Abu Dhabi makes a splash in London

Traveller's world Abu Dhabi was the star attraction at the World Travel Market exhibition in London last week.

World Travel Market London  2008
Dani Minogue  (Photo Courtesy Adrian Pope)
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There was something rather strange about leaving Abu Dhabi for London last week and arriving at the World Travel Market to discover that of the 200-plus countries vying to make their mark, Abu Dhabi had the most visible presence. It was bit like discovering your local team is not only competing in the premier league but is emerging as the likely winner. It was quite possible to be blissfully unaware of the American, Russians and Chinese, but not so Abu Dhabi. The largest gathering of the global travel and tourism industry was greeted by the distinctive Abu Dhabi logo emblazoned on the vast docklands site.

Inside, the Emirate occupied prime position in the Middle East zone, itself one of the main draws as the biggest emerging market. It wasn't entirely surprising, as the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Company is the new owner of the US$62 million ExCeL centre and the tourism authority, ADTA, was the major sponsor. But the timing was also perfect: by the time Abu Dhabi's most ambitious tourist projects are completed, it is hoped that the IMF's predictions for global economic recovery will be realised and people will be spending again. Yet despite Abu Dhabi's future plans, demand today is already outstripping supply.

In London no-one talks of anything else these days but the financial downturn, meltdown, inflation, fuel prices and falling disposable income. Abu Dhabi may not be completely immune to the global economy but it currently has the problem that other cities yearn for. The simple job of trying to get a hotel bed requires either long term planning (not my strong point) or serious begging. Hotel networking has become the new pastime for professionals who traverse back and forth. Last Saturday afternoon I watched The Shangri-La float a huge banner in the sky advertising itself at the very moment the frontdesk told me that full occupancy meant they could not extend my stay.

The job for ADTA and the 50 associated stands at WTM was therefore a tricky one. Until a few months ago public awareness of Abu Dhabi in Britain was very low. The purchase of Manchester City probably did more in Britain than anything else to put it on the map, but the exercise in marketing and brand awareness has to take into account that there can be no immediate delivery. Everyone else was worrying about inflation but on the Abu Dhabi stand the worry was about inflating expectations.

The same went for the staff at Aldar, who were promoting their dizzyingly grand plans for future resorts and theme parks but were nervous of pushing too hard too early. ADTA's director general has gone on the record as saying that overseas promotion is a key strategic business priority. The aim is to almost double the number of visitors coming here in the next four years - 2.7 million visitors in 2012 as against 1.5 million this year.

The glamour at the show was provided by Etihad, whose international sports sponsorships provided them with a stream of visitors including Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda of Chelsea Football Club and De Wet Barry and David Strettle from Harlequins Rugby Club. The greatest excitement however was provoked by the visit of Dannii Minogue to their stand. Currently featuring in one of the UK's most popular TV programmes, the X factor, she has never visited Abu Dhabi but she will be the face of the airline's new direct route to her hometown of Melbourne which launches in March. "When I come to Abu Dhabi I want to ride on a camel," she told me. "Everyone talks about the shopping but I am not a girlie girl in that way - I am much more excited about the camels."

Just across the way, Emirates Airline, which has for so long been the darling of the tourist industry, saw many of the accolades it had won in the past being handed over to its younger sister. In the last few weeks Etihad has won leading airline, leading first class and leading travel website at Middle East World Travel Awards (WTA) and James Hogan was named CEO of the year at the CEO Middle East awards (ITP). At the British Travel Awards, which are handed out at WTM and is the largest travel awards programme in the UK, voted for by 60,000 travel agents, Etihad was named Airline of the Year. It was also the airline travel agents most recommended for long-haul trips. Not to be completely outdone, however, Emirates' new superjumbo, the A380, was creating a lot of interest. Its inaugural flight from Dubai to London Heathrow takes off on Dec 1 and boasts on-board shower spas, and an on-board lounge and private suites in First Class.

Still on the subject of flying, the Middle East's only dedicated private jet airport got a new name this week and a huge injection of cash. The new identity of City Airport, Abu Dhabi is designed to communicate the airport's central location at Al Bateen, a 10 minute drive from the Corniche.

The private jet market in the Middle East is expanding faster than anywhere else in the world and ADAC is spending $54m in additional facilities to provide a "seven-star" service and increase stand capacity from 50 to over 120 spaces.