ABU DHABI // Vast and empty, Al Gharbia has long been a magnet for those with wanderlust, and many have lost their way navigating the emirate's largest territory.
But with the release of the first guidebook for Abu Dhabi's western region next month, the Government expects Al Gharbia to become a much more inviting destination for curious travellers. The Al Gharbia Visitors' Guide, commissioned by the Western Region Development Council (WRDC), is expected to bring new tourism to the area's 350km of pristine coastline. The 136-page book's pull-out map, chapters on annual events and sections on "undiscovered beaches" are key to giving visitors the chance to discover Al Gharbia's identity, said Gemma Magill, the WRDC's Investment Promotion Officer.
Ms Magill said inquisitive residents have often approached staff at conventions, pointed at the region's ancient interior displayed on touch-screen maps and asked: "Where is this place?" "We've been promoting Al Gharbia now since 2008," she said. "It's just made it so much easier now that it's in a book. I can actually pinpoint camping locations for people now." Such a handbook could also alleviate anxieties about exploring Al Gharbia, said Abdullah al Shwaikh, the communications manager for Western Region Municipality.
"Al Gharbia is a special area. It's big, it's not like the other places," he said. "If you don't know exactly where you are, you will get lost. If you make a mistake, sometimes you'll be in trouble." Kelly Frost, a British fitness instructor, said the immensity of the region dissuaded her from trekking into Al Gharbia for the almost 20 years she has lived in the UAE. "Everybody's raved about it. It could be a right little hidden gem," said Ms Frost, 39. "Having this guide makes sense. They've got guides for everywhere, and it would be great to have an adventure a bit farther afield."
Not knowing the area, she did not venture far from the Qasr al Sarab resort during a recent visit. "So many sand dunes," she reasoned. "It's a shame, really, because it would have been nice to explore a little farther away from the hotel." Tourism is part of an ambitious scheme to spur development in a region that generates one-third of the capital's GDP from its extensive oil and gas resources and is home to the Empty Quarter desert. Even so, only eight per cent of the emirate's population lives within its 60,000 sq km.
"People have heard about these places," Ms Magill said. "In Sila, there's one of the oldest trees in the UAE, and these people said they went there and couldn't find it. When you speak to some locals, they've heard of Liwa but they've never been to the oasis." Explorer Publishers, which will print the first run of the guidebook in two weeks, is counting on heavy interest in the book among residents seeking a different pace of life in the Emirates. Centuries-old forts built by the Bani Yas tribes still mark different communities in Liwa, for instance.
"So much of the press is about Dubai and Abu Dhabi," said Claire England, the associate publisher for Explorer. "People don't understand Al Gharbia as a region, that it's the largest region and has one of the largest deserts in the world. It's a wild, natural landscape within the UAE." Part of the place's charm, she said, is also the possibility of ending up off the beaten track. "It's quite easy to find yourself in the middle of nowhere. We're trying to encourage people not to just spend two nights in a luxury hotel and that's all," she said. "Have a good look around. Meet some of the local people. See some amazing desert."
Salem Basheer, who was born and raised in Madinat Zayed in Al Gharbia, offers daily safari adventures to the region through his Dubai-based company, Gulf Sun Travel and Tourism. "Most UAE tourists don't know about Al Gharbia well," he said. "They don't come often. This will help to promote it." Tourists have also requested trips aboard off-shore oil rigs for spectacular views of the country, he said.
"There are many places that are not discovered yet in Al Gharbia. I think it's getting more popular, but it has to be promoted well," he said. "It's a very beautiful place, so of course we want the tourists to know everything about it." The first 2,000 copies of the Al Gharbia Visitors' Guide - in English and Arabic - were distributed free last week during the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition. The Dh45 guidebooks go on sale in early October.