x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Capital view from a double-decker

Tourists and residents now have the chance to see the sights of Abu Dhabi from the upper deck of an open-topped bus

Big Bus passengers ride past the breakwater during their tour of Abu Dhabi.
Big Bus passengers ride past the breakwater during their tour of Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // "The journey along this road offers some breathtaking views of the city," says the cheery voice piped through headsets. Anees Makbul peers quizzically out of the window at the mélange of roadworks, bulldozers tearing up the tarmac and billowing clouds of dust on Al Salam Street, squints at his map in confusion and turns back to the window again.

It is all too much for Nasser Saad, a banker who, with his briefcase and suit, looks like he really ought to be somewhere else. He has long since given up the battle to stay awake and is snoring peacefully, his head propped up on the back of his seat. Welcome to Abu Dhabi's latest tourist attraction, an open-topped, air-conditioned double-decker bus tour of what one company considers to be the capital's major sights.

The Big Bus Company's vehicles have long been a familiar sight in London, Hong Kong, Philadelphia and Dubai. This week, the buses trundled into the UAE capital for the first time in a bid to attract thousands more tourists a year. Branded with the slogan "We're all over Abu Dhabi", the vehicles will become a familiar sight in the city over the coming months. In London, the home of the double-deckers, tourists see such sights as Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.

Dubai's sights include the Burj al Arab, Ski Dubai, the spice souk, Dubai Museum and dhows along the creek. For Abu Dhabi, the company has designated 11 stops on the two-hour trip, including the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Iranian and carpet souks, the Heritage Centre, a park in Al Markaziyah, the Corniche, two shopping malls and Qasr al Hosn, the 18th-century former royal palace. The palace, however, is currently closed and under renovation, so references to the Etisalat headquarters, Adnec exhibition centre and even the government investment arm Adia fill in the gaps where other sights are lacking.

At Marina Mall, touts in bright yellow shirts rally potential customers to get on board, dishing out a few complimentary tickets as an incentive. Tourists, however, seem a little thin on the ground at the moment. Many of those stepping aboard are residents curious to see parts of Abu Dhabi they know little about. Mr Saad, a 28-year-old Egyptian who has lived in the city for six months, is one of them and has given himself an impromptu day out.

"It is a new idea and I wanted to check out all the places you do not always get to in a taxi," he says. Mr Makbul, 25, a student from India, has been in the country for a month while trying to find a job and says he was waiting for a normal bus service when he spotted the distinctive burgundy-and-cream livery. "I have not seen very much while I have been here and it seemed better to go around like this, as taxis can be expensive. I have always wanted to see the mosque but have not made it that far yet."

As one of the nine buses in operation starts off, passengers plug in their earphones, which deliver pre-recorded commentaries in English, Arabic, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian or Mandarin. The commentary is packed with facts, from the history of the UAE's formation to camel racing to the construction of the mosque and even the Fifa Club World Cup, which takes place next month. The cameras come out as the bus stops outside the glittering white mosque - but although the Dh200 (US$54) hop-on, hop-off adult ticket is valid for 24 hours, no one gets off.

As the bus makes its way down Al Khaleej Al Arabi street, the commentary urges passengers to look through the windows to the right for a glimpse of Aldar's Al Gurm development, nestled among 1.8 million square metres of mangrove reserve. The five-star hotel with three "world-class restaurants" and 72 "luxury homes with private swimming pools" have been "built to blend with the sapphire waters of the Gulf with spectacular views from your own private terrace," the commentary informs passengers.

Unfortunately, anyone casting an eye in that direction is treated to the sight of a few villas clad in scaffolding while under construction and no sign of the as yet unbuilt hotel. Similarly, visitors tempted by the description of Lulu island as a resort with hotels, coffee shops and restaurants are equally likely to be disappointed to find it has been shut for months for redevelopment. And when the commentary encourages passengers at the Cultural Foundation stop to gaze upon the Qasr al Hosn, or White Fort, they are greeted by hoardings that completely obscure the historic building.

Chris Compton, the company's general manager, says: "Due to the complexity of re-recording the language tour with all the different languages, we chose to mention Lulu island now in the hope that it will be completed soon." He says that any inconsistencies are down to filler blocks, "generic Abu Dhabi information that the driver can play at any time if the bus is stuck in traffic or has to be diverted.

"We revised the order of some of these filler blocks to make it more consistent with the current status of the city." At the end of the ride one elderly couple from Texas, who are on holiday while visiting their Abu Dhabi-based son, enthuse: "We wanted an overview of the city as we just arrived yesterday. It is a nice tour and very informative." Mr Saad, who has has woken up long enough to conduct a loud business deal on his mobile phone, agrees: "It has been a very nice way to spend an afternoon."