A Bedouin camp emerged amid the sea of sand dunes that surrounded us as we chased the sunset over the desert landscapes between Abu Dhabi city and Al Ain.

I had often trekked through the desert in Jeeps that seemed to cling unbelievably to the narrow crests of Abu Dhabi’s towering desert dunes.

This time, however, our journey into the desert with Hasan Al Hashmi and Husaak Adventures would reveal the real United Arab Emirates (UAE) – one where fun-loving Emiratis get behind the wheel of their 4x4s after work for a bit of dune-bashing with friends; one where families sit together on velvet floor pillows and drink chai karak before sharing cardamom-scented meals cooked in underground coal-heated pits.

Home to the world’s largest indoor amusement park, an Arabian wildlife park on an island, and the only offshoot of the Louvre Paris in the world, Abu Dhabi is intensifying its efforts to position the destination as a leading international tourism and cultural destination, particularly for entertainment and family holidays.

We sat around the coal fire long after the delicious fatty mutton flavours of dinner had waned, watching an Emirati tend to his pet saker falcon and drinking sweet Arabic tea.

As the fog descended, the carpets under our feet became heavy with dew. We abandoned the fire for the warmth of a traditional tent with its bright sheep’s-wool walls.

The Bedouin mantra – the more a man possesses, the less freedom he has – was abundantly clear as we realised in a few short months their mark in the dunes would disappear in all its carpeted, crimson glory.

More than dunes and dates

For many, this is the image that Abu Dhabi conjures – a desert landscape devoid of life and roamed by Bedouin families who spend their days stroking their beloved falcons, riding camels and eating dates.

This image couldn’t be further from the truth, says Sue Garrett, Flight Centre Travel Group South Africa's product and marketing general manager. “While Abu Dhabi admirably retains much of its culture and heritage, the capital of the UAE has become a powerhouse of industry, like its sister Emirate, Dubai.”

The oil discoveries of the 1950s turned a once-poor fishing village on the edge of the desert, heavily reliant on the business of pearl diving, into a first-world city in just a few decades. Abu Dhabi is proof of what can be achieved when revenues derived from unrenewable resources are used to create sustainable industry, with investments made in industries ranging from manufacturing to tourism.

Home to the world’s largest indoor amusement park, an Arabian wildlife park on an island, and the only offshoot of the Louvre Paris in the world, Abu Dhabi is intensifying its efforts to position the destination as a leading international tourism and cultural destination, particularly for entertainment and family holidays.

“In addition to a focus on growing its tourism arrivals through initiatives such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, and a new terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport, this fast-growing economy also holds the distinction of being McKinsey Global Institute’s top ‘Smart City’ in Africa and the Middle East,” says Garrett. “This illustrates the extent to which Abu Dhabi is making itself liveable and appealing for both residents and visitors.”

For travellers considering Abu Dhabi over popular Dubai, Garrett lists her "Big 5" attractions:

1. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Arguably the most famous landmark in Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque welcomes up to 40 000 worshippers simultaneously. With 82 alabaster white marble domes, intricate floral motifs created with semi-precious stones and the third-largest Swarovski crystal chandelier in the world, this shimmering beacon is a must-see on any trip to Abu Dhabi. That’s before you’ve even set foot on its 5 627 square metre handmade carpet, which weighs more than 35 tons. “There are free guided tours available and it’s important to note that there’s a dress code you have to adhere to,” says Garrett.

2. Theme parks

Buckle up for the rides of your life! From the world’s fastest and steepest rollercoasters to all your favourite superheroes and cartoon characters, the theme parks of the UAE are geared towards the whole family, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a complete adrenalin junkie or a two-year-old toddler. For family fun and a thousand thrills a minute, your family can choose from a range of world-class theme parks, including Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld and Warner Bros Theme Park.

3. Emirates Palace

Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace stands out against the azure blue Arabian Gulf. The main palace building stretches over a kilometre from wing to wing, and its gardens and surroundings spread across 100 hectares. The hotel features 114 domes, with the central dome at an imposing 72.6 metres above ground. Gold, mother of pearl and Swarovski crystals dominate the interior and the ATM dispensing gold memorabilia, the gold-leaf cappuccino and Palace Cake are an absolute highlight of any visit.

4. The Empty Quarter

The world’s largest interrupted desert, spanning some 1 000km long and 500km wide, promises a soulful sojourn away from the crowds. Journey to Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter through the Liwa Oasis, the gateway to an extraordinary desert setting that featured in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Tap into your inner captain and commandeer a desert ship as the sun sets over dunes rising hundreds of metres, conquer the dunes in a 4X4 at stomach-churning speeds or gain an insider view of the oldest Arabian traditional sports – falconry and hunting with the intelligent Arabian Saluki dogs, renowned for their stamina and speed.

5. Louvre Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island has taken the art world by storm with the completion of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. With a focus on bridging the gap between the eastern and western world of arts and culture, the museum displays a universal collection of art intended to promote discovery, exchange and education. Visitors set off on a chronological journey through time as they witness the development of different civilisations. Being a work of art in itself, the roof of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is named the Rain of Light, designed to bring into play the movement of the sun and its passage through the eight layers of the complex canopy to create a display of kaleidoscopic, reflected light within the museum.

Destination Innovation

Abu Dhabi isn’t the only global destination to have pinned its hopes on tourism to mitigate its reliance on non-renewable resources.

Neighbouring Dubai – much smaller geographically, but somewhat ahead of Abu Dhabi in terms of its efforts to diversify its economy – has developed into a global business hub. Trading its focus on oil production for trade, logistics, financial services, manufacturing, real estate and construction, Dubai’s other industries now comprise more than 90% of business activity in the dynamic Emirate.

Meanwhile, Mauritius has expanded its mono-crop economy of the 1970s to become a leading innovator in the region through such sectors as technology and communication. The diversification of the Mauritian economy has seen it focus on real estate and property development, manufacturing and tourism. The country has introduced favourable tax regimes and ensured low barriers to entry for businesses and individuals so that it can emerge as a top investment destination.

“These destinations have recognised the extraordinary potential that tourism brings for the growth and development of a country, not only in terms of economic benefits, but also in building the country’s image and identity. Africa can learn a great deal from these examples,” concludes Garrett.