From Formula One racing to a mystery project out at sea, Sheikh Sultan is excited about efforts to solidify the city's reputation as a top tourism draw. He says there is more to come in 2010 - and although he may be too busy to enjoy it all, the world is taking notice.Rym Ghazal reports ABU Dhabi // As one of the main figures behind most cultural and tourism ventures in Abu Dhabi, you would think Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan would get to do some of the fun things. Like, say, get a ride in one of the Formula One racing cars when Abu Dhabi hosted its first Grand Prix in November.
In fact, he barely has had time to enjoy any of it. "There is just so much to do and I never have enough time," said Sheikh Sultan, who was named the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (Adta) when it began in 2004 and has since launched various projects to put Abu Dhabi on the world map. And he is not showing signs of slowing down. "2009 was a very busy year," he said. "We had F1, proving to the world we can host big international events. We also hosted major film and music festivals, and over 60 exhibitions and at least 200 conferences.
"And 2010 will be even busier." Without divulging details, Sheikh Sultan said Abu Dhabi will be setting its sights offshore - on the big blue sea. "We had a lot of things happening on land and in the air, and so we will be doing something very special in the sea," he said, with a smile. "It will be a surprise." Some people may have spotted him watching the skies during the Al Ain Aerobatics Show or the track as F1 cars roared along the Yas Marina Circuit. Others may have seen him shake hands with the world's top athletes, artists and musicians. But it is hard to keep up with Sheikh Sultan.
"Culture and tourism overlap, and encompass a lot of things, from buildings to horses to food to music to poetry and even dance," Sheikh Sultan said. "It is a package." At the age of 39, Sheikh Sultan chairs five other entities: Tourism Development and Investment Company; Abu Dhabi Authority For Culture and Heritage; Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company; Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort; and most recently, the Eastern Region Development Committee.
"While we are still drawing up the plans for the Eastern Region, we hope to focus mainly on developing the human and economic resources there, while paying particular attention to preserving its traditions and natural resources," he said. "It is one of the few places here that still has that 'old way of life' feel about it. "We want to protect that." There are plans to further develop the aviation industry, talks of establishing a foundation for research and development and opening up more tourist attractions, he said.
"When a tourist comes here, there will be something to see and do in every part of the UAE," Sheikh Sultan said. Those tourists will need a place to stay. Hotels welcomed 1.5 million guests last year, and there are plans to expand capacity to 2.3 million by 2012. Despite the worldwide financial crisis, Abu Dhabi pulled through and "carried on" with its planned projects, he said. Adta opened eight offices worldwide, including centres in Italy, France and China, with an office in Russia expected to come on line this year. It is all part of "exporting" the Abu Dhabi brand and reeling in tourists from across the globe.
Sheikh Sultan noted that Abu Dhabi has been listed as one of the top 10 places to visit this year by both the Frommer's and Lonely Planet travel guides. "Not bad for newcomers on the tourism front," he said. For his efforts on transforming Abu Dhabi into a cultural destination, he was awarded the 2007 Cultural Leadership Award by the American Federation of Arts. "The previous years were more about training and setting up foundations, and the next years will be about delivery," he said.
One highly anticipated site for such delivery will be the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island, future home for the Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Sultan said these projects are moving forward as contractors send in bids for construction. "It will be good for the local contractors to work with international and regional ones to gain further experience on building architecturally impressive and challenging designs," he said.
With a background in architectural engineering, he is particularly excited about these projects. "The process of building a well known museum like the Louvre and watching it being put together, in itself will be a great experience," he said. Sheikh Sultan earned a bachelor's degree in architectural engineering from UAE University, and got his master's in economics and a major in international relations from Tufts University in the US.
"Engineering provided me with the analytical skills and the high stamina needed in planning and executing a lot of these projects," he said. After visiting many of the world's greatest museums, Sheikh Sultan says he particularly enjoys contemporary and modern art. He also listens to classical music and local songs as he drives from one meeting to another. "The more I see of other cultures and their national treasures, the more I notice just how similar we all are in our traditions and history," he said.
After the success of F1, Abu Dhabi is hoping to excel in another motorsport, rally racing. Adta announced the debut of Rally Abu Dhabi for 2010 and if it succeeds, Abu Dhabi hopes to have an official World Rally Championship event in 2011. Why motorsport? Sheikh Sultan points to its technological benefits. "Besides its direct benefit of promoting and marketing and bringing everyone together, it's one of the best ways to gain more knowledge over the latest technological advances in cars and their engines and designs," he said.
One of Sheikh Sultan's favourite but smaller projects in 2009 was the Partners in Progress programme that brought together the different parts of the tourism industry in a unified "one destination" approach. "It was great to see all the different representatives of Abu Dhabi tourism, from tour guides to promoters to officials, all in one place," he said. An avid falconer and a fan of off-roading in the desert, Sheikh Sultan rarely has a moment to himself. He spends whatever free time he has with his family.
As a father of five girls and one boy, he tries to instil in his children "an appreciation" for culture, taking them to museums and outings in the desert, particularly Al Ain. "I am biased, I love Al Ain desert, probably because it reminds me of my childhood," he said. Sheikh Sultan said times have changed, and there are far more demands on a child and less time for them to "just enjoy". "Children don't get the chance to spend as much time with their parents as we used to in the past in our own childhood," he said.
Daily demands tend to make culture less of a priority, something Sheikh Sultan is adamant should not happen. "People should not underestimate the importance of culture and tourism, as it is one of the few things that future generations can build on and be proud of," he said. "Sheikh Zayed used to say that people without a past have no present and no future," Sheikh Sultan said. "And that saying is what we live by and hope to always remember."