x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

All aboard for the capital tour

Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority pavilion in China attracts big crowds and builds interest in the Emirate.

Abu Dhabi has 40,000 hotel guests from China each year, Dayne Lim, the ADTA’s Product Development Director, hopes to double it.
Abu Dhabi has 40,000 hotel guests from China each year, Dayne Lim, the ADTA’s Product Development Director, hopes to double it.

Nawaf Abdulla stepped into the crowd from the Abu Dhabi pavilion of the Volvo Ocean Race in Sanya, China, and the big man began mingling among Asians delighted with the unfamiliar sight of a man in a white kandura and a red ghutra. So he posed for a photograph with one, then another, then two more, then another, then another, then two more.

"It's exciting, something enjoyable," he said through an interpreter. "They want always to take the picture with the stick."

He was talking about the asa, which he had just used in performing the Harbiya with fellow members of the Saqoor Al Maqabeel group from Abu Dhabi.

The 10 men, along with 14-year-old Khalifa Mohammed, were a visible aspect of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's plan to familiarise potential Chinese tourists with the concept of Abu Dhabi.

"This stopover was always one of the first ones we pinned down where we were going to have a significant presence," said Dayne Lim, the ADTA's Product Development Director.

Through the weekend, thick crowds gathered in front of the red Abu Dhabi pavilion, making it one of the most bustling areas of the village and often slowing the walk from the gates toward the six boats lined up in the marina. As the nine-month, round-the-world sailboat race made its third stopover here, the witnesses looked fascinated with the Emiratis.

When they could communicate, the viewers tended to inquire about the meanings of the colours of the garments, said Mohammed Al Maqbali, explaining that the group has 35 members and has travelled to Britain, France, the Netherlands and Thailand. Its first trip to China would last five days on this resort island with a 685,000-strong city, the southernmost in the People's Republic of China.

"It's a good way for me to show the culture and the traditions, and I'm proud to show these traditions," Al Maqbali said.

Just behind him, in the pavilion, Chinese women greeted visitors while wearing abayas and serving tea. In a continuing feature of Abu Dhabi exhibits along the race's course from Spain to South Africa to Abu Dhabi to here, a man at a desk did calligraphy of guests' names in Arabic.

Unlike in other stops, the Chinese man doing the calligraphy spoke neither Arabic nor English, but had learnt the letters from an Arabic teacher. (He also has no English name, according to one of the greeters.)

As in other stops, this attraction often produced long queues.

Abu Dhabi attracts about 40,000 hotel guests from China each year and, Lim said, "I think we definitely could double that." Dubai, he said, lures more than 100,000 annually.

For one thing, the ADTA aims to view the Chinese market intricately rather than simply as a blob.

"I think people look at China and think it's a mass market, a low-hanging-fruit market, but I think every time we come to China you see the level of sophistication and consumerism rises," he said. "Our position toward the high end of the market is something moving very well in tandem with this stopover."

When the previous edition of the race stopped in Qingdao in 2009, Lim said, crowds numbered fewer than half those in Sanya.

"In a short three years," he said, "I've seen for myself the level of knowledge and sophistication. That's important to bear in mind. We don't look at China as just a mass market. We know they want to experience destinations they have never experienced."

By Sunday noon, the crowd had massed again as the group performed the Harbiya, softly chanting their patriotic lyrics, for which they have become the first group to mingle Arabic and English, Al Magbali said. Spectators raised cameras. Hubbub reigned. Al Maqbali smiled brightly from the stage upon his turn in front.

In turn, this subset of the 35-strong Saqoor Al Maqabeel group had found frontier themselves.

"The mountains, the weather, the greenery, the nature," the 14-year-old Mohammed said through an interpreter, who then said, "He thinks the accent sounds a bit funny to him."

Said Al Maqbali … "It's the first time I've seen clouds like this, and no rain."

cculpepper@thenational.ae