An Arabian Adventure in Dubai

Desert Conservation Reserve becomes the first internationally-recognized and fully-protected conservation area anywhere in the Middle East to be established in Dubai. The reserve will be centered on Al Maha Desert Resort, the Emirates Group cameo hotel 45 minutes outside the city, in a major initiative emphasizing Emirates’ commitment to corporate responsibility and environmental protection policies. The nature reserve will expand tenfold to form the heart of a new 225 square kilometer Conservation Reserve, safeguarding nearly 5% of Dubai’s land and unique desert habitat.

imageEmirates Group Chairman, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum told eTurbo News: “This ambitious project represents a major endorsement of Dubai’s commitment to conservation, and will protect our unique and unspoiled natural desert heritage which is its top attraction for visitors. Our government is responding to the urgent need for Dubai’s fast-vanishing original natural habitat to receive the full legal protection it now requires, not just today but for the benefit of future generations. It will receive full government and legislative recognition, benchmarked against the toughest United Nations standards.”


The urgent requirement for the reserve has been thrown into sharper focus by Dubai’s remarkable rate of growth and development. Since 1980 its population has tripled, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing cities. By 2010, it expects 15 million visitors a year, boosting its economy but putting under threat the delicate balance between progress and preservation. The reserve will provide the firm foundations essential to managing this growth sensitively. Dubai’s environmental image will benefit from international endorsement, placing it firmly in the front row of world conservation, and acknowledging to its efforts to promote environmental good practice.


Tony Williams, Emirates’ Vice-President Resorts and Properties, said: “The desert and dune habitats around Dubai are under huge pressure from the modern world and the phenomenal expansion of Dubai. It is fortunate that we have the support of Dubai’s leadership to ensure that the delicate balance between development and our last remaining wilderness area is maintained.”


The project stems from the Al Maha wildlife work initially carried out on 27 kilometers of land “until we extended the number of indigenous wildlife species to what we have today. We did so to provide visitors with a sound, in-depth local heritage of the region,” Williams said. Al Maha has won numerous awards for best architecture after following the indigenous features of the territory. ” And thus, we were able to provide people with the experience of the desert and all that it stands for – the culture, the Bedouin heritage, the local art and design including menus with Mediterranean and local flavors.”


The new Reserve will provide a permanent refuge for Arabia’s indigenous wildlife – the endangered animals, birds and plants unique to the region which it will actively manage as a national asset with guidance from a Management Board. The indigenous trees and shrubs once common within the region had been in decline for many years, largely due to over-grazing by camels and made worse by the uncontrolled use of bore-wells during a ‘dry’ regional weather cycle. The project, using the well-known conservation techniques of species ‘seeding’ , started 1999 when Al Maha opened. Along with reintroduced Arabian oryx and other gazelle species in the recently-enlarged 225 square kilometer Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the first green shoots of recovery are also now appearing.


As re-introduced plants grow and flower, their seeds are carried by the wind, and start a natural ‘seed bank’ in surrounding areas. As seeds germinate naturally in rainy periods, they produce new stands of naturally-distributed plants. The original parent trees are then hardened to desert conditions by reducing their artificial water supplies. Mineral supplements are given to Al Maha’s growing herds of wild animals, such as Arabian oryx and gazelle, so they receive the full range of nutrients they need. In the early stages, this also prevents them from feeding too heavily on newly-established trees.


Three years ago, 6,200 trees, shrubs and grasses, all once native to the Arabian Gulf, were replanted in the reserve. They include the Salaam, Sidr and Ghaf trees and shrubs like the Arta, Raak and Markh, many also used medically by the Bedouin. Newly-established plant species also provide food, cover and nest sites for smaller animals like hares, wildcat and hedgehogs, as well as threatened dhub lizards and desert monitors. Bird records show a dramatic increase in both resident and migrating birds in and around the newly-fenced and secured Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve surrounding the Emirates Group flagship resort.


“In co-operation with the government, a board has been established to take steps to protect this unique Dubai tourist attraction, and support its conservation. The benefits of Emirates’ financial sponsorship for further conservation and the securing of the area for wildlife are already felt, with more programs planned next year,” said Williams.


A new level of funding is needed to assure a future for sustainable tourism.


Tim Clark, Emirates’ Chief Director (Airline), said “Conservation is high on the global agenda, but requires serious and sustained funding. As a principal Conservation Board partner, Emirates will invest up to 3 million dirhams a year for the next five years, an amount sufficient to make a real difference.”


The Emirates Group covers the manpower and operation of the project. And as for the conservation project as a whole, the breeding programs, wildlife research, floral reintroduction and seeding, the Dubai government incorporate the requirement of the resort into the general Dubai Government planning. In the first years of operation, the Al Maha financed the entire conservation agenda. “Now we are rolling out a tenfold expansion – ten times more of the land. It is physically impossible for Al Maha to do this single-handedly; the government is helping out. The operation previously cost $1.8 yearly largely covered by Emirates; the expansion today (perimeter roads, utilities, waste removal, security, fences) will cost $9.6 – 11 M.


The concept is not of the eco-lodge type. “The focus of the eco-hotel set-up is more on the management of the impact of hotels on various systems (biodegradability, enerconomizing, waste management) which is good when one is benchmarking and monitoring energy efficiency and resource utilization of a property. However, we are different; we put our cold hard cash into conservation. Ask why all NY hotels don’t get together and chip in a million dollars each a year and make Central Park the safest park in the centre of the Big Apple 24-7? They simply won’t! Why? Because they could not be bothered. They are not going to put their money, and channel their hard-earned revenue to a project which will not directly earn them money,” said Williams.


“The difference is we are based on a conservationist platform. There are organizations like the conservation corporations and wildlife reserves and enormous conservation areas in South Africa like MalaMala Game Lodge, with acreage use originally for agriculture, cattle, production or human activity. The other way would have been a national park system – with the government saying ‘no one in, no one out’ of our park. To support the [idea of conservation] and justify it, we created a high experience level for few people who pay big money – but do get the unique experience. The proceeds are channeled back into conservation and generation of employment in the rural African areas, for instance.”


Williams admits, it may be a bit of a challenge today to market or sell Arabian experience. “Half the challenge is political in nature, the other is of course distance.”

By Hazel Heyer – your news source for the travel and tourism industry.

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