ABU DHABI // The peaceful wildlife reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island was a vision of his late father, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has asked developers turning it into a tourist attraction to do their best to keep it that way. On Thursday the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), which has been granted the right to transform the island into a holiday destination, presented Sheikh Mohammed with an outline of their eight-year development strategy that may see the addition of five further lodges and resorts, as well as a golf course.
"His Highness's direction was that we deliver the right project that keeps the harmony and natural balance of the island," said Mubarak al Muhairi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. "We aren't targeting the numbers of rooms as much as the right product. We will maintain 95 per cent of the island for the wildlife." It was Sheikh Mohammed's first official trip to the island since the nature sanctuary was opened to the public last month. The visit also marked the official launch of the first phase of the Desert Islands development, located about 170km west of the capital.
Sir Bani Yas is the first of eight islands in the western region to be developed. The Desert Islands includes the heritage-rich Dalma Island and four of six rocky outcrops, which are known collectively as the Discovery Islands. Sir Bani Yas was founded as a private wildlife reserve by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founder of the nation, to ensure the survival of Arabia's endangered animals. Today the island is home to 23 species of animals that roam free across the reserve, including 400 Arabian oryx, one of the world's largest herds of the critically endangered antelope.
At 87 square kilometres Sir Bani Yas is the largest natural island in the UAE - slightly bigger than Abu Dhabi island. However, by 2014 when the development is finished, Sir Bani Yas will have no more than 1,800 hotel rooms, said Bassem Terkawi, director of public relations and events at TDIC. "The number of hotel rooms is conservative because we are very keen to have as little environmental impact as possible," he said.
Plans include a lodge in the dramatic salt dome hilltops, the largest of their kind in the world. The island's first hotel, the Desert Islands Resort and Spa, a 64-room resort operated by Anantara, opened for business at the beginning of October. There are also plans to build as many as 500 luxury beachfront homes. Visitors to the island can already kayak through mangroves, hike across the salt dome mountains, cycle and snorkel in waters rich with dugongs, dolphins and turtles. Developers plan to introduce further activities, including scuba diving and archery.
"We are planning for people to be part of this experience," said Alan Gordon, executive director of marketing and public relations for TDIC. "That engaging element is very important." As part of its quest to be as environmentally responsible as possible the island will produce much of its own power. Sir Bani Yas operates the region's only wind turbine, which provides about two per cent of the electricity needed to power the island. Further wind and solar projects will be developed by the TDIC in partnership with Masdar, the government's renewable energy company. By the time the project is complete, renewable sources could provide up to 80 per cent of the island's power.
The project is expected to give an economic boost to the Western Region and increase employment, education and investment in the area. The development is projected to create 6,500 jobs, with as many employees as possible recruited from the local area. The Desert Island Education Centre, which opened on Dalma Island in August, is providing training in English, computers, management and communication aimed at advancing career opportunities for the island's 5,000 residents.