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Aquaman makes a splash in Abu Dhabi tourist drive

  • Gulf countries compete for visitors through celebrity endorsement
  • Hollywood and sports personalities add stardust to campaigns
  • Aquaman actor replaces comedian Kevin Hart as Yas Island figurehead

Abu Dhabi has turned to Aquaman actor Jason Momoa to help increase visitor numbers to Yas Island as Gulf countries increasingly seek celebrity support to boost international tourism.

With growing competition across the region, the UAE capital’s Department of Culture and Tourism hopes to transform the Hollywood star’s millions of social media followers into potential tourists.

The emirate aims to attract more than 24 million visitors by the end of 2023.

Momoa assumes the role of chief island officer of Yas Island, which is already home to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi, the F1 Yas Marina Circuit and 10 luxury hotels.

The actor follows in the footsteps of US stand-up comedian Kevin Hart who ended his tenure earlier this year.

Last year there were 18 million visitors to Abu Dhabi, up 13 percent. India, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US were among the biggest source markets.

However competition with its more glitzy neighbour Dubai and the emerging force of Saudi Arabia is intensifying. Saudi Arabia wants to welcome 100 million tourists by the end of the decade while Dubai is looking to attract 25 million annually by 2025.

Qatar, buoyed by last year’s Fifa World Cup, is aiming for 6 million international visitors by 2030, almost three times the pre-pandemic figure of 2.1 million.

Bahrain is aiming for 14.1 million visitors by 2026 and Oman is hoping for 11.7 million by 2030.

Sunny Singh, managing director of Collaborate Sports & Entertainment, told AGBI that, while it’s difficult to calculate if a celebrity’s support has directly affected tourists’ decisions to think about the UAE as a destination, “the allure of the celebrity” can be understood through social media channel followers.

Momoa boasts more than 17 million fans on Instagram, dwarfing the numbers achieved by Abu Dhabi’s own tourism channels.

Singh said: “The UAE leads the race for tourism within the region following years of strategic planning.

Messi SaudiSaudi Tourism Authority
Lionel Messi and family help kickstart Saudi Arabia’s plan to welcome 100 million tourists by 2030

“With Qatar recruiting David Beckham on a long-term partnership and Saudi Arabia following suit with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, this trend will not be going away any time soon and will grow even further.”

Former England football captain Beckham is reportedly being paid £150 million ($174 million) over 10 years to promote Qatar. 

A-list celebrities have been endorsing both Dubai and Abu Dhabi since 2015: Jennifer Aniston and Chris Hemsworth have teamed up with Emirates airline, and Nicole Kidman has promoted Etihad Airways.

Dubai has also produced mini tourism movies starring Zac Efron, Jessica Alba and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Bollywood star Shah Ruhk Khan is another ambassador for Dubai as latest figures show three million Indians used Dubai International Airport in the first quarter of 2023.

The celebrity reach is expanding geographically with Dubai linking up recently with Kenyan artist Bahati and South African investment banker-turned-singer-songwriter Thabsie for its summer campaign.

Earlier this month Saudi Tourism Authority released photographs of Argentinian football ace Messi on a family holiday in Riyadh, hoping to benefit from his 450 million social media followers to build on the 93.5 million visits to the kingdom last year.

“Celebrities provide a ‘hook’ or point of interest that helps catapult a message in the minds of the viewing public,” Singh said. 

However, he cautioned that if a chosen stars get involved in controversy while a campaign is live or still in recent memory then this may have negative impact. 

Ted Church, branding specialist at Anthem Branding, said: “Celebrity branding is not just about using a famous person’s name or photo but [his or her] social media accounts, digital footprint and other connections with brands, organisations or charities.” 

Liam Findlay, CEO of Miral Destinations, the Yas Island developer, said: “Following Kevin’s Hart farewell campaign, we’re excited to deliver another successful storyline for fans to follow.”

The appointment of Hart has generated over 1.8 million impressions on social media to date, covering both earned and paid media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The campaign was also viewed by an estimated 110 million people in the first month.

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