OUT OF THE SHADOW
Abu Dhabi is to Dubai as Washington DC is to New York, and as the capital of the UAE and the largest emirate in the federation, it has the political muscle. Being the seat of power, however, was never synonymous to being a pacesetter. Tacitly understood but not publicly acknowledged, this is what it wants to become.
With its sleek and glinting city skyline, Abu Dhabi looks and feels much like Dubai minus that trademark “zing”. But it is getting there. In a few short years, it has grown into a multi-faceted city, offering a treasure chest of experiences that evoke the traditional and the modern. Balance your desert safari with a rock concert headlined by one of today’s musical icons.
Meeting planners and corporate event organisers are waking up to the alternative destination right outside Dubai’s door. Based on the 2nd Middle East Meetings Industry Research released in April, Abu Dhabi was placed fourth in the ranks of preferred Gulf destinations for offsite corporate events and functions. Quick to move up the plate, the number of hotel rooms is on the rise and is expected to reach 25,000 by 2012. And the number of new venues is growing while existing ones are expanding. The Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre will be extended to over 55,000sqm when phase two is completed in September.
“What makes a destination stand out is its iconic imagery that is instantly recognisable and immediately appealing. It is the wow factor – the out-of-the-ordinary that is outside the scope of one’s normal experience,” says Padraic Gilligan, managing director of Ovation Global DMC.
Fears that Abu Dhabi will lose its soul are quickly allayed. For one, the centrepiece of the US$30-billion project on Saadiyat Island is a 271-ha cultural district that has been included in the master plan. Now being constructed, this cultural district will recreate in Abu Dhabi – on an even grander scale – the Guggenheim Museum of Spain and the Louvre Museum of Paris. Also being built on this stretch of cultural oasis are the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, a performing arts centre, a maritime museum and a number of arts pavilions. Integral to the plan is allocating places for special gatherings.
To balance the scale, developments elsewhere pay homage to urbanites’ sense of fun – water parks, a Formula One racetrack, shopping malls and many more.
As a destination, Abu Dhabi does charge at a premium. Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, is on the record for targeting what he terms as “cultural and five-star travellers” who tend to spend 10 times more than the average visitors.
Being high-end is not a kiss of death for destinations like Abu Dhabi, according to Gilligan.“Being a luxury and high-end destination, some go there for that reason. In the Gulf, there ‘s never been so much choice as we have now. What is crucial is positioning what you have vis-à-vis what’s available out there,” he observes.
KING OF THE DESERT
For many meetings and incentive travel professionals, Dubai is the first port of call for any corporate trip to the Gulf. Those wanting a more cushioned introduction to Arabian culture can pick no better destination than Dubai, which has mastered the art of leisure and entertainment.
The emirate has provided the blueprint for economic diversification that the rest of the Gulf states want to emulate. With its oil reserves projected to run out in a few years’ time, Dubai’s transformation into an economic and tourism powerhouse has been astounding in its swiftness.
“We have developed a strong adaptability in the last few years that many event planners and meetings organisers have come to appreciate. We are not easily daunted and we go the extra mile to make things happen,” says Frederic Bardin, senior vice-president of Arabian Adventures, one of the leading DMCs in the region.
The company had built an Arabian fort in the middle of the desert for an event that can hold up to 1,800 people. Eventually called the Lisaili Fort, it is now a permanent campsite, which can accommodate up to 5,000. For another client, it rented out a private airport and converted it into a 4km-long highway for an event for a tyre company.
“Companies may want their guests to enjoy the hospitality of a traditional Arabian house at the Al Bastakiya, Dubai’s old quarter. With a good view of the Dubai Creek, guests can enjoy traditional entertainment from belly dancers to henna painting. Also, Dubai offers the unique opportunity to do all three types of skiing – on water, on ice and on water,” adds Bardin.
There is a glut of things to do, see and experience in Dubai. Most destination companies tailor-make their itineraries to balance traditional and modern themes – reminding visitors that Dubai is a cosmopolitan setting.
“In recent months, Dinner in the Sky has been very popular in Dubai with companies looking for a unique dining experience,” observes Louis King of Gulf Ventures. “There is really a whole scope of things to do. There are no restrictions at all. In fact, one of the things that we have began to introduce is camel polo which has proven to be a hit with some of our clients.”
One downside of Dubai – just like for the rest of the Gulf – is the perception that it is an expensive destination. Both Bardin and King are quick to dispute this claim.
“Companies do not do the same exact things and we can package an itinerary to suit their budgets,” says King.
Bardin adds: “We expect a number of three- and four-star hotels will be opened by the major chains and this will give companies more options in accommodation.”
But is Dubai worried about competition from its neighbours? Bruce Mcmillan, CEO of Meeting Professionals International, aptly put it: “As long as the pie is growing, I don’t worry about the competition.”
HEART OF THE ARABIAN GULF
As a business events destination, Qatar is still in its infancy. But the powers behind Qatar’s transformation into a meetings and incentive travel destination know that the heart of success lies in preserving the past.
“We are going ahead with the future but we are preserving our history. We are not getting out of it – our tradition, our culture and our history. We are trying to preserve as much as we can,” says Ahmed Abdullah Al-Nuaimi, chairman of the Qatar Tourism and Exhibitions Authority.
He points out that the Museum of Islamic Art, the largest of its kind, will open in Qatar later in the year for precisely this reason. Designed by renowned architect I M Pei, the 35,500sqm museum will stand as an architectural masterpiece 60m off Doha’s Corniche on a man-made island and will be a showcase of the grandeur of Islamic civilisation. Also, the old city of Doha has undergone a major facelift in a sustained effort to keep the old with the new.
This is great news for companies who are always looking for the uniqueness that only an authentic local flavour can bring to an offsite team building or incentive trip experience.
“A number of international companies have chosen Qatar for conferences and incentives, especially since the range of five-star hotels has increased dramatically, with others to open their doors in the next few years,” says Manikatan A P, general manager of Fal Travelmart.
He adds: “It is the mystique of Arabia that attracts many visitors to the region and what makes an incentive here unique. I must say Qatar’s sand dunes are the best in the Gulf.”
In the past few years, the capital city of Doha has been mastering the art of hosting and organising large-scale events such as the top-level World Trade Conference meeting in 2001 and the 15th Asian Games in 2006. It has put in a bid to host the Olympics in 2016.
The challenge is having enough hotel rooms and space to meet the expected spike meetings and incentive business. From today’s 9,000 rooms, the number is expected to reach 26,000 by 2012. As for venues, construction of the country’s premier meetings and conferences facility – the Qatar National Convention Centre – has begun in earnest and is set to open in 2010.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Nothing triggers wanderlust better than a destination that pulsates with echoes of the past. For all its progress, the Sultanate of Oman exudes an air of antiquity and has the patina of an undiscovered territory.
With its emphasis on quality rather than quantity, only a fortunate few have found their way to Oman. Companies looking to savour an Arabian experience in its purest form with hardly a taint of commerce should come no further.
Old Muscat has a quaint charm with its many forts, castles, mosques and towers dotting the landscape. Of particular note are the Jalali and Mirani forts flanking Al Alam Palace. The Corniche, with its promenade and souqs is one of the highlights of the city. The old souq of Muttrah is an ideal spot for tourists to buy keepsakes and treasures.
There is a strong sense of visual harmony in the city brought about by a zoning law that bans skyscrapers (nine stories is the limit) and compels building owners to integrate Islamic architectural themes into the facades of new properties.
A classic Muscat-based tour of northern Oman includes the forts of Nakhal and Al-Rustaq, the fort and Friday souk at Nizwa, and a mountain trek to a green plateau of pomegranate, apricot and walnut plantations at Jebel Akhdar.
Camp overnight at least once. Immerse yourself in the dunescape of the Wahiba Sands. Several tour operators specialise in tent tours and maintain guest camps. Adventure attractions are not uncommon with Oman rife with natural wonders. You might want to try rock climbing in Jabal Mish. Or try spelunking (the hobby of exploring caves) in Al-Hotah Cave, which features an underground cavern and unique subterranean lake system. Part of this cave system is now equipped for tourism and is accessible to all visitors.
Change is in the air so companies may want to choose Oman for their next incentive trip. A potential for cluster development has been identified in Muscat, Batinah, Sharqiyah, Musandam and Dhofar regions.
The vision is to build a tourism corridor extending from Muscat to Al Sifah. The area is designated for a variety of amenities including a cable car, aquarium, restaurants and a conference centre, involving an estimated cost of US$20 million.
Like many of the Gulf states, the Kingdom of Bahrain has one foot in the future and another firmly grounded on the past. What sets it apart is its open and liberal lifestyle that is a rarity in this part of the world.
This small archipelago of 33 islands has much to offer corporate event organisers and meeting planners who may want to thrill clients with the novelty of a desert island destination.
“Many people think the Gulf states are all the same. Nothing is further from the truth. Each Gulf destination has its own flavour and adds something unique to the Arabian experience,” says Ali Abu Monassar, executive chairman of Net Group.
Net Group is a conglomerate of nine companies providing a range of services for meeting and incentive travel professionals. Its flagship company Net Tours and Travels serves various Middle East destinations – UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen and Saudi Arabia among others.
Packaging three or four destinations in a 10- to 15-day trip has proved to be very popular, particularly among Net Group’s Japanese clients. And as an emerging destination, Bahrain always gets a piece of the action.
Bahrain’s recent infrastructure developments ensure there are enough hotel rooms and venues for visitors to conveniently combine business with pleasure. For one, the US$1.5-billion Amwaj Islands or Juzur Amwaj is a series of man-made islands, including a theme park island, a waterfront shopping mall, five-star hotels, an amusement park, entertainment facilities and a 140-berth marina. In itself, it is already a must-see engineering masterpiece.
Home to the only F1 race in the Middle East, the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix puts the tiny kingdom on the map of racing enthusiasts. Part of the itinerary may include drag racing at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, offering the chance to test one’s driving skills in a range of demanding environments, from 4×4 Xtreme driving on a purpose-built off-road track, to high-speed Caterham driving on the F1 circuit.
“Visitors always want to discover the culture and local tradition. So we always include outings to unique venues that give a sense of place,” notes Monassar.
There are no shortage of historical and cultural places here. The Bahrain National Museum has 6,000-year-old archaeological artifacts. Not to be missed is the Qalat al Bahrain, an archaeological site composed of an artificial mound created by human inhabitants from 2300 BC. A Unesco World Heritage site, it was the capital of the Dilmun civilisation and was more recently a Portuguese fort.
Arrival, multilingual airport escort through immigration, limousine hotel transfer
Lunch at Bastikiya Nights, traditional Arabic Restaurant
City of Gold Tour, city tour including an Abra ride and a visit to the gold, textile and spice souks
Dhow Sunset Cruise and Buffet Dinner, cruise along the Dubai Creek and experience the contrast of Old Dubai and the modern mega city
Lunch at Hatta Fort Desert Resort
Sunset Champagne Stop and Falconry Demonstration
“1001 Arabian Nights”, private dinner encampment with live Arabic music, palm readers, camel rides, henna artists, calligraphers and belly dancers. BBQ dinner with live cooking stations
Breakfast at leisure
Optional activities: golf, shopping, an Arabian experience, a spiritual discourse
Lunch at Aquarium-Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club
Palm Island Tour
Dinner at Al Daqaar revolving restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Hotel
Breakfast at leisure
Indoor ice skiing at the mall
Lunch at Sezzame
Departure, limousine airport transfer
(Prepared by Arabian Adventures)
Arrival and transfer to the hotel
Full-day corporate event/meeting
Dinner at an Arabic restaurant
Overnight stay at the hotel
Breakfast at the hotel
Desert safari aboard a 4×4 drive piloted by Qatari guides
Visit at a Bedouine desert camp for your choice of activity – swimming, sand skiing, camel riding and shisha smoking
Barbecue lunch at the desert
Evening airport transfer
(Prepared by Fal Travelmart Doha)
Dubai International Airport is the main gateway with flag carrier Emirates flying visitors from over 100 destinations in 62 countries. With its open skies policy, major airlines like Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific include Dubai in their route map. Visitors can also come via other airports located within the UAE, most conveniently from Abu Dhabi International, which is about 1.5-hour drive by car or taxi.
Most visitors to Dubai need to get a visa before entering the Emirates. For more information, visit the website at www.dnrd.gov.ae
National airline Qatar Airways links the State of Qatar to the world flying to more than 80 destinations. Doha International Airport is its main hub which is also being serviced by 23 regional and international carriers.
For entry requirements, visit the website of Qatar’s Ministry of Interior at www.moi.gov.qa
Over 34 airlines fly regular flights from Abu Dhabi International Airport to over 150 destinations worldwide, including national airline – Etihad Airways. Visitors can also enter the emirate via Al Ain International Airport, some 160 km from the city of Abu Dhabi. There are currently nine airlines that fly to Al Ain.
Visa on arrival is available for citizens of 33 countries
For information, log on to www.visitabudhabi.com
Muscat International Airport, the sultanate’s largest airport, is the traveller’s gateway to Oman with 23 regional and international airlines on its roster. Oman Air runs direct international flights from Muscat to major Gulf destinations and to 10 destinations in the Indian subcontinent. It also flies to London in Europe and Bangkok in Far
Visitors need a valid visa. For details, see www.omantourism.gov.om
Gulf Air connects the Kingdom of Bahrain to 40 destinations worldwide. Entry point for most travellers is Bahrain International Airport where about 30 airlines make port of call.
Visitors’ visas can be obtained online at www.evisa.gov.bh, or at the Bahrain International Airport and at the King Fahd Causeway for a stay of 2 weeks, at BD 5.000 each (US$3.76).
JUMEIRAH BAB AL SHAMS
An elegant desert resort in a traditional Arabic fort setting, all 115 rooms and suites feature authentic Gulf décor. Not to be missed is its signature restaurant Al Hadheerah, the region’s first open-air traditional Arabic desert restaurant, offering diners a unique experience with scenes straight out of an Arabian legend featuring belly dancers, henna painters, live bands and a falcon display.
THE MONARCH DUBAI
At this first five-star hotel in the coveted address of One Sheikh Zayed Road, guests can expect unrivalled service, only to be expected in a place where the staff outnumber guests 3 to 1. Personal trainers at its state-of-the-art gyms provide wellness assessments and individual fitness plans, while exquisite massages unique to The Monarch Dubai in the Middle East are on offer from the world-leading Mandara Spa.
Who wouldn’t want to stay in a real palace at least once in this lifetime? The iconic Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi gives guests a royal pampering of the mind and body. All 394 stately rooms and suites are an epitome of Arabian splendour topped by the service of a personal butler.
There is no reason to step out of the door for corporate travellers either on business or on leisure when all they need are under one roof: extensive banqueting and conference facilities, high-end shopping, out-of-this-world Anantara Spa treatments, and the lure of a über-private beach.
INTERCONTINENTAL ABU DHABI
Five stars on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, InterContinental Abu Dhabi rests on a prime beachfront less than 10 minutes from downtown and Abu Dhabi International Exhibition Centre. Also nearby are Heritage Village, the Cultural Foundation, Lulu Island and for shoppers, the Gold Souk, Marina Mall and Abu Dhabi Mall. Looking for adventure? The concierge can arrange a 4×4 desert safari.
THE RITZ-CARLTON, DOHA
Located in the commercial centre of Doha, The Ritz-Carlton, Doha combines extravagant elegance with the warmth of a traditional Arabian welcome. The very definition of an opulent Middle Eastern paradise and an idyllic setting, The Ritz-Carlton, Doha features 374 well-appointed guestrooms, each with sea or golf
DOHA MARRIOTT HOTEL
Lose yourself to the tranquility of the private beach, yet be minutes from the airport and Doha’s thriving business district. The promise of an extraordinary stay is met with a world-class spa, the fitness centre, tennis courts and pool. The 1,448sqm conference facility is ideal for business or social events.
THE CHEDI MUSCAT
Designed in the style of traditional Omani architecture, The Chedi Muscat features a 370m private beach. All 156 spacious rooms offer contrasting scenic backdrops of the Gulf of Oman and the Hajjar mountains.
SIX SENSES HIDEAWAY AT ZIGHY BAY
On its own private bay, this brand-new hotel has 82 villas and a spa. It is located in Oman’s Musandam Peninsula, a 3,108sqkm rock spine guarding the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which is an entrance to the Persian Gulf. The main town of Khasab, a 12-hour drive from Muscat but just two hours by car from Dubai, is the base for overnight dhow trips and snorkelling tours in fjords teeming with dolphins.
THE GULF HOTEL
Newly refurbished, this 366-room hotel, at 40 and the grand dame of Bahrain’s five-star hotels, keeps a contemporary pace and never gets out of style. The unrivalled 4,480sqm Gulf International Conference & Exhibition Centre located within the hotel complex is the venue of choice for meetings and corporate events.
BANYAN TREE DESERT SPA & RESORT
The only all-villa private pool resort in the Arabian Gulf, the hotel is close totwo of Bahrain’s landmarks: the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix Circuit, and bordering the Al Areen Wildlife Sanctuary – home of the rare Arabian oryx. The 78 spacious villas are designed to blend perfectly into their natural desert environment. The 10,000sqm uber-luxurious spa is the biggest in the Middle East.