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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Experience Abu Dhabi like a local: Emirati tour guides to showcase highlights and hidden gems

There are currently nine tours on offer, they start from Dh200 and are open to all ages.

Emirati tour guides Mohamed Al Hammadi and Heba bin Redha. Pawan Singh / The National
Emirati tour guides Mohamed Al Hammadi and Heba bin Redha. Pawan Singh / The National

Imagine being guided through the hidden antique shops and carpet souqs of Abu Dhabi’s old town while an Emirati helps you to nab the best deals.

Or learning about pearl-diving from a man whose grandfather was a diver on the fleets.

And picture yourself walking around a local neighbourhood, visiting the majlis and learning how a typical Emirati household functions.

A new Emirati-led tour programme launched by the Department of Culture and Tourism on Thursday looks to make this a reality.

Emirati Experiences will allow tourists and residents to gain a firsthand insight into Emirati culture, history and heritage. It is led by Mohamed Al Hammadi, Heba bin Redha and Sultan Al Karrani.

Ms bin Redha was inspired to become a guide because of a lack of UAE nationals that were telling the country’s story to tourists.

“Looking around the UAE, we can hardly find Emirati tour guides,” said Ms bin Redha.

“I always hear visitors saying they come here, go around the country and go home without even seeing a single Emirati. This was quite shocking."

Emirati Experiences is set to address that and there are currently nine tours on offer.

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Prices start from Dh200 and are open to all ages.

For example The Pearl Journey will take visitors out to sea where they’ll even get to open a live oyster in search of a pearl.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Palaces of Abu Dhabi tour will examine the origins of the materials, Islamic ideas and beliefs behind the building.

The Wildlife of Al Wathba Wetland Resort will inform people about a wetland where 250 species of birds have been spotted along with 37 plant species; while the Al Ain Museums and Al Ain Oasis tour will take visitors around the Unesco sites of the Garden City.

Antonie Robertson / The National
The flamingos of the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve are particular popular with visitors. Antonie Robertson / The National

“With a tour guide from another country, we felt you’d miss a lot of the genuine and behind the scenes stories that only Emiratis can tell you,” said Mr Al Hammadi, who is the head of cultural communication and partnerships development at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

After many personal tours he had given friends, the seed was planted and he became a certified guide.

Mr Al Hammadi runs three tours in Emirati Experiences, one of which is Carpets and Antiques.

“I go to a lot of shops that are hidden,” he said.

“I will guide them to the right piece. I will negotiate on their behalf because if you go as a tourist prices can be high,” he says with a chuckle.

The shops visited include the carpet souq at Mina Zayed and the maze of old antique shops around Abu Dhabi Mall which can sometimes fly under the radar of tourists focusing on the big sights.

“It’s time for us to focus on the small shops and give them a chance. If tourists don’t visit, then they could close," he said.

For anyone who has walked around the old town, this is welcome news.

There are many old shops, cafes and restaurants that breathe with the history and diversity of the city.

“Everybody has been focusing on the big landmarks but they forget the small experiences,” he said.

Another run by Mr Al Hammadi is The Pearl Journey, which leaves from a jetty by the Eastern Mangroves.

The tour has deep personal significance as his grandfather was a pearl diver who died at the age of 95 in 1998.

As a child, Mr Al Hammadi remembers listening to his grandfather’s stories.

“It was a very difficult way of bringing income in a very harsh environment. When he passed away I felt a responsibility," he said.

Everyone who goes onto the ship can feel what it likes to wear the diving gear.

And everyone gets a real pearl.

Ms bin Redha, meanwhile, runs four of the nine tours.

One is the Local Neighbourhood Walk around the Al Mushrif area - one of the capital's oldest areas. Visitors will gain an insight into what goes on in a typically Emirati-dominated neighbourhood. They will see the mosque, school, an old shopping centre, learn about the sanctity of the family and the vital importance of the majlis.

“We are Emirati and will give [tourists] the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of an Emirati. They can ask direct questions and we will answer them openly," she said.

Any UAE national interested in getting involved with the initiative can get in touch with the department on its website, while there are also imminent plans to launch an Emirati tour-guide training programme.

Emirati Experiences tours is now available for booking at www.visitabudhabi.ae

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