes on line."
Even so, Nasser Alshaali, the chief executive of Gulf Craft, one of the largest yacht makers in the region, believes archaic regulations are holding back the growth of the industry in the UAE. These include restricting foreign yachts to a two-week stay and laborious bureaucratic procedures that clash with the spontaneity that makes boating fun. A boat requires a permit just to depart from a marina in the UAE. There are also strict restrictions on multiple ownership and chartering of yachts, Mr Alshaali says.
"Unless the regulatory environment surrounding marine and yachting improves, such as removal of ownership restrictions, support for maritime mortgages, freedom of movement between waterways and ports, the growth of this industry will always be limited," he says. If these restrictions can be lifted, Abu Dhabi could be a popular destination. "The maturing of the leisure market - makes it the ideal winter destination for yachts escaping the chill of the European environment," Mr Alshaali says.
Mr van Rijn agrees with that, even though he acknowledges there are hurdles. Restricted access to certain islands in the UAE has been a deterrent for yachting enthusiasts, while piracy outside the Gulf is another problem. Last week, the 60-metre German-built yacht Linda Lou was attacked by what were thought to be Somali pirates as it passed through the Gulf of Aden on its way to the UAE for the Abu Dhabi Yacht Show.
"A lot of superyacht owners don't want to take the risk going through the Suez Canal because of the Somali pirates," says Mr van Rijn. "The superyachts travel at relatively low speeds and the pirates love them." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org