Dubai: Abu Dhabi yesterday launched a Dh11.5 billion eco-tourism project - Desert Islands - combining six nature reserves spread across eight islands, including Sir Bani Yas, Dalma and Discovery, an e-mailed statement said.

"Development of the destination will be phased ... estimated total investment from both the government and private sector will be more than $3 billion (Dh11.5 billion)," the statement said.

"When fully operational, the Desert Islands are expected to generate Dh1.2 billion ($326 million) in tourism revenue annually, and create around 6,500 jobs."

World-class destination

Desert Islands will attract around 250,000 visitors when the first phase is completed in 2010, rising to over a million a year by 2017.

All these islands will be linked by a ferry and hydrofoil service, water taxis, private resort boat service and regional and sea planes.

"This project embodies Abu Dhabi's ambitions to develop its islands and other natural resources in line with the guidance and vision of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to progress the tourism sector in the UAE capital," General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, said in a statement.

"Such projects will contribute to the generation of career and training opportunities for UAE nationals. This will be a world class tourism destination with local, regional and international appeal and one which will be developed in line with the environmental and heritage legacy laid down by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan."

Designed as a sanctuary of nature and authenticity unique within the Arabian Gulf, the Desert Islands will significantly raise Abu Dhabi's international tourism standing creating a singular destination with experiences rivalling those of the Caribbean and the Maldives.

The strategy will be holistic and cover power, water, infrastructure, waste management and recycling to energy building standards, and tourism-related elements. It will utilise solar and wind solutions throughout.

The Desert Islands experience will begin with the 'Marsa Jabel Dhanna' gate, which will include a 150-room beachfront hotel, in Jabel Dhanna, 250 kilometres from Abu Dhabi, which will be the destination's arrivals, departure and logistics hub.

The 87 square kilometre Sir Bani Yas Island, which lies eight kilometres off the mainland, is the heart of the destination. Sir Bani Yas is approximately the same size as the South Atlantic Ocean's Ascension Island or Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

It is also home to 68 species of birdlife. Along the island's shore are sandbanks, inlets and mangrove-fringed inter-tidal lagoons frequented by flamingos, sea gulls and cormorants.

Safari park

There are also two freshwater 'bird lakes' where wild fowl gather. Other birdlife which can be spotted on the island include pintails, shovelers, blackwinged stilts, teals, crab plovers, avocets and grey herons.

The Arabian National Park, which will be home to free roaming animals, will take up more than three quarters of the entire island with resorts, eco-lodges and campsites and, at its centre, the Falcon Lodge Peak, where visitors can take lessons in falconry in a spectacular setting with entire island views. Tours of the National Park will be by jeep, cycle and hiking tracks and hot air balloons.