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UFC Fight Island tests safety procedures to determine the possibility of spectators returning

Following UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi, the event will be used as a pilot project to determine whether it is safe enough to allow the return of spectators to live sport, watching from within the eleven-square-mile safety bubble it has created in the Yas Island area of the city.

The entry to the island has been strictly governed by the emirate to allow the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promotion to go ahead in attempt to make the area a Covid-19-free zone for all fighters and staff involved.

Executive director of tourism and marketing for Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), Ali Hassan Al Shaiba, has said stringent quarantine and testing procedures have been significant in enabling the event to go ahead without any of the 2,500 people within the zone on the island to fall ill. The city will look to seek ways of expanding its ‘safety bubble’ model to include spectators so they can return to witness the action live.

“The idea is first to test the capability from an operational point of view. Can we handle it with the staff, with the athletes to be with no fans? And then we will learn from this, and we will decide later if we can do it with a limited number of fans, or restricted number of fans, to be able to attend the next event in the bubble,”

The infrastructure utilised by the sport industry in Yas Island and the city’s ability to cordon off the area, allowing for the rigorous testing and safety procedures to be implemented over a short space of time, have been influential to the UFC’s decision to host events in the region.

As Abu Dhabi is currently closed to international visitors, Al Shaiba says the DCT will use the UFC events to promote itself as safe to host sporting events and for tourists to visit in the future.

“As an international sports event watched by many viewers worldwide, we believe that Fight Island will help position Abu Dhabi at the forefront of the revival of international sport in 2020,” he says.

Four UFC events will take place on Yas Island on July 11, 15, 18 and 25. It is believed that Abu Dhabi will pay UFC a hosting fee and underwrite any logistical costs for the events, including costs such as, travel, testing, accommodation, training facilities and catering. Al Shaiba refused to announce how much DCT have spent to bring events such as the UFC to the region but has said the cost will be blow $100 million.

As part of the agreement between Abu Dhabi and the UFC, Abu Dhabi will receive two peripheral branding opportunities on the octagon canvas and one vertical bumper position. This will be utilised to promote the city’s new hygiene certification programme for tourism facilities by using #InAbuDhabi; Go Safe and Stay Curious. The emirate has also acquired programming commitments from the MMA series.

“They [will] do a couple of productions on the island showcasing all of the massive operations, starting with the Covid-19 testing and also following the guidelines and showing the measures and precautions of health and safety that we implement… [They will] promote everything that is available on the island,” says Al Shaiba.

To promote the tourist attractions, a training octagon will be built on the beach at the resort while the emirate attempts to highlight the hotel facilities the region has to offer, including, golf course and other local amenities such as the motoracing circuit. Home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. A team organised by the DCT will measure the online and offline media exposure, collecting data from social media sources in addition to the information provided from the UFC and broadcast partners.

The strategy behind hosting the UFC events is to determine which tourist groups would be likely to visit the region and then determine which sports are best to attract those groups. The extension of the existing deal to host one UFC a year has been expanded into a four-fight deal to attract Millennials and younger audiences to the region.

“Today we are looking for adventure seekers, sports seekers, we are also looking for luxury travellers,” says Al Shaiba.

Announced back in January, plans to introduce a five-year tourist visa for all nationalities will help attract younger, more adventurous tourists while easing the restrictions on travel to the region.

“We’re looking into different markets where they needed a visa to get to Abu Dhabi as a first stage,” he says. “These will be the first markets that we are going to target and make sure that we will have a better market share.”

“We have seen a few travellers [from India] came for the UFC last year,” he says. “They also come for the F1 as well. The target segment is not a mass audience, but a niche segment that would come for the luxury travel offering of Abu Dhabi.”

The use of the UFC has also helped boost the reputation of Abu Dhabi, making the image of the region seem more inclusive after the hosting its first ever all-female bouts last year. However, Al Shaiba argues that the region has been welcoming of female events for a long period of time.

“I think that perception that we don’t have women’s sports in Abu Dhabi is wrong,” he says.

“We have been hosting many events that includes women’s sport in Abu Dhabi [for] 10 years. We started with a Volvo race at that time – we had some women that were participating in that event. Also, we have a lot of community events for woman happening in Abu Dhabi every year. We have golf competitions for women, we have tennis competitions for women.

“This is part of the lifestyle of Abu Dhabi, a woman has the right to go out to the beaches, do activities, do sports or work, and do whatever they want.”

The last UFC to be held at Yas Island before Covid-19 was UFC 242, which attracted 16,000 spectators to attend were 55 percent came from overseas with 7 percent from India. DCT figures suggest the grand prix is the largest sporting attraction in the city with an estimated 135,000 attendees with 80,000 from foreign regions, last year. Over the course of the 11 years of the event taking place in Abu Dhabi, DCT estimate that the motoracing event has attracted over 1.4 million visitors.

Tourism in Abu Dhabi has grown by 10.5 percent between 2019 and 2019, though Al Shaiba believes it will take some time before visitor numbers return back to their original level before the outbreak of coronavirus.

“Today, we are seeing ourselves in a recovery phase where we are setting plans with all stakeholders [to plan] how to return back and promote Abu Dhabi as a destination of choice,” he says.

“I think things are getting much better than the beginning of the pandemic, but we won’t get back to the same [tourist] numbers [achieved in] 2019 very fast. It will take another two years to reach that number.”

Author: James Parker