Fujairah’s abandoned homes offer tourism potential
Like many people, I rather enjoy roaming around the UAE's mountains, following tracks up wadis to enjoy the magnificent scenery and, with luck, to see some wildlife. It's most enjoyable in the winter months, of course, especially after rainfall, when there's fresh greenery and little streams.
On such journeys, I'm always fascinated by the traditional villages. Some were abandoned years ago, when low-cost modern houses were built nearer to "civilisation", to facilitate access to electricity and water. Others, particularly in the northern mountains in the UAE, are still in good repair, being visited occasionally by families who have moved to the cities. For the most part, though, there's little life in these villages – and that's a pity.
Last month, I read an article in a foreign newspaper about Gangi, a small town in Sicily, where the population has shrunk to less than half over the last 50 years. In consequence, there are hundreds of empty houses, many abandoned when their owners moved abroad, in search of better opportunities. Now the local municipality has launched an initiative to attract outsiders to buy and restore the houses, offering help in navigating the tortuous bureaucratic obstacles and tracing the families who formerly owned the properties.
The initiative has had some success. A few dozen houses have so far been bought, with 200 or so still available. Around half the purchasers have come from elsewhere in Sicily, seeking weekend homes, with others coming from throughout Europe. One, the paper reported, is actually from Abu Dhabi.
There has been a marked revival in the town's economy. Local craftsmen are busy working on restoration projects. Turnover in local shops has increased. Potential for development of tourism has emerged – one company from Florence, given two houses for free, has bought seven more and is planning to convert them into a small hotel in the town's centre.
Is there scope for a project of this type to be launched for some of our empty and abandoned villages?
Years ago, three young expatriate friends of mine rented a small house in an Omani mountain village not far from Al Ain, which they used to visit most weekends. It lacked modern conveniences, as I found out when I went to stay with them one weekend – a lack of running water and proper toilets isn't to everyone's liking. Nonetheless, the place had charm, while the remaining villagers generally provided a warm welcome to their visitors, provided, of course, that due respect was shown to local customs and traditions.
Perhaps, for example, the site of the old village adjacent to the well-known fortified house in Wadi Hayl, in Fujairah, might be an ideal spot for a bit of innovative investment, shared between the local Government and the owners of the old houses, most of whom now live in a modern village a bit further down the wadi. The old village is now in a state of disrepair, its houses needing substantial restoration. They're small, but might well prove attractive for away-from-it-all weekends for city dwellers. I wouldn't be in favour of the Sicilian option of selling the properties – there might well be local resistance to that, anyway. If restored and offered for rent, however, and if the Government at least sorted out a supply of electricity, I suspect that there would be a viable level of demand, even if toilets, sewerage and regular water supplies might have to wait.
The skills of how to restore and maintain traditional houses would once again become useful. Local farmers would have a ready market, close by, for their produce. An enterprising villager might open a small shop or cafe, where not only weekenders but also the steady trickle of tourists that already exists could spend a bit of money.
An idea worth considering, perhaps – I shall take another look at Hayl when I visit Fujairah this weekend.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture
Updated: July 6, 2015 04:00 AM