It's Thursday lunchtime in the Hawksbill restaurant of the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and, for a small group of diners, the weekend has already begun. The clink of glasses accompanies the deft serving of meals; traditional dark wood interiors and period photographs, complimenting the sweeping views of the greens beyond, give the feel of a place long-established. The Gary Player-designed course, the first beach-side golf course in the Gulf, has only been open since March, but since then, close to 20,000 rounds of golf have been played; next month sees the second consecutive year of the Saadiyat Beach Golf Classic.
Arriving at the course after driving on to Saadiyat Island - a 27-square-kilometre flat, barren expanse until very recently - is incongruous and dreamlike. But driving across the Sheikh Khalifa Highway, with water on both sides and mangroves stretching almost to the horizon, anyone who has lived in Abu Dhabi for any length of time also gets a physical sense of new worlds opening up. There's something of Key West about it, yet this is all new and we are merely at the beginning of dozens of developments on the island that, when completions start in just a few months, will begin to change the face of tourism in Abu Dhabi.
Behind the golf course is the first phase of an upscale residential development called the Saadiyat Beach Residential Community. The first 354 villas are under construction and all have already been sold or reserved. Opposite the clubhouse (already, a new clubhouse, designed by Frank Gehry, is slated to open in 2012) and across the green is the elegant new Park Hyatt hotel, due to open in the second quarter of next year. Further down is the vast St Regis (the first St Regis in the Middle East, it will have 380 rooms, 259 apartments and 32 luxury villas), where 15 cranes are currently working towards an opening at the end of 2011. And just behind all of this, looking west, is the newly defined skyline of Abu Dhabi and Al Reem islands, where a forest of towers is springing up like a new Manhattan. The landscape of Abu Dhabi is changing so fast I'm reminded of a comment by Rags to Riches author and honorary chairman of the Al Fahim Group, Mohammed AJ al Fahim, on the transformation of the city in the late 1960s: "There were trucks, bulldozers, cars and people everywhere ... It was like a scene from the creation of a film set - a whole city was being erected from scratch."
Within 20 years Saadiyat Island will be home to 145,000 people, and with flagship projects such as the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, it is central to Abu Dhabi's development as laid out in the 2030 plan. According to the Tourism Development and Investment Corporation (TDIC), the master developer of the site, business, culture, tourism and sports will all intersect here to create a "multifaceted, premier island destination of desire" offering a "unique invitation to the discerning traveller". Tourism is so central to Abu Dhabi's self-image ("Saadiyat Island will be an irresistible magnet attracting the world to Abu Dhabi, and taking Abu Dhabi to the world") that one of the emirate's most enviable sites has been chosen to cater to future visitors' every whim.
And it's when you get down to the beach - on my golf tour, next to the fifth and sixth holes (named, appropriately, "Dolphin view" and "Saadiyat breeze") - that you understand the draw. The nine-km natural beach is gorgeous, with white sand and aquamarine water. It's the perfect depth for swimming and so clean you can see through the waves as they break gently on the shore. As yet it's untouched; a nesting ground for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, the golf course and all other developments are set back from the shoreline and the small dunes that front them will be preserved.The development plans to keep trampling feet in designated areas and a network of boardwalks will be used to cross the dunes.
Looking at the scale models of the developments on display at Emirates Palace and Al Manarat al Saadiyat, I'm impressed by the level of detail: even the palm trees in one hotel's landscaped grounds have floodlights; luxury villas have miniature sunbeds on their terraces and plants trailing on the pergolas. Yet one barely needs to look at these or the pop-up pocket guide one is given on arrival at the exhibition anymore: of the nine resorts planned for Saadiyat, five have been announced and are under imminent development: alongside the St Regis and Park Hyatt will be outposts of the Shangri-La, Rotana and Mandarin Oriental brands.
Further along Saadiyat beach is the chic and minimalistic Monte Carlo Beach Club. It's nearly finished - all the structural work is done and the cladding has gone on: water is about to be connected and teams of workmen are all over the site crafting the swimming pools, gyms and cardio rooms. Looking at the computer-generated images coming to life so close to that beach, I can hardly wait until it opens in three months' time and I'll be able to dip my toes in that water (entry policy permitting: it's an exclusive, Miami Beach type of place). For those with more money, there are villas being constructed across the road from here, too, in "Mediterranean", "Contemporary" and "Arabian" themes, with three to six bedrooms. With expatriates able to buy properties on 99-year leases, they will no doubt appeal to those looking for a luxury holiday home.
Elsewhere in the capital, ambitious new hotel developments are in advanced stages of development. Next year will see the opening of the new Rocco Forte hotel on Airport Road (for an interview with Olga Polizzi, see page 6) and the completion of the 66-storey, 600-room Jumeirah Etihad Towers hotel next to Emirates Palace. Other landmark developments include the Italianate Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi - Grand Canal opposite the Shangri-La Abu Dhabi, the Angsana Hotel and Resort in the Eastern Mangroves, the striking, 45-degree angled Regent Emirates Pearl and the modernist W Hotel Al Bateen Wharf. This is in addition to a clutch of new openings, including Rotana and Hyatt, in the Capital Gate district near Adnec.
It's all a far cry from Abu Dhabi's first hotel, the Beach Hotel, which was opened by the Bustani family near the present-day site of the Sheraton Corniche in 1964. "It was 25 rooms, and it was a big deal," recalls Mohammed al Fahim, whose Al Fahim Group co-owns the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. "We didn't imagine back then that we would see so many hotels or so many rooms opening in Abu Dhabi. We never thought it was even possible. In fact, we never thought Abu Dhabi would ever be a tourist destination. It was frowned upon by the community in those days; people didn't want so many people peeping at them."
The Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority (ADTA), which sets targets for visitor numbers to Abu Dhabi, says 1.65 million people have visited so far this year, based on the number of hotel guests the emirate receives. It aims to attract 2.3 million in 2012 and 3.2 million by 2015, as part of a wider drive to diversify the economy away from its dependency on oil. Currently, tourism accounts for 10.7 per cent of Abu Dhabi's non-oil GDP. Abu Dhabi currently has 17,297 hotel rooms, a figure that will rise to 22,800 by the end of 2011 and a staggering 80,000 by 2030, by which time Abu Dhabi aims to be attracting 7.3 million visitors a year.
For al Fahim, the speed of this development carries risks. "I hope we don't overbuild and that hotels don't price themselves out of the market, because hotels are currently not operating at full occupancy and unless the government has big plans to fill them then what we have is already sufficient."
For the UAE's largest and fastest-growing hotel management company, Rotana, the continued growth of Abu Dhabi despite a global economic downturn represents a unique opportunity, and the group now accounts for 30 per cent of Abu Dhabi's hotel bookings. Rotana is currently opening between seven and 10 hotels a year; next year, of its seven openings in the Middle East, five will be in Abu Dhabi. "In five years' time we will have up to 20 hotels in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain," says Omer Kaddouri, Rotana's chief operating officer. "By 2012 we will have a total of 70 properties and we plan to increase this to 200 by 2030." Kaddouri attributes Rotana's success to the growing number of business events held in the city and its own marketing strategies. "The UAE buying London's Excel exhibition centre and strategies to bring conferences to Abu Dhabi are working. The government wants to ensure the hotels are full. We have also reached out to guests from new markets in eastern Europe, South America and the Far East - China, Malaysia and Hong Kong."
Another new market which is proving successful is Rotana's alcohol-free Rayhaan brand. In Abu Dhabi, the impressive Rotana Khaladiya Palace near Emirates Palace presents a new model of culturally sensitive travel that may be part of the key to differentiating Abu Dhabi from its competitors. The brand has a healthy but upmarket philosophy, shown at the Rayhaan by an impressive beachfront, the largest hotel swimming pool in the city and sophisticated restaurants and juice bars. "Not only has not having alcohol not affected our business, it has led to our expectations being surpassed," says Kaddouri. "The hotel is even proving popular with the German and Russian market."
Lawrence Franklin, the strategy and policy director of ADTA, says that 2012 was the "end point" of a "major consolidation phase" before the next wave of expansion in the city. "By this time we will already have an impressive range and quantity of accommodation offerings, a broad spread of attractions, a strong core of high profile and community events and a mature, increasingly sustainable tourism sector providing world-class services. The next wave of excitement will largely be underpinned by the roll out of the Saadiyat Cultural District.
"This critical infrastructure will be marketed and integrated into Abu Dhabi's overall tourism offering via ongoing global marketing campaigns, efficient public relations, an established series of trade and consumer shows and an effective international office network and a vertically and horizontally aligned tourism sector."
According to Sheena Westwood, associate professor and director of graduate programmes at Zayed University and a tourism specialist, the level of government support for tourism and its integration with business and sporting events makes tourism central to the wider development of Abu Dhabi, and makes it different to virtually any other destination in the world. "Tourism is being very strategically developed," shesays. "It cuts across everything that's happening in Abu Dhabi: hotels, sports, business events and mixed-use developments - everything has a tourism angle."
Tourism is seen as instrumental in cross-cultural exchange and religious understanding, Westwood says, though there is still a challenge in attracting people to the city. "There is still a low awareness of Abu Dhabi in geographical terms. Many people still don't understand where the UAE is or what it is. Tourism can help to challenge this and here there is a blank canvas with full government support and funding." The ongoing process of Emiratisation was important in this process, shesays, "because people want to explore but they also want an interaction. We need more qualified Emirati nationals with degrees in tourism, hospitality and events management, otherwise it's all going to be foreign expertise."
The ultimate challenge will be to maintain Abu Dhabi's profile as a tourist destination for decades to come, says Westwood. "At the moment Abu Dhabi has location and newness in its favour - people are always looking for something new. It's is still seen as exotic, but it's not enough to just build it, you have to maintain it. In the future you've got to sustain that in the face of competition."