How is Abu Dhabi getting ready to become a world-class tourist destination

When business travel and leisure mix: a look at Yas Island

This article is a crosspost from Fikra Labs.  

In 2016, the number of hotel guests in Abu Dhabi reached 4.4 million, signaling an eight percent increase year-on-year, according to the Monthly Hotel Establishments Report for Abu Dhabi.

In September 2017, Abu Dhabi witnessed a five percent y-o-y increase in the number of hotel guests staying in the Emirate, with nearly 416,000 local and international visitors checking in to hotels, according to figures released by the Department of Culture and Tourism.

These figures released by the Department also emphasize the broader growth of hospitality throughout the Emirate - the number of hotel guests y-o-y to September 2017 increased by 14 percent in the Al Dhafra Region, eight percent in the Al Ain Region, and four percent in Abu Dhabi city, with a total occupancy rate of 69 percent.

The official opening of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi on November 11 adds to the numerous attractions the Emirate has, including Ferrari World Abu Dhabi – the world’s first Ferrari theme park, Qasr AlHosn - the oldest stone building in the Emirate, Sheikh Zayed Mosque and Yas Island - fast developing into the region’s leisure and entertainment hub.

The inauguration of this new landmark, led to an increase in the number of guests coming from the United States by 50 percent, and China, UK and Germany saw rises by 38, 36 and 21 percent respectively.

These figures do not only signal a surge in tourism in Abu Dhabi, but also reveal that the Emirate is well on its way to become a world-class tourism destination.

Got Fikra?

A world-class tourism destination is built upon a world-class visitor experience, and this is where innovation can play a fundamental role. Building on this vision, four leading Abu Dhabi organisations - Miral, Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center (ADNEC), Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism (ADCT) - have joined forces to launch Fikra Labs, a three-month startup accelerator and equity investment program to drive innovation and foster entrepreneurship in the Abu Dhabi tourism sector.

The goal of the program is to engage the MENA startup community to tackle specific challenges unique to each organisation, with the ultimate reward being equity investments into the winning startups. This first of its kind collaboration will ensure that startups become an integral part of the Abu Dhabi tourism landscape, have the backing of and access to leading industry players, and have a unique opportunity to see their innovations come to life.  This partnership approach will further elevate the Emirate’s travel and tourism sector, and accentuate Abu Dhabi’s position as a world-class tourism destination.

Following a one month application process beginning in February 2018, and a series of shortlisting and boot camp stages, 12 finalists will be selected for a 4 week acceleration program in Abu Dhabi. During this acceleration phase, startups will be mentored on their ideas, refine their business plans, and develop prototypes in partnership with industry experts. Finally, a jury will select four startups – one for each organisation - as the winners, who will then go on to work directly with their partner organisation.

For Miral, one of the partner organisations, this program is particularly relevant. As the entity behind developing Yas Island’s leisure and entertainment attractions, Miral sees Fikra Labs as contributing to their ambition of creating a destination unlike any other in the world, attracting 48m annual visits by 2022. Nazeel Juvale, their acting head of Strategy and Innovation, believes the startups progressing from the program will further support Miral in taking the destination to the next level in its evolution, “We feel Fikra Labs is an ideal channel to enter this space [startups] and identify and leverage innovations that can help us achieve our goals” he said. “We are specifically looking for ideas to add value through our visitor journey, be it knowing about, booking, getting to, or getting around Yas Island. This is a unique opportunity for startups to not only to be a part of the leisure and entertainment sector, but also to partner with an organization that is a leader in driving innovation and pushing boundaries for the benefit of visitor experience. We look forward to talking to applicants with great ideas aligned to our challenge, and the enthusiasm, commitment and horsepower to make them a reality”

Fikra Labs is just one of many initiatives that Miral is driving as part of its broader innovation mission, and to develop Yas Island as a ‘real-world test bed’ for future experiences. For instance, in looking for innovative solutions to facilitate transportation to Yas Island and enhance the visitor journey, Miral signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with skyTran – a NASA Space Act company – to develop a next generation personal rapid transit system based on levitating pods to link up attractions within the Yas Island and beyond.

The goal is that two-person pods, which are similar to jets, will help visitors easily connect to their next destination on Yas Island. “skyTran truly is a smart transportation solution for smart cities and we are proud to be able to bring this path-breaking technology to the Middle East for the first time. With our access to NASA’s cutting-edge technology and expertise, we are able to introduce a solution on Yas Island which paves the way for Abu Dhabi to define the Middle East’s innovative mode of transport for the future,” said skyTran in a press release published by Miral.

At a more grassroots level, Miral has engaged in a number of competitions that aim to develop community innovation. Specifically, Miral has worked with Zayed University in Abu Dhabi on the Yas Island Breakthrough Challenge, a student innovation competition that has been integrated within their core curriculum.

The competition offered youth a chance to be part of Yas Island’s future, by placing 150 students into teams to craft ideas on how to make Yas Island a global entertainment destination, “Every student gets value [out of the competition] as they are working on a real-life problem. The top five teams won free hotel nights, behind-the-scenes tours of Yas Island operations and prize money. This year we even had an intern working with us who came through the program,” said Juvale, emphasizing the value programs such as this have for broader job creation.   

Looking long term, Fikra Labs’ broader goal is to graduate a new generation of startups, and help develop a sustainable innovation ecosystem in the Abu Dhabi leisure, entertainment and tourism space. More competitions like Yas Island Breakthrough Challenge and acceleration programs like Fikra Labs will further accentuate the role of youth and future entrepreneurs in the making of a new smart city, offering better experiences to its guests and citizens.

“It would be a great outcome if we can continue to expand the program over time and work with multiple startups,” concluded Juvale.

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