BALTIMORE // Abu Dhabi is not the first destination most Americans think of when they consider visiting the Middle East.
And that is why a delegation from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) this week for the first time took part in a major convention targeting the high-end US travel and tourism market.
The Americas Meetings & Events Exhibition, which ended on Thursday in Baltimore, was a "good first step" to the US market and could have a significant impact on travel to Abu Dhabi and the Gulf region generally, said Sultan Al Ameri, ADTA's international promotion executive.
"The US represents a whole continent and has people from all over the world and from mixed cultural backgrounds," Mr Al Ameri said. The exhibition "is a big first step into that market".
Abu Dhabi's attendance at the Baltimore expo is the first of several moves to more fully tap the US travel market. In September, the ADTA is to open a country bureau in New York.
Al Merschen, who will lead the office, said this was a good time to raise awareness of Abu Dhabi in the US.
"The market is beginning to rebound, especially the upscale market," Mr Merschen said.
The challenge, he said, was to educate American travellers about the possibilities in Abu Dhabi by targeting industry leaders whose opinions could "filter down".
"Most Americans paint the region with one big brush. We are targeting the more sophisticated travellers, those who can place Abu Dhabi on a map and know the difference between this part of the region and others," he said.
Among the potential buyers at the expo were Patricia Newton, of Newton-Thoth, an international meetings and event management company.
"My clients show a lot of interest in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi," said Ms Newton.
The drop in the price of hotel rooms has brought Abu Dhabi firmly on to the radar, she said. And where Dubai previously had the higher profile, more of her clients were expressing an interest in Abu Dhabi.
"There is instant curiosity about Abu Dhabi, which is seen as an easier transition into the region and an ideal place to learn more about the culture," she said.
The Abu Dhabi delegation included tour and travel operators, the Rocco Forte Hotel Abu Dhabi, which opens this year, Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, Emirates Palace and Etihad Airways.
The ADTA will be targeting major US travel conglomerates, five of which together control 85 percent of all US travel agencies. Two alone, Virtuoso and Signature, together generate more than US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) of travel business, said Mr Merschen.
The US market has strong potential for Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi carrier Etihadprovides direct service from New York and Chicago and is understood to be looking this year to expand the number of US destinations it serves.
The entry into Abu Dhabi of big international brands including New York University, the Guggenheim and Ferrari has also raised the emirate's profile.
Last year, the US was the third-largest market for Abu Dhabi hotels with some 78,985 Americans staying in the emirate's hotels - a 16 per cent rise on 2009. That trend has continued in the first four months of this year, with 6 per cent more US hotel guests than in the same period last year.
Room rates have dropped 24 per cent over the past year, making the previously expensive destination much more attractive.