Move Over Paris, Bilbao: Here Comes Abu Dhabi

In five years you'll take a vacation in the Gulf Arab city of Abu Dhabi. You'll hit the beach, take a desert safari -- and tour the artistic treasures of the Louvre.

That's what Abu Dhabi is hoping and planning for the future of tourism in the Middle East. Travel brochures for the Persian Gulf city now feature water sports and Arabian adventures, but they will son feature a massive cultural district that is now under construction -- a complex of museums and pavilions crowned by the Louvre Abu Dhabi and a new Guggenheim Museum.

The cultural district's key buildings are designed by a cosmopolitan group of "starchitects" -- North American Frank Gehry, the Louvre by Swiss-French Jean Nouvel, a concert hall by Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid and a maritime museum by Japan's Tadao Ando.

"The cultural district is intended to create a cultural asset for the world, a gateway for cultural experience and exchange," Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority director general Mubarak Al Muhairi said.

"It will place the UAE capital, and the Emirates, firmly on the international cultural map," he said.

Abu Dhabi and its sister city of Dubai are on an unprecedented growth spurt of future attractions. While Dubai is building lavish hotels, the world's tallest building, a Universal Studios and a "Shrek" theme park, Abu Dhabi's investment in cultural tourism is generating a different kind of attention, excitement, and debate.

With the first museums set to open in 2012, the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island will send a large-scale message that Abu Dhabi has "arrived" on the world scene, Al Muhairi said. Tourism officials have not made public the total cost of the project, though press reports estimate a $27 billion price tag for the cultural complex.

With government revenue coming largely from state-owned oil companies, what Americans and others pay in high oil prices has provided surplus dollars -- or here, dirhams -- for this city to invest in raising its profile. It is a mix of philanthropy, public works and business plan.

"[Our objective is] to become a cultural destination -- a place that, by definition, people interested in culture ... must both visit more than once," said Al Muhairi, who also serves as managing director of Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company.

"We are aiming for 500,000 overseas cultural tourists a year when the main assets of the Cultural District are open," he said. "Cultural tourists are important to us because, by and large, WTO research shows they spend more on a daily basis -- about 20 dollars a day more, than sun and sand tourists on average."

That means more revenue for Abu Dhabi, helping diversify its economy away from the oil sector. What it means for the average traveler is a unique experience in Middle Eastern travel.

Unlike the arguably more organic hubs of Arab culture such as Cairo, Beirut, Damascus or Baghdad, what Abu Dhabi is openly and actively aiming for is an East-meets-West cultural identity, dominated by outside influences.

Al Muhairi said all the museum designs include some element of local heritage -- the jutting cubes and tubes of the Guggenheim, for example, are inspired by the wind towers of desert homes. But those traces are buried within abstraction, a cosmopolitanism that is placeless in its universality, he said.

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