Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is trying to step out of neighboring emirate Dubai's shadow by building hotels and shopping malls to attract more visitors.
In 2012, Abu Dhabi received around 2.7 million tourists, while Dubai welcomed 10 million sun-, beach- and shopping-aficionados. Moreover, Dubai has announced an initiative to double the number by 2020.
Despite the neighbor's splendor, the Abu Dhabi government has set the goal to transform the UAE capital into a thriving magnet for leisure tourists and businessmen, thus reducing its economy's dependence on the oil and gas industry (60 percent of GDP).
Under the "Abu Dhabi vision 2030" plan, the government has committed to investing 230 billion U.S. dollars in new hotels, leisure parks, shopping malls and beach club facilities.
At the ongoing four-day Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in Dubai, the biggest tourism fair in the Middle East, Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, head of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, explained how the UAE capital plans to expand the hospitality sector to over 5 percent from the current 2.1 percent of the GDP.
"Abu Dhabi launched the bidding process for building a traditional Arabian souk, a unique tourism destination in a historic location at the city's entrance," said Sheikh Sultan, adding that last February, five new hotels were opened, among them the Ritz Carlton Grand Canal, which increased the number of guest resorts to 87 in the sheikhdom.
However, not all hospitality groups can expand as they have planned. Switzerland's Moevenpick Group, which runs 5 hotels in Dubai, is still waiting for the green light to build its first resort in Abu Dhabi as regulatory approval has been pending for years.
Also, Abu Dhabi's one disadvantage compared to Dubai is the lack of shopping opportunities. Even most of the 921,000 residents of Abu Dhabi drive 45 minutes to Dubai every weekend, as the endless license plates at Dubai's shopping centers reveal.
But this could change soon as Abu Dhabi has surpassed Dubai as the most active shopping mall development market in the Middle East, according to real estate consultancy CBRE.
"There are more than 0.8 million square meters under construction in nine schemes," said Mat Green, head of research at CBRE Middle East.
The direction Abu Dhabi chose to take has started to pay off. According to Giyas Gokkent, chief economist and head of research at National Bank of Abu Dhabi, this February showed an increase of 7 percent in guest arrivals to the UAE capital.