Ferrari theme park adds roar to Abu Dhabi tourism

ABU DHABI (Reuters Life!) - From slow camel rides in the desert to owning the fastest rollercoaster in the world -- Abu Dhabi is elbowing its way onto the global stage as a tourist destination and could end up outshining glitzy neighbor Dubai.

This week the emirate is opening a Ferrari theme park, complete with rollercoaster, right next to its new racing circuit where the second Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is due to take place a fortnight later, another major crowd-puller.

The capital of the United Arab Emirates and the seat of most of the Gulf Arab country’s power and wealth was for years known to the world as the more sober neighbor of trade hub Dubai, which made its name with extravagant real estate projects, outlandish tourist attractions and luxury shopping.

But when the global financial crisis hit Dubai, bursting a real estate bubble and triggering debt problems that nearly sank the emirate’s economy, things began to change.

As Dubai wrangled with creditors over how its state-owned conglomerate Dubai World would restructure $26 billion of debt, Abu Dhabi spent billions to diversify its economy away from oil, developing its industry, real estate, finance and tourism sectors.

The 80,000 sq m (861,100 sq ft) indoor Ferrari theme park, which sits on the $40 billion Yas Island development of Aldar Properties, is one result of this drive. It will be able to host up to 10,000 visitors a day.

“We had only a few malls and desert safaris, we need such thrilling amusements and now we don’t have to run to Dubai on weekends,” said Mohamed Mazroui, an Emirati businessman and racing buff.

Just next to Yas off the coast of Abu Dhabi sits Saadiyat Island -- a $27 billion art and culture project planned to house spin-offs of the Louvre museum in Paris and New York’s Guggenheim.

Abu Dhabi, which holds the bulk of the oil reserves of the UAE, the third-largest oil exporter in the world, is aiming for a 15 percent annual increase of tourists with a target of 2.3 million by the end 2012, Mubarak al Muhairi, director general of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, told Reuters.

“The Ferrari theme park is a major leap forward in our leisure proposition as it has enormous appeal regionally and internationally,” Muhairi said.

While Dubai spent the past decade transforming itself into a regional hub offering luxury shopping, beaches and a Western-style nightlife, Abu Dhabi has remained more conservative when it comes to drink and dress.

Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi investment fund, owns a 5 percent stake in Ferrari. A top draw of the 20 attractions on offer at the theme park, is likely to be what is billed as the world’s fastest roller coaster with a speed of 240 km (149.1 miles) per hour, creating the feel of being inside an F1 car.

“It will be a lot of sensations for every age group. We have managed to turn one of the world’s most exclusive brands into an extraordinary experience for families and fans,” theme park general manager Claus Frimand said.

The red roof of the indoor complex is modeled on the side profile of a Ferrari GT and is adorned with the largest Ferrari prancing horse logo ever created.

Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Paul Casciato