UAE has emerged as a hub of sports tourism – just look at the 2020 calendar

Hosting the F1 race and rugby sevens at the same time will be an opportunity to showcase the Emirates at its best to visitors likely to arrive for Expo 2020

It has been a busy year of sport in the UAE and Abu Dhabi in particular.

Last weekend, the city hosted the Adnoc Abu Dhabi Marathon, at the beginning of December the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was won by Lewis Hamilton and next week the Mubadala World Tennis Championship returns to the emirate for its 12th edition.

But this is no late-year flourish. In early 2019, the city hosted Asian Cup matches at three football stadiums and Abu Dhabi staged one of the largest and most successful World Games in the history of the Special Olympics. Athletes from up to 200 nations participated and anyone who took part, spectated or volunteered can attest to the infectious energy and incredible spirit that coursed through the country in March.

The two tournaments have been on an informal collision course for years, with the Dubai Sevens traditionally being scheduled around UAE's National Day weekend and F1's calendar pushing into late November

There is no doubt that the succession of sporting events delivered by the city this year – including the ever-green HSBC Golf Championship, the star-studded T10 cricket league and the drama of UFC 242, among others – have helped showcase Abu Dhabi at its best and underline its ability to successfully host a wide range of events.

Last month, the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi collected a World Travel Award in Muscat on behalf of the city, which was recognised in the "World's Leading Sports Tourism Destination" category. Auckland, London, Seoul and Tokyo were some of the other contenders for the award, which considered not only the ability to stage and host major events but also the broader sporting infrastructure and facilities available to visitors.

Sports tourism is regarded as a fast-growing market sector globally and the DCT sees it as a “key area of development” for Abu Dhabi, according to Ali Hassan Al Shaiba, the department’s executive director of tourism and marketing.

Reflecting that ambition, next year’s calendar in just as full and throws up an interesting domestic fixture clash for sports tourists in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Grand Prix weekend begins on Friday, November 27, while the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens kicks off the previous day on Thursday, November 26. The annual rugby tournament will wrap up on Saturday, November 28, while the F1 race is staged on the following day.

The two tournaments have been on an informal collision course for years, with the Dubai Sevens traditionally being scheduled around UAE’s National Day weekend and F1’s calendar pushing into late November.

Members of the South Africa men's team pose for a picture as they celebrate with the trophy after winning the HSBC Dubai Sevens Series men's cup, at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai on December 7, 2019.  / AFP / KARIM SAHIB

It was expected that the events would have a date clash this year, only for the Sevens to announce it would run its 50th anniversary tournament a week later than normal. We now know that they will overlap for the first time in 2020.

Both occasions are special parts of this country's sporting calendar. Two of its crown jewels. Anyone who spends any time at either Yas Marina Circuit over F1 weekend or the Sevens ground during its three-day festival of rugby will attest to the high-quality and superb staging of the events. The Dubai Sevens is rightly recognised as one of the best stops on the 10-city world rugby tour. The Abu Dhabi F1 sets a benchmark for other circuits to aspire to in terms of facilities and visitor experience.

Both weekends showcase the country in the most favourable light at a great time of year and many tourists vow to return to both F1 and the Sevens once they have experienced either for the first time.

While some will question hosting two prestige events on the same weekend, I think there is a solid logic for creating what will be a four-day carnival of top-class sport across two emirates.

The conventional wisdom used to say that you couldn’t or shouldn’t run two big events over the same weekend but as that sports tourism award confirms, the country now competes with the very best and should be unapologetic about the fixture congestion. The UAE is ready and able to stage two of its best events simultaneously.

This time next year, another very special event will be underway, with Expo 2020 Dubai bringing an estimated 25 million visitors to these shores between October 2020 and April 2021. Other developments, such as the cruise ship season growing ever larger each year in Abu Dhabi and Dubai also add to the sense that with record numbers of tourists choosing to spend time in the UAE, they will be looking for unique or interesting trips to make during the course of their visit. What could be more engaging that a "big weekend of sport" across two emirates and four days for both first-time and returning visitors?

For residents, I suspect, it will be an autumn of doing things differently, with many shuttling between the Sevens Ground and Yas Marina Circuit, particularly on the Friday and Saturday of both events, as they seek to catch the highlights of both occasions. Tourists, meanwhile, will be spoilt for choice.

This year, both events were largely cashless environments with spectators putting credit on wristbands to pay for food and drink. A wish for next year’s big weekend of sport would be for both venues to use the same cashless system to make the visitor experience near seamless.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief for The National

Nick March

Nick March

Nick is one of The National’s assistant editors-in-chief. He was previously Comment Editor and editor of The Review section, the paper’s weekly politics and culture supplement. He has been on staff since 2008 and is a regular columnist. He is also the author of a book chronicling the history of one of Abu Dhabi’s older schools.