As the sun set over the skyline of Abu Dhabi on Monday evening, a large group of Taiwanese tourists were milling around the entrance to the Heritage Village.
Clutching their cameras and sporting sun hats, they took photos of each other standing next to a picture of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE.
“They’ve just flown into Abu Dhabi,” explained their tour guide, Lucy Kang, who works for a travel company based in China. She said the 22 Taiwanese tourists in her group, who ranged from their 20s to their 60s, had come to Abu Dhabi because they wanted to stay at the Emirates Palace. “It’s such a famous hotel,” Ms Kang said.
These tourists help make up the 2 million hotel guests expected to have stayed in Abu Dhabi this year, up from 1.81 million last year. In the first 10 months of this year occupancy levels at hotels in the emirate increased 9 per cent, while total revenue is up 5 per cent to Dh3.4 billion (US$941 million), compared with the same months last year.
In addition, the average length of stay of guests has increased 8 per cent, according to the figures from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. The emirate has also become a lot more affordable, with average rates down 11 per cent to Dh489.06 a night. Ms Kang said the group would spend one night in Emirates Palace before visiting the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum in Al Ain. They would then head to Dubai for three days, checking into the Burj Al Arab for one night and then moving on to the Atlantis on the Palm Jumeirah.
Dr Sompongse Suwanwalaikorn, 52, from Bangkok, checked into a four-star Abu Dhabi hotel for a longer stay. As he was leaving the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, he said he was in the emirate for five days for a conference.
“I heard from the tourist guide that [the mosque] is one of the best places to visit,” he said, adding he wanted to return to Abu Dhabi for a holiday.
“It’s a very peaceful city. Next time I will bring my family.”
Around him outside the mosque there were hordes of tourists, from the UK, Germany, and India, and tour buses lined the car park. Many had come into Abu Dhabi for a day on a city tour, which takes in other sights including the Corniche and Emirates Palace.
One of the tourists was Dr Nick Vasiliades, 38, from Greece, who was temporarily escaping the economic gloom back home by taking a five-day holiday, staying in a Hyatt hotel in Dubai. “I like it better than Dubai,” he said, speaking about Abu Dhabi. “It’s not as terrifying. There’s more humanity than Dubai. There’s no people in the streets in Dubai; just big structures.”
There were also a number of tourists to Abu Dhabi visiting friends and relatives.
Kathy Bunt, 45, a teacher from Queensland, Australia, was on a trip to visit her sister, who works in the capital. “Oh yeah, I’m very impressed,” she said. “It’s beautiful. It’s amazing that you have buildings like this springing out of the desert.” She said one of her favourite activities in the capital was shopping in the gold markets.
The tourists come not only from Europe and Asia, but also from the Gulf region.
The GCC market has grown sharply this year, with a 59 per cent increase in guests from the Gulf in October compared with the same month last year, according to data from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
Following the UK with some 13,065 visitors in October – a rise of 13 per cent on the same period last year – India was the second-largest overseas market with 10,196 hotel guests staying in the emirate, up 37 per cent on October last year.
Shahzad Akhtar, a financial adviser from England, was also visiting relatives in Abu Dhabi this week with his wife and two children. As he wandered around Heritage Village, he observed that a lot had changed since his last visit in 1991.
“It has expanded 10-fold to what it was,” he said.
Mr Akhtar had visited the Yas Marina Circuit the previous day and had been enjoying the beaches. But he said he would like to see more historic attractions.
“It seems to have lost its culture. They used to have the dhow boats here,” he said pointing to the quay.
Still, he was not too dismayed – and said he was thinking about moving from the UK to Abu Dhabi.