Transport officials plan an ambitious expansion of the transport network on the sea.
Island hopping ... the best way to commute
ABU DHABI // When Idrees Jassim Ali was born on Dalma Island two decades ago, modern ferries had not yet been introduced to the emirate. For the 40-kilometre trip to the Abu Dhabi coast, he would have to get on a wooden boat that was unshaded and unable to withstand even the weakest winds.
"Boats before were much smaller and not as strong; they could easily flip," said Mr Ali, 21. "Timings were also limited, and trips were only available at 6am. Things are much better now."
Mohammed Farrah, a ferry office operator, said the older boats could not accommodate the number of passengers who wanted to commute to the mainland, with cars carried separately. These ships were unsafe and would often take three to four hours to arrive, he said.
Twenty years later, there have been significant changes. Large, air-conditioned ferries can carry 200 passengers and 50 cars at a time and can now transport Mr Ali and his family safely from Dalma Island to the Ruwais peninsula in 90 minutes.
For Dh20 per person and Dh100 per vehicle, passengers can enjoy smooth and regular trips to and from the island, with services provided twice daily on weekdays and three times a day on weekends.
This is the first of many water routes the Department of Transport (DoT) has planned for the emirate. Expansion of the water transport network across Abu Dhabi's 200 islands over the next 20 years will ensure the emirate's growing population will have access to a comprehensive, sustainable mode of transport, DoT officials said.
According to feasibility study results recently released by the DoT, by 2030, daily ferry users are expected to reach 58,000 - 1.5 per cent of the total 3.8 million expected commuters. This is in addition to 7,000 users among an estimated 31,000 visitors who will visit the emirate every day.
The study indicated that water transport is a viable alternative transport system for Abu Dhabi given its geography, while the low operational cost and flexibility of ferries will add to the appeal.
The Water Transport Master Plan will, in the short-term, introduce shuttle services to ferry locations. Medium- to long-range plans, with a time scale of 10-20 years, involve extending the lines and terminals according to demand.
Initial routes will begin to Reem Island and along the Corniche in late 2013 and will later extend to Yas Island, Saadiyat, Sowwah and Lulu islands. Water taxis are planned to accommodate up to 12 passengers, and ferries up to 100.
Car and passenger ferry services between the mainland and Dalma Island started operations in March 2010. In the first year, over 88,000 passengers and 20,000 cars were transported using this service.
However, in order to take advantage of the offering, passengers must make the 250km trip from Abu Dhabi city to Port Mugharak in Al Ruwais. While passengers are grateful for the comfortable ferry service, many say a trip directly to the heart of Abu Dhabi would be more practical.
Ghassan Yasin, a restaurant owner from Syria, has lived on Dalma Island for nearly 32 years. He commutes to Abu Dhabi city about five times a month.
"We spend an hour and a half on the boat, and then another two and a half hours in the car before we reach the city," he said. "It can get very tiring. But the good thing is, on the ferry you can just sleep until you reach land."
Capt Nicklier Salvador, the ferry operator, said that direct trips to Abu Dhabi city are in the works. The average number of passengers is around 60 on weekdays, and 100 to 120 on weekends, he said.
Operating the Dalma ferry since it launched, Capt Salvador said that trips to the island are usually "smooth sailing".
One issue that poses a challenge for some passengers it the lack of car space on the ferries.
"Sometimes you need to book in advance to guarantee a space for your car," said Reda Megahed, a project manager at Eurostudios.
"Many times passengers come to purchase a ticket, but when they find out there is no space for their vehicle, they turn around," Mr Megahed added.
Meanwhile, he and other passengers agreed the expansion of the water transport network would prove helpful to Abu Dhabi's residents and visitors.
However Abud Ahmad, a 33-year-old Egyptian electric engineer, said the viability of the planned water ferry network is heavily interconnected with the success of its destinations.
"In order for there to be demand for the ferries, people need to want to go to these islands. Whether it's residential, recreational or commercial, success of these networks depends on what these destinations have to offer."