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Breaking Travel News investigates: Sports tourism in Abu Dhabi
Saeed Al Saeed, destination marketing manager at the Department of Culture & Tourism - Abu Dhabi, spoke to Breaking Travel News about sports tourism in the Emirati capital

Breaking Travel News investigates: Sports tourism in Abu Dhabi

With the global hospitality community still reeling from the impact of Covid-19, destinations around the world have been looking for innovative ways to keep themselves in the minds of travellers ahead of borders reopening.

While the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, remains closed to international guests, that has not meant officials at the local tourism board have been sitting on their hands.

Instead, the Department of Culture & Tourism has worked to leverage existing relationships to keep the emirate in the public eye.

There has been a focus on sport, with the Middle Eastern destination welcoming an outsized roster of top-level events.

As Saeed Al Saeed, destination marketing manager with the Department of Culture & Tourism in Abu Dhabi, tells Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole there have been opportunities even amid the ruins of the pandemic.


“In terms of sport, we are open for business – and we have made that clear,” he explains.

“It is not about us gathering as many sports as we can and dumping them into the emirate, it is more about cultivating long-term partnerships, allowing us to showcase the lengths we will go to in order to welcome the best events.”

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising showcase was Fight Island, an Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view that took place in July this year.

More commonly associated with cities like Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi pulled out all the stops to create a bio-secure event at the height of the Covid-19 shutdown.

“The UFC, for example, is a five-year deal we signed in 2019, but that relationship allowed us to add Fight Island as an extra collaboration,” continues Al Saeed.

“I was part of the Fight Island team personally, and we spent two weeks quarantined in the hotel before anybody from UFC even arrived in the destination.

“We spent five weeks in the bubble overall – an immense effort on behalf of a number of entities to make it a reality.

“There have been other sporting bubbles around the world, but I am not sure anybody has gone to the extent we did – we carried out 18,000 Covid-19 tests on just over 2,000 individuals.

“But the benefit of hosting such major events are evident - everybody was talking about Fight Island, which was obviously closely linked to Abu Dhabi.

“We were able to send a signal, across the sporting world, with other governing bodies now approaching us here at the Department of Culture & Tourism and over at the Abu Dhabi Sports Council with a view to hosting other events.

“The rest of the world is still struggling to work out how to bring sports back to life, and we now have some great expertise in this area.

“It put us on the map when it comes to world-class sports within world-class facilities.”

Dana White praised the organisation behind Fight Island

In terms of marketing, the value of the event also cannot be underestimated, drawing in new audiences from around the world and making people aware of Abu Dhabi perhaps even for the first time.

“It gave us a chance to showcase ourselves to an American audience – there is often a lot of misunderstanding there and we were able to begin to correct some misapprehension,” says Al Saeed.

“But there is also a huge following for UFC is Brazil, in Russia – a lot of markets follow their own fighters, through social media and pay-per-view events.

“This has helped us to nullify some preconceived misconceptions about Abu Dhabi and the region more generally.

“A lot people that came here for the first time were expecting something completely different, and ended up falling in love.”

Fans are holding out hope they may be able to attend the F1 finale

Of course, for many Abu Dhabi is synonymous with the end-of-season F1 Grand Prix, which takes place in the emirate every November.

In normal times the race is the centrepiece of a weekend-long extravaganza, welcoming headline musical acts, thousands of guests and celebrities from around the world to the emirate.

Things will be on a smaller scale this year, but the race will still offer opportunities to promote the destination.

“As it stands, we have no plans for spectators at the F1 Grand Prix – there are always conversations, but we are not in a position to welcome them yet,” said Al Saeed.

“The event is a city-wide party for us, a celebration of many different pillars of our tourism offering, so having to cut that back this year is a missed opportunity for us.

“We lose the sporting element, but also the nightlife, the events.”

However, with more than three months to go until the race, final plans are still being put in place.

Abu Dhabi will welcome the Indian Premier League later this month

In the meantime, the United Arab Emirates will host the Indian Premier League, an annual sporting competition to rival any on earth.

Taking place across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, the event will welcome the best cricketers to the destination, drawing an audience of millions from India, Pakistan and other markets.

With the players currently settling into their luxury hotels, Al Saeed tells Breaking Travel News the fast-paced action will offer plenty to spectators.

“Fight Island was one of the factors which allowed us to bring the Indian Premier League to Abu Dhabi, we played a small role, but there was a long-established relationship there which helped.

“They knew that we were able to offer what they need during this pandemic.”

He continues: “This is a huge event, world-class athletes from across the globe, from Australia, South Africa, England, as well as India and Pakistan – the eyes of the world will be on the United Arab Emirates.

“We anticipate that people will once again be able to see what we offer, how the players are being treated, and give them more confidence in the destination.

“A lot of fans are going to be really excited about the event, there is a lot on offer.

“Every fan of every sport is hungry for events to come back, and we are in a position to provide that for them, and it is a moment of pride for us.”

Guests wooed by the top-class sporting showcase will, however, have to wait until the borders of Abu Dhabi reopen before they can visit.

While neighbouring Dubai has reopened, officials in the capital are taking a more cautious approach.

“We do have plans to look at the next phase, to open the borders, with the relevant measures in place – but there is no date for this as of yet.

“The measures may seem extreme, but the health and safety of our people must come first,” concludes Al Saeed.

More Information

The Department of Culture & Tourism – Abu Dhabi conserves and promotes the heritage and culture of the emirate and leverages them in the development of a world-class, sustainable destination of distinction, which enriches the lives of visitors and residents alike.

The organisation manages the tourism sector and markets the destination internationally through a wide range of activities aimed at attracting visitors and investment.

Abu Dhabi is considered the World’s Leading Sports Tourism Destination by voters at the World Travel Awards.

Find out more about visiting, when the time is right, on the official website.