ABU DHABI // The big stage is beckoning for a tiny archipelago off the capital that is within touching distance of being voted one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Bu Tinah, a cluster of low-lying islands surrounded by coral reefs and seagrass beds, is on a final shortlist of 28 locations, from which the wonders will be selected in a global poll.
The islands are out of bounds to the public, a move backed by law to ensure that their rare inhabitants, and the sea life around them, remain undisturbed. But Bu Tinah's natural treasures are about to be thrust into the spotlight in a push for votes from around the globe. The area is home to marine turtles, dolphins, flamingos and several rare migratory birds such as the Socotra cormorant and species of tern.
It is also popular with the dugong, a large but peaceful and shy marine mammal that feeds on seagrass. About 600 out of the estimated 3,000 dugongs that live in UAE waters can be found around Bu Tinah. The main island has a sheltered lagoon opening to the south, lined with mature mangroves. The archipelago is part of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, which covers 4,000 square kilometres and is the largest protected area in the country.
Bu Tinah's nature has already seen it win through two stages of the New7Wonders of Nature competition. The contest was organised by the New7Wonders Foundation, a Swiss-based, government-controlled body. It began in 2007 with 440 locations in more than 200 countries. The final phase sees Bu Tinah competing with such well-known places as the Maldives archipelago, the Galapagos in Ecuador, the Dead Sea, the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon in the United States.
The Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) is to appoint an international marketing consultancy to promote the islands, before the final vote in 2011. The agency is also negotiating with other government departments and media companies, trying to get them to join the canvassing. Pages on social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and voting booths in some of the country's shopping malls, will be part of the campaign.
"This will be an ongoing and evolving strategy," said Dr Thabit al Abdessalaam, director of marine biodiversity management at the EAD. A short film, to be completed this month, will bring Bu Tinah and its exotic inhabitants closer to the public. But besides having the support of UAE residents, Bu Tinah will have to captivate a global audience if it is to emerge as one of the winners. The competition was launched after the contest to find the man-made New Seven Wonders of the World, in which 100 million people voted.
"Bu Tinah is one of the least-known participants," said Jean-Paul de la Fuente, a director of the N7W Foundation, on a visit to Abu Dhabi. While Bu Tinah's obscurity was a challenge, it was also an opportunity, he said. Some world-famous sites, such as the Amazon rainforest, had been in the spotlight for much longer, said Mr de la Fuente. Such extensive scrutiny could spark a negative reaction.
"The Amazon comes with a lot of issues," he said, mentioning deforestation, large-scale farming and the treatment of native tribes. While the Amazon was "very famous but also controversial", Bu Tinah had the opportunity to "tell its story on a clean, white canvas". "The other challenge is getting people to vote for Bu Tinah," he said. "It is not about the size or resources of the country but also how people are motivated to vote for the location."
The UAE could use its position as a travel hub to promote Bu Tinah with tourists, business travellers and even transit passengers. Another advantage was its expatriate residents. "This is a unique opportunity because all these people are potential ambassadors for Bu Tinah," said Mr de la Fuente. He said the campaign would promote environmental awareness "not in a boring way but in a very exciting way".
"Often, the environmental message is a depressing one," he said. "We are asking people to celebrate nature and, inevitably, the result is that they will take more care." email@example.com