The extraordinary growth of the airline in just 15 years reflects the rise of the UAE as a haven for business and tourism
As Etihad took to the skies, Abu Dhabi reached for the stars
Fifteen years ago, Etihad Airways began operations with a ceremonial flight from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain. That short hop was the prelude to the airline’s great leap into the global market. Today, Etihad operates a fleet of 110 planes to more than 90 destinations and carries millions of passengers.
Back in 2003, those figures might have seemed a remote prospect, although it was clear from the start that the airline’s management was ambitious and in a hurry. In hindsight, it is easy to now see two complementary big ideas working in tandem with the establishment of the airline.
The first and most obvious was the idea of economic expansion. By opening up shop, Etihad encouraged trade in its home port of Abu Dhabi, and the more it expanded its network of routes, the more attractive the city became to commercial entities to build businesses and trade here.
The second idea was a broader opening up of the city itself, as tourism and travel became part of a bigger plan to help diversify Abu Dhabi’s economy away from the traditional reliance on oil revenues. To this day, one of the airline’s core responsibilities is to support the emirate’s Economic Vision 2030, which seeks to build an “open, efficient, effective and globally integrated business environment”. It could be argued that few decisions have been more central to the modern development of Abu Dhabi than the establishment of the airline.
In this context, all of the many attractions on our doorsteps today, the theme parks such as Ferrari World, Warner Bros and Yas Waterworld, the universal museum that is Louvre Abu Dhabi, which celebrates its first anniversary this week, the staging of Formula 1 races since 2009 and even the establishment of further education institutions such as New York University and the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi are all pieces of the same puzzle.
It is no surprise that the agreements to establish these entities were all signed during the same years. If the airline’s beginning was emblematic of the city’s push to open up to the world, then these deals confirmed the symbolism of that narrative. More recent figures underscore that trend. According to government data, more than 4.44 million guests stayed in hotels in the emirate in 2016 and the travel and tourism sector accounted for 12.1 per cent of GDP nationwide. That figure was just 2.1 per cent of GDP when Etihad was first reaching for the skies
The “Etihad effect” was almost instant in Abu Dhabi. The international airport experienced 28 per cent growth in passenger traffic in the first quarter of 2004 and, before the year was out, the emirate had introduced the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority as it sought to build a visitor plan.
In many ways, the city then was much as it is now for those who did make the journey. Capital cities in Europe may have iconic sites, but Abu Dhabi has always thrived on a series of imponderables: people enjoy the city because it is safe and secure – it has been recognised as the safest city in the world for the past two years – and because of its well-earned reputation for Emirati hospitality. It is a place that rewards time spent, as visitors become increasingly aware of its mix of cultures and nationalities and its many layers.
While it is not always productive to wallow in nostalgia, as Peter Hellyer noted on these pages last month, it is worth thinking about what was here for visitors in those initial years of Abu Dhabi’s new airline.
The United Arab Emitrates Yearbook 2005 notes the addition of the new Emirates Palace Hotel as being part of a “steadily improving tourism profile” for the emirate. It also said that the city had “magnificent golf courses, many international-brand hotels with beach and resort facilities, new shopping malls, heritage centres and the benefit of an island location with acres of beach.” There was also Qasr Al Hosn, but much of the rest of the visitor experience sat somewhere between the distant past and the far-off future.
The Grand Mosque was under construction. The expansion of the Corniche was on course for completion. Land reclamation had allowed for the development of the Breakwater and Marina Mall. Work would soon be finished on Khalifa Park. Plans, never realised, were afoot for Lulu Island. A project was under way to replace the “atmospheric but rundown” old souq in the city centre, which had been partially destroyed by fire. The third crossing project, which was opened in 2010 as the Zaha Hadid-designed Sheikh Zayed Bridge, was making tentative progress.
But the masterplans for Yas and Saadiyat islands had not yet been made public and the eyecatching architecture of Capital Gate’s leaning tower as well as the futuristic design of Aldar HQ were all to come.
In other words, the impact of that first flight to Al Ain still reverberates any time a new attraction or landmark opens.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National