The building blocks of Abu Dhabi’s future tourism industry
A hum of voices rises above round tables clad in white linen. Teenagers pass each other, scissors, permanent markers, glue sticks and colourful booklets in hand.
Some are shy, others seem to be more direct, more controlling. An authoritative voice cuts through the noise, and repeats the importance of completing the assignment in teams.
The voice belongs to Thara Azzam, an instructor at a tourism summer camp aimed at inspiring young Emiratis to join the often-stigmatised hospitality sector.
“There is a misconception about tourism, that it is just about working in hotels, or as waiters, or those jobs that do not appeal to them as students,” says Mr Azzam, a senior marketing executive at the European International College.
“It’s totally different from the image we project to them.”
The summer camp, a collaboration between the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA) and the college, aims to give the young Emiratis a first glimpse into tourism and hospitality.
The college provides the education, by building a curriculum around the TCA’s projects and aims.
The three-week programme entails eight workshops and seven field trips to sites from the various segments of the tourism sector – sports, hospitality, healthcare, education, culture and heritage.
Guest speakers – mainly Emiratis working in the industry – draw on their own experiences, stressing the sector’s importance to the country and reinforcing the career opportunities it presents.
“The 12 days are divided into different segments of tourism, so one day we talk about cultural tourism, one day we will talk about sports tourism, and then we go on a field trip based on whatever we have talked about in the workshop.”
Students are allowed to miss the first day and one other, which allows a little room for error, or extracurricular commitments.
But if they miss any more, they will not receive a certificate of completion.
Those who do attend and pass the final exam have a graduation ceremony, with the top three students receiving a small financial reward for their efforts, courtesy of TCA.
Although Dubai’s meteoric rise as a tourist destination in the 1990s and 2000s made it the most internationally recognised emirate, Abu Dhabi is now making a name for itself with heritage sights and attractions such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Yas Island, the Blue Star-rated Abu Dhabi Corniche and beach and Al Ain Zoo.
So it is no surprise that the emirate recorded 8.8 million guest nights last year, a 26 per cent increase on the year before, with an 18 per cent revenue increase to Dh5.48 billion.
Yet, despite tourism emerging as a key part of the emirate’s economy, Emiratis still only account for one out of every 100 workers in the sector.
The camp puts great emphasis on the jobs and opportunities that it offers, and why it is so important that nationals work in tourism.
“We do this by giving them facts and figures about the industry,” says Mr Azzam. “Whether it’s the airline sector, the sports sector, health sector, culture sector – there’s a lot of sectors in tourism.
“For example, when we talk event attractions and sports tourism they still don’t know why it’s important for Abu Dhabi to host the HSBC golf tournament,” says Mr Azzam.
“So, we tell them that there are 40,000 people coming from outside and that there are millions and millions of people watching Abu Dhabi through the television. Then they realise it’s not only about entertaining.
“Then we say, ‘At the end of the day, who is going to work at that event? If not you, then who will be representing your country?’”
Fatima Al Melhi, industry and tourist guide training head at TCA, says the camp targets younger students to raise awareness and address a much-needed paradigm shift.
“We want to change the mindset of Emiratis about this sector,” Ms Al Melhi says. “We do have a good number of Emiratis in tourism and hospitality in Abu Dhabi, working in hotels and other tourism-related establishments, but of course we want to increase that number.”
Emiratis have reservations about the sector because of misconceptions, such as believing they would be employed as a receptionist or work in bars.
“They have the wrong idea about tourism so we give them the correct image of tourism and all the potential in the sector, where people can easily grow and distinguish themselves among others.
“They will grow into very good personalities, being in this sector.”
Perhaps even more important, Ms Al Melhi says, is better informing the students’ parents.
“We usually host a parents’ session the week before the camp starts,” she says. “We go over the programme with them and tell them what its objective is and what the students will learn.
“There are so many different departments, like marketing and administration, which they would accept having their sons and daughters working in.”
Mr Azzam agrees that convincing future generations of Emiratis means convincing their parents. While students in the West usually have a large say in what they want to study and where, the Arab world is different.
“We need to at least inject this information so they go to their parents and say, ‘Today we learnt 1, 2, 3 – hospitality is not only about tourism’,” he says.
“Of course, parents have to play a role in verifying those facts or figures that you’re teaching the students and if they can see that what you are teaching is right, then they will send their kids to universities where they can specialise in tourism.”
Things are changing, Mr Azzam says.
“In 2007, when we first launched as a university and opened up hospitality, we had two locals,” he says. “Last year’s batch had around 25. We’re not even talking about a generation, so it is a good thing.
“Those 25 students are working in tourism, whether in government or airlines such as Etihad. They’re working in their field of speciality.”
Amani Hisham, 13, an Applied Technology High School pupil, was introduced to the programme by her stepmother.
“I really like it because Abu Dhabi has both culture and leisure places, and people will enjoy it because they will learn more about the UAE’s past yet still be in a modern country and know about its future,” Amani says.
“I’d like to boost my confidence and socialise with people, because tourism is about hospitality – people.”
Amani is interested in philosophy and astronomy, and is torn between the two. She is fairly casual in her approach, saying she will either work at Nasa or in philosophy.
“We have a very nice culture and it is different from other countries,” she says. “Not all UAE citizens stick with the past. I mean, I like this country but maybe one day I will want to live in New York. Even then, I would still hold on to my past.”
Maryam Abdulla, 15, another pupil at Applied Technology High School, says a friend told her about the camp. She dreams of being an aircraft engineer, which she feels “is related to transport, so it can be related to tourism too”.
Maryam says she hates cooking, but is extremely interested in learning about traditional Emirati food and cooking techniques.
Hazza Alharbi, 17, who goes to Al Nahda National School, also took part in last year’s “amazing” summer camp.
Hazza can readily give information about Ferrari World, Yas Marina Circuit and Saadiyat Island’s coming Louvre, Guggenheim and Zayed National museums.
He is passionate about tourism’s importance to Abu Dhabi.
“It is important so we can spread our name to every single nation so we can be known to everyone,” Hazza says. “And we have to save our heritage, because if our culture and our heritage get lost, we’re no one.
“I love it here, because it’s getting bigger and bigger every second. You can’t feel it but you may see it after a month.”
Hazza says he hopes to join the TCA after university, although he will be completing national service training before that.
Zaid Balfaqeeh, 17, a pupil at Emirates National School, says his father encouraged him to join the camp, to socialise with people and gain experience. Zaid is most excited about building up his confidence, leadership and teamwork skills.
He wants to work in finance, but is still unsure where his future lies.
“But this is important, because people who work in tourism reflect Emiratis,” Zaid says. “I’ve pretty much seen all of Abu Dhabi, but there are some Emiratis that have not seen some landmarks.
“It’s important they know about their country, so they can introduce other people to their culture.”
Updated: August 12, 2014 04:00 AM