Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development Investment Company has invested heavily in its Hawksbill Conservation Programme on Saadiyat Island.
Building holiday destinations in the Emirates once triggered images of dirty machines digging and even destroying the natural environment. But of late, local governments, hotels and real estate developers have been working hard to change the country’s image.
The hope is that eco-tourism will embed itself as a vital part of the buoyant UAE hospitability sector, and the overall economic diversification push.
According to World Travel and Tourism Council forecasts, the UAE’s tourism sector is expected to experience annual real growth of about 6.5 per cent between 2012 and 2021.
There are some positive signs emerging that green tourism will drive a lot of this increase.
In Dubai, the number of hotels installing green initiatives increased last year to 104 from 70 in 2009, according to official figures. These hotels cut the consumption of electricity by 12 per cent and water by 20 per cent in 2011.
Meanwhile, Sharjah recently announced a multi-billion eco-tourism project in the city of Kalba, which is expected to draw in private investments of over Dhs1 billion, with 5,000 new jobs created over six years.
However, building large-scale investment projects to environmental specs comes at a price.
One of these is the strict sustainability scoring systems that many developers have struggled to meet, like the Abu Dhabi’s Estidama ‘pearls’ structure. New developments by government entities need to score two ‘pearls’, while all other developers in Abu Dhabi just need just one. Many complain that two pearls requires a lot more time, energy and money to achieve.
Nonetheless, Abu Dhabi’s state-owned Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC) has invested heavily in its Hawksbill Conservation Programme on Saadiyat Island, which protects endangered sea turtles, the first of its kind in the GCC.
TDIC has restricted resort development on Saadiyat Beach to create a buffer zone between construction, operations and the Saadiyat Dune Protection Zone nesting beach.
“It costs more in the first place but by focusing on the resources in the natural environment there will be a value to be had in the long run,” said Nathalie Staelens, deputy director for environment and sustainability at TDIC. “It was decided very early on that this area would be protected, so conservation was extended to protect the natural areas like the turtle nesting areas.
“People have access to the beach so there has been potential for undoing all the good work with activities involving speedboats. So we’ve had to develop guidelines that control access to the beach areas.”
There are currently just a handful of attractions on the island, including the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort and the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas. More are planned, but have yet to be finalised.
Critics of large property developers argue that if they truly cared for the environment they would leave it alone. Accusations like this have gained traction particularly with the likes of Nakheel’s construction of the Palm islands.
Yet it seems that in the UAE, green tourism is as much about regulating the development of projects as protecting the natural environment.