Etihad celebrated its seventh birthday this week with the ultimate recognition from the travel industry: it is officially the best in the world. The World Travel Awards, which took place on the opening evening of the World Travel Market in London, named the national carrier for the UAE as the World's Leading Airline for the second consecutive year. It also scooped first prize for best first class. The awards are based on votes cast by 185,000 travel agencies, tour companies and tourism organisations in 162 countries.
Within hours of getting the awards the airline had e-mailed its guests to tell them the good news, and a delighted James Hogan, the CEO, said afterwards: "To win this award two years running is a phenomenal and unprecedented achievement for an airline that is only seven years old."
It was an evening in which UAE successes dominated the awards, with 16 going to the Emirates, including the world's "leading tourist board" for the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Hotels in the UAE also did well in the awards, with the Burj Khalifa being awarded the leading tourism development project, the Burj al Arab the leading hotel, The Address Downtown Burj Dubai the leading landmark hotel and Emirates Palace the leading meetings and conference hotel.
Once again, the Abu Dhabi stand was one of the biggest and busiest at the event. And 2011 will be a landmark year for the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), as it opens six hotels in conjunction with some of the best-known international brands. St Regis will be the first of nine five-star hotels to open on Saadiyat Island, followed by Park Hyatt. The others are Rocco Forte, Eastern Mangroves, operated by Angsana Hotels, part of the Banyan Tree group, Westin Hotel and Spa and two more lodges on Sir Bani Yas Island. Together they will add 1,600 more hotel rooms to the capital. The ADTA is aiming to bring 1.9 million visitors to Abu Dhabi next year, staying in 5,000 hotel rooms.
Other Middle Eastern destinations doing well are Jordan and Lebanon. Both have seen considerable growth this year. In the downtown area of Beirut, Hilton is due to open in a few weeks, and Kempinski and Grand Hyatt in 2012. Jordan is experiencing a revival of interest, with a 20-per-cent increase in tourist numbers year-on-year. As well as huge new developments in Amman city centre, three huge developments in Aqaba are in the pipeline: the first, Saraya, opens next year with five new hotels. Currently, tourism accounts for 14.5 per cent of the country's GDP, and the country is confident that it will increase to 25 per cent in the next 10 years.
World Travel Market boasts that it is a reliable indicator of major trends and developments in the industry, and so the choice of the managing director of Boeing, Jeff Cacy, as the man to open the 2010 show is significant. Its revolutionary 787 Dreamliner is primed to transform the industry. In light of what has happened to Airbus's A380, with both Qantas and Singapore Airlines grounding their A380 fleets, the timing could not have been more appropriate, although Fiona Jeffrey, chairman of WTM, says: "before we knew anything [about the A380], we had already invited Boeing Dreamliner to participate here. The fact is, I see Dreamliner as a major development in aviation."
Technological advances mean that the 787 will use 20 per cent less fuel and, says Cacy, will present passengers with a better experience - cleaner air, greater humidity, larger windows, more space for belongings, coloured LED lighting and increased cabin pressure are designed to make the Dreamliner "the most comfortable aircraft on the market".
Increasingly the focus of WTM is on responsible travel, with most countries pushing their eco- and social credentials whenever they can. Wednesday was designated World Responsible Travel Day and came with its own awards ceremony, which provide a string of fascinating stories. The most heart-warming came from this year's winner, Nihiwatu on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba.
Opened nine years ago, the 186-hectare estate consists only of six bungalows and two villas. With 14 rooms only 600 people can occupy in a year, it manages to donate an average of $400,000 annually to a range of health, education and economic initiatives. The money is channeled through Sumba Foundation, set up by an American couple, Claude and Petra Graves, whose original concept had been the traditional one of giving a percentage of the profits to community projects. But once they started they realised it would not come close to doing what was needed. As well as huge infrastructure projects, the foundation employs 200 local people.
"The truth is, we have become the economy," says Claude Graves. The scale of help is astounding: among other things they run five clinics, provide health care to 18,000 people, support 14 schools and organise a programme that gives 2,000 children healthy lunches. Guests are encouraged to help both financially and with their expertise. Holidaying dentists have treated 13,000 villagers, and plastic surgeons and are invited to stay and carry out relatively simple operations such as for cleft palates; similarly, eye surgeons remove cataracts while staying at the resort. "It's amazing how generous our guests are. You would never be able to do what we have done by just using profits," says Graves.