ABU DHABI // Just a few months ago, Yasmeen Al Hammadi had never sat on a bicycle or paddled a kayak.
Now she is leading tourists on winding bike tours, mountain hikes and wildlife safari excursions, pointing out little-known facts about the giraffes and cheetahs living on the small islands off the country's south-west coast. She tells curious visitors stories about the days of pearl diving and describes local traditions.
She is among the first group to graduate from a diploma course on Delma Island developed specifically for grooming Emiratis there to take over Abu Dhabi's burgeoning tourism industry.
Four of the first five graduates of an 11-month programme by the Desert Islands Education Centre (DIEC) have begun working at the government-owned luxury resort on Sir Bani Yas Island, while one will work full-time as an administrator for the education centre on Delma.
The Desert Islands are a cluster off Abu Dhabi's western coastline that have been designated as a locale for nature-based tourism.
The women completed courses in English, tourism, customer service, the presentation of promotional materials, task planning and time management before moving on to an internship at the resort on Sir Bani Yas, a two-hour ferry ride from home.
There, they were taught outdoor sports as well as colourful anecdotes about the island's plants and animals. They can now explain how soup is made from the leaves of sidra trees, or the fact that hyraxes, which roam freely on the island with cheetahs and gazelles, are related to elephants.
"Except for university, I had not spent much time away from my family" who live on Delma Island, said Ms Al Hammadi, 24. "Here I am meeting new people, talking to them and teaching them about this place. I am very surprised with myself."
Wafa Al Mehairbi, 21, had been studying at DIEC for several years after graduating from high school when she learnt about the opportunity to become a tour guide. She started out as a phone operator at the hotel, later learning how to kayak and ride a bicycle for the first time. She now leads tours on a 19-kilometre biking track on the island.
"It is good to present my country in this way, to point out the olive trees or the citrus that grows here," she said. "Before I was maybe embarrassed to talk to people, but now I can start a conversation with them in confidence and spend my time sharing what I know. It is a great chance for me."
DIEC was established by Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC), the organisation charged with large-scale plans to raise the emirate's profile, in 2008.
More than 300 Emiratis have completed a course at the centre, which offers vocational classes in English and computer skills, geared towards preparing Delma Island's youth for jobs in the public and private sector.
The diploma in travel and tourism is offered as an accredited and certified programme through the UK-based vocational skills organisation City & Guilds Group.
The hope is that tourism in the Desert Islands will eventually be run by Emiratis, who can best tell the story of the culture and the people, said Mahra Al Qassimi, a senior communications manager for TDIC.
As the resort launches new activities later this year, including scuba diving and horse riding, there are still ample opportunities for the graduates to learn something new.
"This was a challenge for these girls, some spending the night away from home for the first time and being away from the place that most of them have lived all of their lives," she said. "They are excited for what adventures are coming next."