Maxim Shandarov: about Abu Dhabi`s travel records, mangrove forests and pearl diving
Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate and the capital of the UAE. It has taken only a few decades for fishing huts and sands to give way to luxury hotels, large shopping malls and unique entertainment centers that attract tourists from all over the world.
So what does the Emirate offer to individual tourists and business travellers? What is the way to entertain the most demanding customers in the middle of a desert? What can you do in a mangrove forest? And what does the Abu Dhabi government pay 10,000 euro for? This is what the representative of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism Maxim Shandarov is speaking about in his interview to the informational partner of ABT-ACTE Russia St. Petersburg Forum, the Welcome Times magazine.
‒ Maxim, we all know that the best indicator of success of any travel destination is the incoming tourism statistics. What is the tourist flow to Abu Dhabi from Russia and the ex-USSR countries at the moment?
‒ According to official statistics of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, for the first four months of 2019 33597 citizens of the Russian Federation spent their vacation on the territory of the emirate. It is 35% more than last year`s figures. The data include only those Russians who spent at least one night in one of hotels of the emirate. March was the most successful – the number of Russians in the resorts of Abu Dhabi exceeded 10000, which is as much as 58% more than the previous March. April was also very successful – with the growth of about 22% and the total number of Russian travellers amounting to 9005 persons.
Other countries of the former USSR also demonstrated record figures in the first months of 2019. The travel flow from Belarus grew by 65% (1,616 persons), for Kazakhstan the growth was 78% (5,393 persons), for Ukraine - 33% (7,294 persons), for Latvia and Lithuania - 40% (4,699 persons), for Azerbaijan - 48% (1,002 persons), for Kyrgyzstan - 69% (922 persons). And the record belonged to Armenia - the number of travellers from this country to Abu Dhabi increased by as much as 108% (846 persons)!
‒ The figures are great! What do you attract tourists with?
‒ Of course, the main things tourists go to Abu Dhabi for are the sea, the sun and the sand. Of course, they are not exclusive, but Abu Dhabi has several special features. First of all, we have the well-known Saadiyat beach that is considered to be the best in the region. It is 9 kilometres of white sand only a 10-15 minutes’ drive from the city centre. Second, Abu Dhabi itself, the city where the most tourists hang out, offers lots of places for beach recreation right within the city boundaries – there is a huge embankment 5 kilometres long, where beaches go one after another. So, even if you stay at a city hotel, you can go to the beach.
Besides, Abu Dhabi is quite a compact city, comfortable to travel around. There are no big traffic jams. It will take you 10-15 minutes to get from one end of the city to another.
‒ And what about entertainment? It's not that you spend all the time on the beach.
‒ In Abu Dhabi there is the well-known Yas island. It is entirely occupied with travel attractions. There are several entertainment parks: Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld Water Park and Warner Brothers World Film Park, that was opened not long ago and is based on films made by this studio. You must admit that there is a choice where to go.
Besides, there is a huge shopping mall on the island – the second largest in the Middle East. And there is also a beach there, a promenade, a golf field and the prestigious "Formula 1" motor racing track that hosts the Grand Prix every year.
At the end of 2019 the largest in the world artificial wall for rock-climbing and the most powerful aero-pipe in the world will be opened. Moreover, you can stay at a hotel right there, on the island, – there are 7 hotels at the moment, including Viceroy which is located right near the race track. And several more hotels are going to open.
‒ I have heard you have desert activities. Tell me more about them – they are also Abu Dhabi 's trademarks.
‒ To start with, Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate, and it has a really huge desert territory. I would divide all desert activities into two groups. The first includes one day group tours to the desert with jeep safari in the dunes, camel riding, falcon show, watching the sunset and the sunrise, authentic Arabic meals.
Second, Abu Dhabi has hotel resorts located right in the desert. For example, Arabian Night, which is about an hour`s drive away from the city. It has bungalows in the Bedouin dwelling style, a swimming pool right in the desert, guest meeting areas and animation. You will be offered an Arabian barbecue, performances, henna tattoos. The high point of the day is a big show and a traditional dinner. You can bring a group there, a combined or a corporate one. Very often team buildings are held in such resorts.
This year Jumeirah hotel chain has launched its desert hotel – Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort and Spa. It is a luxury hotel only a 40 minutes’ drive away from the city. They offer all the activities I have mentioned, but there are two advantages: first of all, it is closer to the city (it is the closest desert hotel), and second, it is the highest service level. Jumeirah is a guarantee of high service, after all.
‒ Beaches, the desert … And what about water activities?
‒ Water activities in Abu Dhabi play the main role, along with the desert ones. You can traditionally find them in the Persian Gulf and they include yachting, catamarans, diving, etc. As for unusual ones, I would point out a tour to mangrove forests that you can find in Abu Dhabi.
By the way, mangrove trees are the only trees that can survive in sea water and get nutrients from it. They grow in the coastal zone where there are high and low tides. During the high tide you can get into a kayak and go right between the trees.
Near Abu Dhabi there is a big mangrove wood, Anantara Mangroves hotel is located there. Right near the hotel there is a quay, you get into the kayak and follow the guide into these mangrove thickets. You can hold team buildings, quests and other activities there as well.
The second interesting water entertainment is more cultural and cognitive, there is no physical activity in it. It is pearl journey. 200-300 years ago, when Abu Dhabi was a village, people used to go pearl diving. They went out to the sea by boats and dived. And now anyone can get into a real dow boat that is 100 years old and go to sea. Of course, the boat has been renovated, everything is comfortable, tourists sit on carpets on the deck, and the guide (there are already, by the way, Russian-speaking ones) tells everyone how pearls are obtained. At the end of the journey all the participants pull out a net with pearl shells together, and everyone gets such a shell with a pearl as a souvenir.
‒ You are speaking about hotels a lot. And is there in Abu Dhabi a landmark hotel?
‒ There several hotels of this kind in Abu Dhabi. But the one which is the symbol of Abu Dhabi is Emirates Palace. Sheikhs started building a palace for themselves, but then decided to make it a hotel. And it has become the most luxurious hotel in Abu Dhabi.
It is the official hotel for all the delegations, presidents and kings. In the hotel there are special VIP-zones, the whole floors for privileged guests. Emirates Palace has a huge territory of 100 hectares right in the centre of the city, near the presidential palace, a luxurious beach, a golf field, a football field, runways. The most interesting thing is that anyone can come to the hotel, visit the lobby, see the luxurious atrium with a beautiful chandelier, the fountain zone that is illuminated in the evening. The only thing you should keep in mind – there is a dress code, pants and shorts are not allowed, you should wear at least plain trousers.
Right opposite to Emirates Palace there is the landmark hotel Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. On the upper floor there is a sky deck, 300 metres above the sea level, with panoramic windows. You can see the whole Abu Dhabi from there.
‒ As I understand, emirate authorities do a lot to promote tourism. Can you tell us how the government influences the growth of the tourist flow?
‒ First of all, it is the work of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Everything we do is to influence the growth of the tourist flow. Our work is mainly aimed at training travel agents and tour operators.
We explain to agents that Abu Dhabi isn't more expensive than Dubai, at the same time the price and quality ratio is at the high level, and hotels are new. At the moment many hotels have the “all inclusive” and “full board” systems. At the end of 2018 a Rixos hotel was opened, and it uses the “ultra all inclusive” formula. The hotel is not cheap, and nevertheless, there is always a large number of guests, a lot of them are from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus.
Apart from work with travel agencies, we maintain relations with the press, corporate groups and direct customers. We regularly hold series of events in various cities and countries, place special informational stands in shopping centers, work with associations and participate in their specialized events. For example, on August 23 we will present Abu Dhabi`s business travel facilities at ABT-ACTE Russia St. Petersburg forum.
‒ By the way, as for business travel - I have heard you have special government support for groups and events.
‒ Yes, we do. The point is that if you bring a group, you get direct support from the state budget. In short, groups of 50 persons and more get the support of a minimum of 100 dirhams per person (approximately 25 euro), that you can use to purchase various services – to pay for a gala dinner, a desert activity, conference room rental and others.
The larger the group, the greater the support is. For example, a group of 201 persons and more gets the support of as much as 50 euro per person (thit is not less than 10000 euros). You choose an option, and we pay for it. But the main condition is not less than a 2 nights` stay on the territory of Abu Dhabi emirate at any hotel.
Interviewed by Olga Dedova