x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tourist Club neighbourhood

Despite construction and congestion, this Abu Dhabi neighbhourhood has a big-city energy that residents love.

11OCT2010 - ABU DHABI -  Tourist club area. Ravindranath.K / The National
11OCT2010 - ABU DHABI - Tourist club area. Ravindranath.K / The National

Tourist Club. No two words are guaranteed to strike more fear into the heart of a taxi driver or a business person unlucky enough to have been called to a meeting in the area; a place where the quest for a parking space can literally last for hours; the neighbourhood that appears at the very bottom of every house-hunters wish-list.

Tourist Club: a friendly, vibrant and multicultural neighbourhood where every possible amenity is on your doorstep and where luxurious hotels and shopping malls, high-end beach clubs and many of the capital's finest restaurants are within easy walking distance of your home. What's more, it's the only neighbourhood in the capital where car ownership is unnecessary.

Which picture do you recognise? It's not until you spend some time in Tourist Club that you realise both statements are true. Admittedly, your perspective will probably be skewed by whether or not you're a resident but I have to admit that I also find myself warming to the area with each visit.

From the outside looking in, Tourist Club is a dense, noisy, steaming mass of laundries, refreshment houses, carpenters' workshops and tower blocks, many of which are in an advanced and alarming state of dilapidation. Among the worst are buildings with walls that look as if they're made of wet blotting paper - all puckered and bloated and starting to sag. On the other hand, some of the towers are really smart and the ribbons of light that beam from their rooflines are actually coming from penthouse flats commanding some of the very best views in the city.

Since the start of the gargantuan road works on Salam, 9th and Mina Streets, Tourist Club has effectively been placed under siege by giant cranes, temporary sewers and pedestrian footbridges, and arc lights. It's become just as much of an island as nearby Sowwah and Reem.

Getting past the huge construction sites and the hideous traffic jams that they generate only accentuates a certain sense of arrival - and the vaguest sense also of straying onto some enormous film set.

Maybe it's just the continual crackle and flicker of neon or the fact that the streets are teeming with people who all seem to be engaged in conversation, whether crossing roads, on the pavement or in doorways and shops. There's a press and pulse and charge to the atmosphere here that starts to remind me of other big cities - Soho in London, Roppongi in Tokyo, even Times Square in New York - and just as I start to become totally delusional I hear an unmistakable accent and have to reach out and ask its owner to stop. Henry Tombe is from London and he and his Canadian wife Nancy are walking home after a meal at their favourite local Japanese restaurant.

Walking around Tourist Club is a thing they both do a lot as the neighbourhood provides them with all of their social amenities. They shop at the nearby mall, are members of the Rotana Beach Club and are surrounded by the city's finest restaurants. Nancy doesn't even have a car as she is able to walk to work each day at a nearby school. Having lived in the area for two years, would they consider a move elsewhere in the city, especially as rental prices are dropping? They ponder the question for a while and decide that, no, neither of them would. Tourist Club is a place that reminds them both of their homes in Europe and North America and a move away, particularly off the island, would simply be counterproductive to their busy social lives.

The Tombes are not the only people for whom Tourist Club is a reminder of home. I speak to other "Tourist Clubbers" from Manila and Mumbai, Bangalore and Beijing and each, unprompted, offers the same observation: here is a neighbourhood in old downtown Abu Dhabi that, despite all the noise and the traffic, the crowds and the dirt, offers its residents an urban experience that they can compare with the places they call home. In doing so it earns their affection and encourages them to stay. I wonder if the same will be said of nearby Sowwah and Reem once people move into the buildings there.

Tourist Club isn't for everybody, but learning to love it is a little like following Alice (or Henry or Nancy) through the looking glass. Once you've made the intellectual and emotional leap, you never look at the old neighbourhood, or indeed Abu Dhabi, in quite the same way again.


The facts

Property prices One and two-bedroom apartments start at Dh80,000 and Dh100,000 respectively. while 176-square-metre, four-bedroom apartments can be found for Dh180,000. A room in shared accommodation, a popular choice for young couples and families in the area, will cost about Dh14,000 per annum.

Schools Giggles English Nursery and The Abu Dhabi Grammar School (Canadian system) are in the neighbourhood while Al Yarmouk School and Ajnadeen Primary School for Girls are one block away. GEMS American Academy, Wisdom High School (Indian) and Noah's Ark Nursery are two blocks away.

Medical facilities The Corniche (maternity), Al Salama and National hospitals are all in proximity. When the construction of Sowwah Island is finished, the Cleveland Clinic will also be near by.

Shops Abu Dhabi Mall has more than 200 shops, including a large branch of Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society, while the back streets of Tourist Club teem with small shops.