During my brief excursion to the UAE's east coast last week to attend the unveiling of a memorial at Dhadnah to a British airman who died there in a plane crash during the Second World War, I had the opportunity to talk to a number of visitors, resident expatriates and Emiratis about how this part of the country, and other parts too, are failing to make the best of the opportunities that are being provided by the tourist industry.
The topic was initially raised by two friends of mine from the British Channel Island of Jersey who were making a short visit to look at some of the remarkable bird life that makes the UAE its home. They were on their third birdwatching trip to the Emirates and were paying a return visit to the Fujairah National Dairy Farm at Dibba. As they drifted down the coast, they stopped to watch some seabirds on the way and attended the unveiling of the Dhadnah War Memorial, before taking a break at Al Aqqah's Meridien Hotel. This is one of a growing clutch of hotels along this part of the coast, with hundreds of visitors arriving every week. There are shops in the hotels selling a variety of goods, from a Dh30,000 Rolex to T-shirts and newspapers. But there's nothing in the nearby village to tempt the visitor to spend some money in the local community. There's no simple restaurant or little shop by the roadside selling local handicrafts or postcards. What a pity, my friends said. I agree.
What do the people of Al Aqqah actually gain from being a tourist destination? There's a fine new road past the village but are there any new jobs or new sources of income? Later I stopped to take a look at the east coast's prime destination, the 350-year-old roadside mosque at the village of Bidiya. Five coaches were in the car park, with perhaps a couple of hundred people taking pictures of the mosque, climbing up to the restored watchtowers nearby or simply wandering around the gardens next to the mosque. They were a captive clientele for cups of coffee, soft drinks, postcards, and handicrafts. Yet, the bright young Bidiya resident in charge of the visitor centre lamented that she had virtually nothing to sell. Proposals from other Bidiya residents to set up at least a soft drinks stall had yet to be approved by the authorities.
What a wasted opportunity, not only for selling soft drinks, but also for promoting the sale of the fine handicrafts that are painstakingly made by Fujairah women, or T-shirts of the watchtowers, or much more. In the peak of the tourist season there must be thousands of dirhams a week that could be spent here. It would not only bring tourist dirhams into the village economy but would also contribute in a very real way to the preservation of traditional handicrafts.
I didn't have the time last week to pay a visit to Fujairah Fort and its adjacent mud-brick village, both of which have been carefully restored by the Government at considerable expense. The last time I visited there was no retail outlet seeking to pry a few dirhams from the visitors, be they UAE residents or tourists from overseas. Yet, as anyone who has ever driven over the mountains from Dhaid to Masafi will know, the "Friday Market" just west of Masafi is full of cars and tourist coaches that stop to allow travellers to buy refreshments, a bit of fruit, freshly-roasted sweetcorn, a cheap carpet, or even a plastic toy for the children. If the opportunity is there, passers-by will stop, and they will spend.
We hear much about investment in tourist development in the UAE - fancy hotels, leisure centres, ski-slopes, yacht marinas, golf clubs designed by some of the world's top players. They cost hundreds of millions of dirhams, and probably bring in equivalent revenues too. But what direct benefit do they bring to ordinary inhabitants, the shrewd shopkeeper, or the ambitious young college or university graduate who would like to stay close to home and to build up a small business that will provide an income for themselves, their family and their community? Most of those who do have ambitions find themselves obliged to migrate to the major towns in search of work and their villages become dormitories, fully-populated at weekends but somnolent for most of the week.
The implications of the process are wide-ranging. Traffic builds up in the main urban centres; there's a greater demand for city centre accommodation, leading to rising rents; demands for health and educational services are more concentrated. Meanwhile, the villages themselves, lacking any economic vitality of their own, just become places to be driven through at speed, provided they are on a motorway of course, often bypassed by both time and progress even if new housing schemes mean that living conditions improve there.
I appreciate that to a certain extent it's the villagers themselves who must take the initiative: to take the risk of buying stocks of handicrafts for sale, amass a good selection of postcards, or of commissioning a small factory to produce some nice T-shirts. I would hope, though, that those in Government who are responsible for planning economic development, whether in Fujairah or elsewhere, will pay a little more attention to helping those wishing to start little businesses that can feed off the tourist industry. A bit of marketing advice here, assistance with a bank loan there - it's not much to ask.
Luxury tourist developments are fine - well, sometimes - but they're not of much benefit to the people of the ordinary communities nearby. Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage