Abu Dhabi is one of the fastest growing visitor destinations in the Middle East region, offering a vast array of tourism activities, from those seeking religious knowledge and experiences to those simply looking for thrills.

In 2012, Abu Dhabi welcomed 2,388,023 guests to its 136 hotels and hotel/ apartments – a 13% rise on its 2011 performance and surpassing its target of 2.3 million guests for the year, chalking up a record for Abu Dhabi’s hospitality sector according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). Hotel revenues for the period were also up – this time by 6% – to Dh4.6bn ($1.261bn).The target for 2013 has been set at 2.5 million visitors.

Abu Dhabi has a rich past evidenced by scores of restored mud fortresses across the emirate and the remains of an underground irrigation system in Al-Ain oasis, a site that has been continuously inhabited for more than 4,000 years. The emirate’s cultural life is rooted in a long tradition of literary work, camel and horseback riding, falconry, traditional artwork and the cultural exchanges brought about by trade. It is the largest and most populated of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, with over 80% of its landmass. The emirate’s population, now over 1.6 million, is expected to reach 3 million by 2030.

One of Abu Dhabi’s most popular tourist attractions is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

This architectural work of art is one the world’s largest mosques, with a capacity of over 40,000 worshippers. Unlike other mosques in Abu Dhabi, it is open daily to visitors, except on Friday morning, which is for worshippers only.

The complex features 82 domes, over 1,000 columns, 24 carat gold chandeliers and the world’s largest hand knotted carpet. The main prayer hall is dominated by one of the world’s largest chandeliers – 10 metres in diameter, 15 metres in height and weighing 12 tonnes. The mosque’s first ceremony was the funeral of its namesake, Sheikh Zayed, who is buried at the site. Reflective pools surround the mosque, amplifying its beauty. The striking white and gold colours that shine in the sun are transformed at night by a unique lightning system that reflects the phases of the moon. During the holy month of Ramadan, the mosque hosts vast Iftar meals for the local population, where are all are welcome to join together for the breaking of the daily fast.

Abu Dhabi’s coastline (more than 400kms) is one of its major natural attractions, that range from from a stroll on the Corniche in the evening to diving and sailing, Abu Dhabi offers a plethora of water related activities; it boasts five marinas including the Emirates Palace Marina, the Al Bandar Marina, Ghantoot Marina, the intercontinental marina as well as the Yas Marina.

Yas Marina with its 175 berths gives access to Yas Island, home to Yas Marina circuit, where the world famous Formula One motor racing events are held. Visitors also have the opportunity of driving the circuit as part of the programme on offer at the Ferrari Formula One Experience. The Yas Viceroy hotel offers first class facilities on the Island, with direct access from the Marina.

Another slightly more esoteric pastime is camel racing. The annual Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex) is home to the annual camel auction, which attracts locals and tourists alike. This year’s reserve price for a young camel is AED25, 000 ($6,800), a 20% increase from 2012. The record auction price however, is AED6m ($1.6m), but AED2m ($550,000) is considered a good price. The Camel Race Track offers races on Thursday and Friday in the winter. Not only can you watch the races, but you’ll have the opportunity to visit the paddocks; the town of Shweihan, in the eastern part of Abu Dhabi emirate is well known for its races, and Liwa also has an annual event.

Abu Dhabi offers many green spaces, about 2000. The Khalifa Park, built at a cost of $50 million, has its own aquarium, museum, train play park and formal gardens. As well as its well-maintained green spaces, spacious, modern and air conditioned malls are a welcome escape from the summer heat and a world of choice when it comes to shopping. In Abu Dhabi, malls are a place to catch up with friends or for a family outing. With their imaginative designs and wide range of outlets, shopping malls, of which there are currently 12, are extremely popular. The bigger malls buzz with activity as people meet, eat, pose and parade. During festive occasions such as Eid or Ramadan, malls are venues for special events such as dance or cultural shows, often featuring international acts. The Abu Dhabi Mall, with over 200 shops and an average of 40,000 visitors a day, is more than just a shopping destination. The Mall offers a selection of restaurants, coffee shops, a children’s play area as well as a Cineplex cinema. The Marina Mall features a 100 metre high viewing platform, an ice rink, a bowling alley, a Cineplex, musical fountains and hundreds of big name brands and stores; it has become an Abu Dhabi landmark. A new addition to the mall is CityStore the region’s first stand-alone store of an English Premium League team. The Manchester City FC outlet features a full range of club merchandise, including a shirt printing service to create personalised items.

Making the most of its geographic location and desert heritage, Abu Dhabi also offers a variety of desert experiences, which include the ubiquitous dune bashing, sand boarding, skiing and desert camps. In Al Ain, deep in Abu Dhabi’s heritage heartland Al Khatem, the Arabian Nights Village harnesses the soul and essence of old Arabia. Conceived to give visitors a chance to experience the timeless and ethereal beauty of the desert as well as traditional Emirati life, the Arabian Nights Village is not a hotel, but by no means is it rough camping either. The site is powered by four sound-proofed generators and there are three types of room available, Beit Al Barr, traditional mud houses of the desert, Beit Al Bahr, the original houses of Emirati sea-dwellers which are made from palm fronds, and Beit Shaar, or woven tents. There are no televisions on-site, encouraging the guests to enjoy an authentic desert experience.

Another exciting green destination is Masdar city, which can be visited daily, a city designed to rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources, with zero-waste. It initially aims to be a sustainable zero-carbon car free city and is already well on track to achieving its aims.

From green credentials to exhilarating experiences and super slick hotels, with new inspiring museums underway, Abu Dhabi has something for all discerning travellers of the 21st century.

Rhona Wells

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