x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Abu Dhabi: the Volvo host with the most

Knut Frostad notes number of Emiratis joining tourists and expatriates at Destination Village for festivities.

Knut Frostad, chief executive of Volvo Ocean Race, says Abu Dhabi's dhow racing heritage attracts visitors to the Destination Village.
Knut Frostad, chief executive of Volvo Ocean Race, says Abu Dhabi's dhow racing heritage attracts visitors to the Destination Village.

ABU DHABI // The strong local culture of dhow racing has boosted interest in the Abu Dhabi stop of the Volvo Ocean Race, its chief believes.

"I haven't met any Emirati who doesn't know what sailing is," said Knut Frostad, the race chief executive. "If you made a book of the local culture here you'd include a picture of dhow racing. I think it's part of their DNA. That is my impression," he said.

Mr Frostad said he came into port with high expectations.

"There is no secret the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority - and Abu Dhabi - is well known for staging good events and most of the things I see them do are very good.

"You always have some fear that when doing a new site whether everything would be ready on time. Here we had to dredge a lot and do the site, but my biggest unknown was whether the public will show up," he said.

He had nothing to worry about. Close to 73,000 people have visited the Destination Village on the breakwater, which puts organisers on track to reach their target of 100,000.

"This is the first time we have a stop-over on the race that is level with the start port, which is normally the biggest. Normally we invest more on the start and the number of guests we have in Abu Dhabi is the same as what we had in Alicante," he said.

The five 70-foot yachts participating in the around-the-world race, which made port last week, move on to China on Saturday afternoon. The sixth boat, which has had rigging problems, will arrive in China by container.

Mr Frostad said: "Three years ago, Cochin, India, was a race port. Despite a strong culture of fishing and boats, there was no history of racing.

"Now we have the first introduction of our sport to Abu Dhabi; that will make it easier. I wouldn't be surprised to see quite a few more Emiratis sailing on the boats", in the next season.

Most boats are crewed by several nationalities, regardless of the origin of the team. The Telephonica team is a bit different, and is perceived as a Spanish boat because it has five Spaniards among the 11-man crew.

"If we get four or five Emiratis, it would be fantastic," Mr Frostad said.

Adil Khalid is the only Emirati aboard Abu Dhabi's entry, Azzam. Butti Al Muhairi, also an Emirati, is on the shore team.

One goal of the race is to encourage sailing and leave a lasting appetite for the sport.

"When we go somewhere, we build some kind of legacy and some people don't see us as just a show like flying balloons or motorbikes; just entertaining. If that's what we are, we just become a roadshow and struggle to build an audience and that's our objective," Mr Frostad said.

Overseeing for the second time the gruelling 38,000-nautical mile race that will cross five oceans, Mr Frostad said the main challenge faced when creating the Destination Village was space.

"One thing unique in Abu Dhabi is you are developing the country and in particular, the waterfront. We came into Abu Dhabi three years ago and nothing of this existed. We said we would love to be there [on the breakwater] and they said it's possible," he said.

He said Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) told him the capital was in its development phase and, as a result, the buildings will be become the new home to the Abu Dhabi Yacht and Sailing Club long after the race leaves.

Kari Knight, the events operations manager for Puma, said the Destination Village was built with the fan in mind.

"You can see the water on both sides and to see the boats come and dock right in front of the people," she said.

The second host port, Cape Town, did not have a purpose-built fan zone, nor do the other nine hosts.

In South Africa, "we were outside a mall where we had a mixed bag of traffic", Ms Knight said. "People had to pass us either going to the mall or if they were coming here either way. In Abu Dhabi people are making an effort to be here and are here because they want to be here."

Faisal Al Sheikh, the ADTA events manager, said: "We wanted to make the Abu Dhabi stopover a race highlight; this weekend we will make good on that promise. It will be the place to be for sailing fans and fun-goers alike."

Retailers at the village are finding that anything related to Abu Dhabi is selling well.

"Everyone is buying it, that's the most surprising," Ms Knight said. "People I've run into from the sales are those following the race, and locals. The Emiratis are very proud it's here."

According to Ms Knight, the best-selling Puma T-shirts said: "You can park your boat next to my Ferrari."

eharnan@thenational.ae