Mubarak Hamad Al Muhairi, Director General, Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) and Managing Director, Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) Image Credit: Supplied

Block your calendars for New Year 2012 now. You're going to be in Abu Dhabi, so it's best you make those hotel reservations quickly.

Mubarak Hamad Al Muhairi, the man charged with realising the emirate's tourism ambitions, says the UAE capital is preparing for a party unlike any other. The centrepiece of the experience is the Volvo Ocean Race, the third leg of which comes to our shores for about two weeks from January 1.

Formerly called the Whitbread Round the World Race, the 11-edition-old event, which comes to the Middle East for the first time, is expected to bring in some 100,000 spectators (about 30 per cent of which are projected to be international visitors), deliver some 40,000 hotel room nights and position the emirate as a preferred winter sailing destination.

"This promises not only the magnificent sight of those yachts berthing here, but a range of activities and entertainment, which we are busy planning to ensure that this New Year in Abu Dhabi we deliver a welcome that will remain with the competitors, the media and their international supporters for many years to come. Of course, we anticipate that the local and regional community will get fully behind the race and they show up in Abu Dhabi this New Year's Eve and New Year's Day," the Director General of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) tells GN Focus. "We will mount a multi-activity, citywide activation, which will include headline international concerts and a wealth of interactive edutainment, activities, comprehensive sailing programmes and emirate-wide schools initiatives."

Action aplenty

It might be the better part of a year away, but the event has been in the planning since last May. It's this sort of long-term attention to detail that has transformed the city into a world-class sporting and entertainment capital, with a series of high-profile events serving both to promote the destination and to reinforce the message that Abu Dhabi is where the action is.

Besides hosting three Formula One races each year — motor racing, power boating and the Red Bull Air Race, often referred to as the F1 of the skies — the emirate's annual sporting calendar includes an all-star tennis championship and a $2m golf tournament. Its arts diary is equally busy with such headline grabbers as this weekend's Womad (World of Music Arts and Dance), the Abu Dhabi Classics series that has brought the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Zubin Mehta, Sarah Chang and Cecilia Bartoli to our shores.

Sometimes it seems like there's so much going on, it's hard to keep track — or to fit in enough trips to the capital. The annual Gourmet Abu Dhabi, held each February, is a magnet for Michelin-starred chefs, while November's Abu Dhabi Art brings in some of the world's biggest galleries and collectors. Cultural events such as the Liwa Date Festival and the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, have given expats and residents alike a tangible way of relating to the UAE's heritage.

And despite a depressed regional economy, a long line of A-list acts took to the emirate's stages in the last six months alone, including Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Guns N' Roses, Prince and the Jonas Brothers. That's a long way from the emirate's one-time reputation among Dubai folk as a village with no entertainment.

All of this heavy-duty event scheduling is part of a 185-page master plan aimed at diversifying the UAE's dependence on hydrocarbons by turning the city into the Gulf's biggest tourism destination within the next quarter-century. Already, the emirate is welcoming more tourists than ever before, numbers that are growing at unprecedented rates. In 2010, for instance, one of the most challenging years for the industry, more than 1.8 million visitors stayed in Abu Dhabi's 114 hotels and hotel apartments. �This is an 18 per cent increase over the previous year that was achieved partly because of the opening of golf courses and theme parks, including Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.

This year's target, already revised once, is a mere 10.5 per cent rise, to two million hotel guests this year. "Our destination rose to the challenge in 2010 and we believe we can do it again," Al Muhairi says.

In 2011, the ADTA expects tourism to account for 11 per cent of the emirate's non-oil GDP, itself 45 per cent of the total pie. According to data from the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, total GDP in 2011 is estimated at $70.3 billion. By 2015, the authority hopes tourist inflows will climb to 3.2 million, reaching eight million in 2030.

The way ahead

Over the medium term, the next five years will be key to consolidating and building on these recent gains. Piling work on the Louvre Abu Dhabi is now complete, and the stunning Jean Nouvel design is on schedule to be finished and operational by the end of 2013, Al Muhairi says. Over the following two years, the other pearls that will see Saadiyat Island become the world's largest concentration of cultural institutions (including the Zayed National Museum and Frank Gehry's $800 million Guggenheim Abu Dhabi) should be complete, with openings planned by 2015.

Look ahead to 2030 and the importance of the Volvo Ocean Race comes into focus when juxtaposed against the emirate's long-term diversification plan. It calls for a total of 45 marinas with a total capacity of 10,000 luxury yachts — only six are currently up and running, and seven more are in development. The Saadiyat Marina alone will berth 1,000 pleasure boats, many of which will come to the first international arm of Monaco's super-luxury Société des Bains de Mer beach club.

Impressive numbers indeed, but how will the destination reach its targets? Al Muhairi says several factors will contribute to its growth.

"[By 2015] we will be a preferred home port for a number of blue-chip cruises operators. Destination growth will also be driven by increased air access to Abu Dhabi, a significant proportion of which will emanate from the expansion of Etihad Airways," he says.

"We have our foot firmly on the pedal in terms of marketing and promotion. For example, the second phase of our global marketing campaign is now rolling out and we have several country-specific initiatives, such as a deal with TUI, one of the big European travel groups, which will see us stage joint promotions over three months from June."

And events will continue to be a key plank of the strategy, he adds, given their role in delivering a well-rounded offering to visitors and building a reputation for the capital as a hotspot for talent. Several new investments are being investigated, he adds, that will deliver on the sporting and arts fronts.

But while those announcements remain to be made, for now, there's that ocean race to look forward to.