Abu Dhabi in 2008 was a frontier market in financial terms and in other ways, too. Coming here for work felt like something of a gamble, a search for new markets of meaning and geography. I was excited by the geography; not least as the handy regional and global travel hub it was but also of the islands I was living on. As a colleague once remarked, being on Abu Dhabi’s main island was how you imagined Manhattan was in the 1600s; rough, raw and in the tangible process of development.
Although it was already home to a hardened band of expats, few people I knew outside the UAE seemed to have heard of Abu Dhabi. This had its advantages – on Etihad flights you’d have a whole row of seats to yourself: there was no need to upgrade as economy felt like business class. There were no taxi queues at the airport. The streets were quiet and you could drive across the city in five minutes if you got a run of green lights. From my shared apartment in Khalidiyah I’d get a taxi to Ras Al Akhdar, to the left of Emirates Palace, on a Friday morning. You could park directly behind the island’s most beautiful beach. It felt like the Maldives and I once swam next to a dugong. Then I’d walk back under the ring of date palms behind the beach, sometimes stopping to fill up a bag of them.
Those halcyon days didn’t last long: the area soon closed with the building of the new presidential palace. Yet it wasn’t long before a vast new beach opened on the Corniche and a whole new island, Saadiyat, was unveiled, with an even better, wilder beach. Suddenly, a whole new network of flat, barren islands flanked by mangroves and pristine beaches was unveiled, with a multi-billion dirham highway that made it feel like the Florida Keys.
As a traveller, I’ve had to adapt to all sorts of places quickly, but no place was perhaps so easy to get used to as here. And the widespread use of English, American-style roads, safety and guaranteed sunshine have not been lost on tourists, either. In the time I’ve been living here, most UAE tourism measures have either doubled or tripled. According to the most exact data from the Madrid-based world tourism organization, visitor numbers to the UAE doubled between 2010 and 2016, rising from 7.5 to 15 million. This makes it the 25th most popular destination in the world.
In Abu Dhabi, which counts visitor numbers according to the number of hotel guests and includes domestic travellers, tourist numbers have risen from about 1.5 million in 2008 to almost 5 million last year, and are predicted to reach 6 million by the end of 2018.
Rotana, the capital’s biggest hotel brand, has not only more than doubled its group of hotels to 60, but has expanded internationally during this time. It now operates in 23 cities, as opposed to having just 23 hotels in 2008.
In Dubai, which had over 6.2m hotel guests in 2008 and 341 hotels, its visitor number figure is now a massive 15.8m per year (2017), and there are 681 hotels. Yet this is dwarfed by Dubai International Airport, now the world’s busiest in terms of international passenger traffic with almost 90m passengers last year. They flew to 240 destinations across six continents using 90 different airlines. These passenger numbers are up from about 40m in 2008.
The rate of growth at Abu Dhabi International Airport has been similarly impressive. Passenger numbers have grown from just over 9 million in 2008 to 23.4m last year. The airport now serves 90 destinations in 53 countries. The vast majority of these passengers are flying with Etihad, which has grown its passenger numbers to 18.5m a year compared to 6.2m in 2008; its number of destinations has risen from 45 to 94.
So in many ways, Abu Dhabi is approaching where Dubai was 10 years ago – and that was already impressive since even back then, Emirates served 99 destinations, opened its dedicated Terminal 3, took delivery of its first A380s, had four million Skywards members and became the first airline in the world to make and receive calls. Now, 10 years on, Emirates serves 154 destinations in 82 countries. Last year it alone carried 56 million passengers, up from 22.7m in 2008.
Even more indicative of the transformation that has taken place in the last decade is Flydubai, which only launched in 2009. The airline now operates 1,700 flights a week. In August 2009, the airline celebrated carrying more than 100,000 passengers. In 2017 it carried 10.9 million passengers. Having launched 10 new routes in its first year of operations, it now operates to 95 destinations in 47 countries.
So I, and so many more of us, have still more to tick off.