Abu Dhabi: For Mariam Ahmad Mohammad, the chance to return to the island where her father tended to the animals loved by the UAE's late President Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan was a dream come true.
"My father was the caretaker of Sir Bani Yas… he would look after the island and the animals… he met with Shaikh Zayed whenever he visited to talk about any changes that took place. Growing up, I visited the island regularly with my father and I loved seeing all the animals, especially the giraffes," she said.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication from the UAE University, Mariam returned to Delma Island and enrolled in various courses in the Delma Island Education Centre (DIEC).
"While studying at the centre, I heard about a new tourism programme and when I found out more about it, I was very excited to join… it provided me with the perfect way to enhance my BA skills while also promoting my culture and heritage in a unique, hands-on way," Mariam said.
"My parents were very supportive, especially my father… they're very proud that I am following in his footsteps but in my own way," she added.
The 24-year-old is one of five Emirati women who make up the first batch of students who have graduated from the DIEC's 11-month programme, the Introductory Diploma in Travel and Tourism. The diploma is accredited and certified through the UK-based vocational skills organisation City & Guilds Group.
"We launched this programme because we wanted to encourage Emirati involvement to develop the desert islands into a tourist destination," Mahra Al Qasimi, Senior Communications Manager in Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), said. "Even though our first graduates from this programme are women, it is open to both men and women who are Emiratis. The women have given their feedback and we are considering their suggestions for the next batch, of which we've already begun receiving applications," she added.
The women completed courses in English, tourism, customer service, the presentation of promotional materials, task planning and time management before moving on to an internship at the Desert Island Resort & Spa by Anantara, the signature hotel on Sir Bani Yas, a two-hour ferry ride from home.
Wafa Sanad Al Mehairbi, 21, was studying at the UAE University before enrolling in the Centre. "I loved the programme… it taught me so much, both about the industry and myself… I was a very shy person and wasn't very physically active. But when we had to do our practical training on the island, I had a lot of fun. I learnt to ride a bicycle and through interacting with guests, I became more confident about speaking in public," Wafa said.
"Another great thing about the programme is that while at first the only other person I knew was Mariam, by the time it ended, we all became as close as sisters," she added.
Mariam, Wafa and their fellow graduates, Inaam Yousuf Al Hammadi and Yasmeen Ebrahim Al Hammadi are working as tour guides on the island while their fifth classmate, Shaikha Mohammad Al Ali, is an administrator in the DIEC.
"Being able to do all these activities is amazing, especially since not many people were sure we could be full-time tour guides. Also, we were able to share our culture with international guests who don't know a lot about the UAE"
Wafa said because of the positive experiences she's had, she is trying to encourage a friend to enrol with the next batch.
"We need more Emiratis to join this industry because who better than us to represent our country's culture and hospitality?" Wafa said.
About the Desert Islands Education Centre
The Desert Islands Education Centre was established by TDIC in response to the need to equip local Emiratis with the skills and knowledge needed to be part of Abu Dhabi's tourism industry. It offers more than 50 courses that are conducted by leading local and international education providers, and allows Emiratis to improve their skills through a range of English language, tourism, business, computing, and vocational courses.