ABU DHABI // It was only one paving stone - but it was the first of 873,000, and setting it in place was a sign that one of Abu Dhabi's most ambitious attractions is beginning to take shape.
When the Volvo Ocean Race village opens on the Corniche breakwater on December 30 it will be the size of eight football pitches, packed with activities and entertainment including exhibitions, shows, simulators, hospitality, game zones, food and drink outlets and shops.
Its first task will be as host to the fleet of majestic ocean-going yachts competing in the Volvo race when they dock on December 30 for a two-week stopover, during which the village expects to welcome 100,000 sailing fans.
When the fleet sets sail on January 14 on the next leg of the race, to Sanya in China, the village will become a permanent sailing centre destined to place Abu Dhabi firmly on the nautical map.
"This, we hope, will be the start of a renaissance in sailing locally," says Mubarak Al Muhairi, director general of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) and managing director of Tourism Development and Investment Company.
"The sea is in our blood and we want to encourage residents, nationals and expatriates alike, to get out on to the water."
While the race fleet is docked at the village there will be a full programme of activities for maritime enthusiasts, from entry-level sailing academies to traditional dhow racing.
And the fun is not restricted to sailors, with tourism officials promising an attractive entertainment and concert programme during the two weeks. A movable floating bridge will connect the breakwater with an open-air concert venue behind Marina Mall.
"It will be the place to be at the beginning of 2012 and will be marked by a sensational New Year's Eve celebration," Mr Al Muhairi said.
"It will also allow visitors to connect with our rich maritime heritage as well as the history of the Volvo Ocean Race and to discover more about sailing as a healthy pastime and sport."
The Volvo Ocean Race begins in Alicante in Spain in October and ends more than 39,000 nautical miles later in Galway, Ireland, next July. It started life in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race, and this is its 11th edition.
The stopover in Abu Dhabi is the first time the Middle East has been part of the race route. Seven 11-man teams have already entered this year's race - including, for the first time, a crew from Abu Dhabi skippered by Ian Walker and featuring the 22-year-old Emirati Olympian Adil Khalid, in the Volvo Open 70 yacht Azzam.
The racing yachts have 4-5-metre keels, meaning the waters surrounding the breakwater will have to be dredged for a month to accommodate them.
Construction of permanent yacht pontoons is also under way, with installation due to begin in mid-August when off-site prefabrication is complete. The pontoons will be a key component of the sailing centre after the race fleet sails out.
Nasser Al Reyami, ADTA's director of tourism standards and one of the officials who laid that symbolic first paving stone, said yesterday: "This facility will be a major infrastructure addition to Abu Dhabi's watersports, and therefore tourism, offering. It will significantly enhance our credentials as a world-class winter watersports destination."
@ For more on VOLVO OCEAN RACE visit thenational.ae/topics