ABU DHABI // Cairo has its Nile cruises. London has the Thames riverboat rides. And now Abu Dhabi has its own water-based touring experience. For the first time here, amid an expanding tourism industry, residents and visitors can jump on to an inflatable boat and see the city's major sights from the vantage point of the Arabian Gulf.
Since its debut in November, the Yellow Boats company has conducted tours along the coasts of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In Abu Dhabi, the boats take tourists past the Emirates Palace hotel, across the Corniche as far as Mina and then behind Lulu Island, offering a different perspective than from land. There are chances to stop and take photographs of the ever-changing skyline. In Dubai, tours pass exclusive hotels such as the Burj al Arab and the Atlantis, and run by the Palm Island and marina.
The boats reach speeds of up to 96kph, and can take up to a dozen riders at a time. Passengers are not strapped in but have life jackets and a safety rail to hold. For adrenaline junkies, tours can be customised, with faster speeds and fewer stops requested. The launch comes on the heels of the Abu Dhabi Big Bus tour, launched in November, and brings the capital one more attraction for tourists.
"In the UK now, boat tours are a well-recognised format," said Michael Phillips, a partner in Yellow Boats. "It's up-and-coming to get out on the boat and into the water. We thought it would work well out here. We have got the climate and now the tourists; in Abu Dhabi, tourists are increasing." More than 200 people have taken one of the 45-minute tours in Abu Dhabi. Currently, passengers must pre-book through a call centre, but by the end of the month they need only turn up at the marina and pay Dh150 (US$41)
No official statistics on the number of tourists visiting the capital have been compiled, but the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) uses the number of hotel guests as its measure. The number of hotel guests for November was 132,626 a 19 per cent increase over 2008. "By November's end, the year-to-date numbers of hotel guests amounted to just over 1.4 million," said Barbara Saunders, a spokeswoman for ADTA. She said the ADTA had targeted zero per cent growth last year and was hoping to equal its 1.5 million hotel guests. "We now believe that once the December figures are released the year's total will be slightly up on 2008," she said.
The boat tours, she added, represent a landmark in Abu Dhabi's tourism industry. "It is another product which strengthens our ability to attract the leisure tourist, which is being given renewed focus as the destination increases its hotel stock," she said. "Yellow Boats is the fourth leisure product offering to come online in Abu Dhabi in as many months," she said. The others include the launch of the Big Bus tour, the mangrove kayaking tours of Nakhuda and the Balloon Adventures hot-air-balloon tours over the desert.
Mr Phillips, who previously worked as a marine engineer, hopes that by summer the company will launch eco-tours in Abu Dhabi featuring a 90-minute ride around untouched coastline, in sight of sea life. He also plans to link the Yellow Boats enterprise with the Big Bus tour. "We're in talks about tying in a tour with them," said Mr Phillips, who has lived in the UAE for a year. "This is a fun, exciting way to see the Abu Dhabi coastline."