Driving along Shaikh Khalifa Highway it is evident that the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has grand designs for Saadiyat Island, a landmass representing 27 square kilometres of development in Abu Dhabi which will be completed in phases through 2020, eventually serving as home to an estimated 145,000 people.
Connected to Abu Dhabi City by two ten-lane bridges, the project boasts Abu Dhabi's largest current infrastructure project in the form of Shaikh Khalifa Bridge. Matching infrastructure with ambition, Lee Tabler, CEO of TDIC, is intent on fostering tourism on Saadiyat Island through cultural attractions, while making certain that the right hotels are built to service these new visitors. "By continuing to deliver a series of unique hotels, TDIC, along with its partners, is building on the success of the past four years, delivering a solid hospitality infrastructure that will support our flagship museum projects on Saadiyat Island as they move ahead on schedule over the coming years. Together with Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, TDIC will leverage the positive momentum we have already generated, and we look forward to building Abu Dhabi into an international tourism and business destination through 2011 and beyond," says Tabler.
Divided into seven districts, Saadiyat Island will be well situated for both residents who might potentially commute, and incoming visitors wishing to take advantage of the island's cultural and natural assets. "Each of Saadiyat Island's districts offers a unique experience and each has its own character," explains Mahra Al Qassimi, TDIC's senior communications manager for Abu Dhabi Projects.
"For example, Saadiyat Island's Beach District will be the island's leisure and hospitality hub, featuring nine five-star hotels and resorts on a 9km strip of beach, along with the region's first championship beachfront golf course - Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
"It will also feature the world's first Monte Carlo Beach Club outside Monaco - the Monte Carlo Beach Club, Saadiyat Island."
Among its many attractions, including Saadiyat Beach, Saadiyat Lagoons, and the Saadiyat Reserve which are home to natural marine habitats, the Saadiyat Cultural District represents an ambitious component of Abu Dhabi's push to become the cultural capital of the Middle East.
With the determination of attracting 2.3 million guests to the UAE's capital by 2012, TDIC has a big task ahead in line with its Vision 2030 economic plans. "Saadiyat Island is TDIC's flagship development," says Al Qassimi, "and has been designed to play a key role in realising Abu Dhabi's vision for 2030, helping Abu Dhabi become a world capital with a portfolio of iconic tourism, cultural as well as residential landmarks."
In order to capitalise on this momentum, TDIC has commissioned a variety of hotels, each of which represent a compelling development in their own right, six of which will be delivered in 2011. Overall, Saadiyat Island will play a part in helping to realise Abu Dhabi's strategic goal of delivering 2.3 million hotel guests by the end of 2012. In fact, according to Al Qassimi, this is a key component of TDIC's mission: "[TDIC] was with such large-scale ambitions that Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) was founded in 2006, with the purpose to develop Abu Dhabi's tourism infrastructure and deliver on the strategy of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)."
To achieve their goals, TDIC has commissioned an array of hospitality venues, including eco-themed resorts in the form of Eastern Mangroves and Al Sahel and Al Yamm lodges. To call the other hotels projected for a 2011 launch conventional would be entirely unfair because although they're not environmentally themed, they are each noteworthy in their own right.
Projected hotel launches for 2011 include Park Hyatt Saadiyat Island Hotel and Resort, St Regis Hotel and Residences, Rocco Forte Hotel, and the Westin Hotel and Spa.
Blending beachside luxury and access to world-class golf courses; these developments will augment Saadiyat Island's enviable environmental and cultural credentials with top tier accommodation. Already, TDIC has set a precedent for this, cultivating an impressive roster of completed projects: "TDIC and its partners have already delivered six hotels to the emirate in the past three years," explains Al Qassimi, "including Qasr Al Sarab and Desert Islands Resort and Spa in the Western Region, and, in Abu Dhabi city, Shangri-La Hotel, Traders Hotel, Park Rotana and Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. In September last year we successfully completed phase one of the redevelopment of Hili Fun City theme park in Al Ain, an occasion which coincided with our becoming operators of the park - our first project in the Eastern Region." Clearly, this is a developer that is very adept at getting business done.
While all these developmental activities are on course, it's very evident that environmental motives are embedded in the overall business plan. One important environmental goal identified by TDIC was to protect and promote marine life throughout the development.
As Al Qassimi explains, this meant seeking out the right solution from the start, and partnering with academics to ensure its ongoing viability: "We have invested in the best marine technology developed in Venice, Italy, to introduce pH-balanced artificial reefs in the sea bed in order to encourage natural marine life, and to maintain water quality, we have linked the water channels to the Arabian Gulf as well as to the islands and islets, and the water is continuously monitored for sediments and impurities by Al Ain-based UAE University."
Perhaps no hospitality project on Saadiyat Island encapsulates both the spirit of large-scale development combined with environmentally sensitive building as the appropriately named Eastern Mangroves. Eastern Mangroves will be an integrated hotel resort, marina, retail and residential destination set along a 1.2km stretch of the eastern shore of Abu Dhabi's protected eastern mangroves district, highlighting the Island's natural resources. "TDIC implements sustainability and environmental guidelines in the design, construction and operational phases of all its projects," explains Al Qassimi indicating that while Eastern Mangroves has an ecological theme, it is by no means alone in its emphasis on sustainability.
"In the design phase, TDIC's developments will comply with the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council's (UPC) Estidama Pearl Rating system. In the construction phase, all contractors are required to produce and implement a site specific Construction Environmental Management Plan (CEMP). Eastern Mangroves is a perfect example of this as the project has been carefully designed using modern marine technology and techniques throughout the development process to sustain, protect and enhance the unique mangrove setting."
The development will consist of Angsana Eastern Mangroves, a five-star hotel and spa operated by Angsana Hotels and Resorts, part of the Banyan Tree Group of luxury hotels, as well as three apartment buildings of different designs. Centred on a waterfront promenade with retail and dining facilities, the Eastern Mangroves Resort will be accessible by boat, allowing residents and visitors to arrive in nautical style while enjoying panoramic views of the marsh. The 224-room hotel will rise five-storeys above the shoreline, with a fully glazed façade facing north over the mangroves. By making use of an innovative central energy centre, which will house the project's chillers and other services, Eastern Mangroves is harnessing cutting-edge technology to make the project one of the most energy-efficient in Abu Dhabi. According to Mubarak Al Muhairi, managing director of TDIC and director-general of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), there is reason to believe that the capital's tourism draw is on the rise. "The first eight months of 2010 witnessed a 15 per cent increase in the number of hotel guests compared to the same period in 2009, and with the staging of key events and the opening of new museums, arts and sports venues, along with the attraction of desert culture and beach lifestyle, Abu Dhabi is an increasingly appealing destination."
A different building trend
Heading north towards Dubai from Saadiyat Island, one is next greeted by Yas Island, with its own set of impressive projects. In considering these two ambitious island projects it is perhaps tempting to contrast them with those in Dubai, which rose from the Gulf on the back of no more than an idea.
But what is perhaps less obvious at first glance, is that Abu Dhabi's expansion plans are also characterised by big ideas, particularly in their intent to marry cultural, environmental and economic values that, without careful planning, might be difficult if not impossible to combine.
In Saadiyat Island, TDIC has cultivated an almost utopian vision of an expanded UAE capital, an ideal that goes well beyond mere business concerns and one that will surely be fascinating to watch as it grows.