Skift Take

Abu Dhabi has a long way to go to become a destination and not just a stopover. Here are some ideas.

Series: On Experience

On Experience

Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality.

You can read all of his writing here.

The launch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi was a global press event last fall. The event drew fawning coverage from the predictable outlets ranging from the Financial Times to CNN Style to The New York Times and every design and travel publication imaginable.

It had been in the works for some time: The deal originated back in 2007 with a $525 million agreement for the rights to the name as well as management advice and assistance to the tune of nearly a $1 billion more over time.

Observers saw the launch as cultural validation for Abu Dhabi, long seen as Dubai’s more thoughtful, conservative and staid little brother. While Dubai seems to be designed by a 6-year-old with an Amex Black card — think shark tanks and ski hills in the mall — Abu Dhabi was the more thoughtful, considered city.

It would be easy to be caught up in the glamorous, Instagram friendly swirl of the Louvre’s launch event, replete with expensive PR campaigns, influencers shuttled to the location, and a few hyper-impressive architectural details. But upon my visit, I was surprised to observe shoddy build quality, scuffed walls, and entirely flat exhibitions filled with some obvious global hits, but a lot of replicas and a lack of thoughtful curation or any breakout ideas. The other areas surrounding the museum also lacked panache: an uninspired gift shop, which was a let down for the opportunity to sell smart design objects to hordes of well-heeled global travelers, as well as an uninspiring cafe. Instead of being the must-eat lunch destination for locals, it came off as a cafeteria optimized for profit.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, as it stands, is the type of place that gets punched off the list and then never returned to. Despite all best efforts and a world-renowned brand name, it is more style than substance. And while the Jean Nouvel designed structure lends itself to some social media friendly moments, the entire thing feels more empty calories than nourishing.

Contrast this with the Islamic Art Museum in Doha, which lives up to what the Louvre wants to be: a serious overture to culture and architectural innovation. It’s also somewhere that you want to return to on each stop to Doha.

What’s more, the other proposed cultural savior, the Guggenheim Museum, appears to be stuck in neutral after a much-touted press campaign. It doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

While Abu Dhabi is positioning itself as a destination for tourists, it has work to do to go beyond an Etihad stopover en route to other locales. Part of this is leaving behind the borrowed equity strategy: importing Western boldfaced names and focusing more on developing angles of what makes the place, location, culture and history unique. And despite detractors that say it is a soulless place focused on artifice and luxury, there is much below the surface that bears examining.

1. Stop with the large-scale, brand name developments.

Abu Dhabi is getting a Warner Brothers theme park on Yas Island, next to the Ferrari experience. While these might be a draw for a particular type of tourist, they feel a bit empty and a better idea in the boardroom than in practice. It feels like using corporate dollars to build a hyper Westernized version of culture. And it comes off as contrived, and not particularly interesting for the long-term.

2. Focus on actual culture in the region.

Abu Dhabi has some of the most beautiful, inspiring light in the world. And the history and culture of the region is exciting and shouldn’t just be relegated to some half-day dune bashing tour, or quick desert excursion. The history is similar to Singapore in that this country went from a barren patch in the world into something significant in a short period. And the way people lived, traded and existed before air conditioning is quite interesting as well. There needs to be more pride in what has been built and what has happened in a short amount of time as nation-states go.

3. Double down on hospitality and conferences.

Abu Dhabi has had a slate of notable hospitality openings, including the Four Seasons as well as offerings from every top-tier player. Making the city known for being able to stay at the best level of hotels, for a bit more reasonable rate (given the overcapacity) is appealing for those tourists and travelers looking for pampering at less than sticker price. Also, for those that need to hold conferences between their Asia and Europe offices and want a decadent place to put up for a few, with a side of sunshine. In addition, experiences where people can actually experience actual Bedouin hospitality in a real, not stage managed way, are valuable.

4. Double down on Sadiyaat Island.

Sadiyaat Island, the man-made beach development to the northeast of Abu Dhabi is a still under-appreciated opportunity to stay at a well-priced five star on a pristine beach. Most of the world, aside from the hordes of Germans that descend for some sun and light in the depths of a European freeze, don’t yet know about it.

5. Finish the airport.

The hyper-delayed Midfield airport will bring a much-needed boost in capacity but also international style and glamour to the city. The current airport is a bit long in the tooth, and no matter how beautiful Etihad’s cabins claim to be, the end to end experience is far from what Emirates is offering with their dedicated terminal down the road.


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Tags: abu dhabi, On Experience, tourism

Photo credit: The Louvre in Abu Dhabi opened last fall to much fanfare, but much more needs to be done to make UAE a real destination. John Campbell / Flickr

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