Less than an hour north of the glitz and glamour of Dubai, another, more natural emirate is gaining attention from international tourists and some of the biggest hotel names in the world.
Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) is making the most of its kaleidoscope of natural settings, where mountains, desert, mangroves and 64km of largely untouched beach come together in a rare haven for outdoor enthusiasts and holidaymakers looking to escape manic city life.
The RAK government has only recently begun to harness the potential in its beauty, establishing the RAK Tourism Development Authority in 2011. In that time, tourist numbers have doubled to a projected 1.2 million this year and international hotel brands from Hilton and Waldorf Astoria to Rotana, Rixos and Crowne Plaza have been climbing over each other for their spot along the coastline, which is fast filling with secluded resorts.
International tour operators are so enticed by RAK that they are organising charter flights from countries such as Germany and Russia, where the majority of RAK tourists originate.
In 2010, tourism accounted for two percent of the RAK economy. That has grown to five percent and is anticipated to reach nine percent by 2017 and 20 percent by 2021, generating $1bn annually.
“Tourism has a broad impact across the economy as the growing numbers of tourists increase opportunities for other types of businesses as well as hotels,” RAK Tourism Development Authority director Khalid Motik says. “As well as GDP growth we anticipate that tourism will play a larger role in the economic lives of more local residents.”
There are big plans for the emirate. But Motik says everything will be based on making use of, and maintaining, the unique landscape.
“We have a plan to expand our [hotel room] inventory, also to develop the corniche and also to add more activities to attract people,” he says. “The vision is to keep more natural.
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“What makes Ras Al Khaimah different is that we are the only emirate to combine sea, sand and mountain ranges. Our tourism offering plays to that strength and pairs it with premium hotels and resorts — attracting tourists who are looking for a holiday that can provide both outdoor adventure and luxurious relaxation. So we really offer a full package experience: world-class spas, fine dining, premium luxury accommodation, 64km of pristine natural beach, and activities ranging from water sports, aviation, horse riding, desert safaris, mountain climbing and historical tours.”
In the past twelve months, a sailing academy, a country club for horse enthusiasts, the Prince of Sea floating restaurant and Bassata Desert Camp have all opened in the emirate, providing new job and business opportunities.
The government has established a dining precinct on the Al Qawasim corniche and launched the RAK Hospitality Group, with the aim of introducing new food and beverage concepts in a bid to put the emirate on the global hospitality map. Under the scheme, the government owns several restaurants, such as Pesto, which are then operated by RAK Hospitality Group, and have the financial backing to be experimental. Several tourism education programmes including tour guide training have also been launched with the aim of encouraging locals (RAK is home to the highest number of Emiratis in the UAE) to take up industry opportunities.
But there are even bigger ideas for the future. Such as building a hotel in the mountains to attract hikers and mountaineers, as well as be a summer getaway several degrees cooler than the rest of the UAE, or a winter escape.
A unique triathlon encompassing natural surroundings and accessible to amateur athletes is also in the pipeline.
Arslan Ozturkmen, who runs a variety of outdoor activities in RAK, has his own bold dreams in the emirate. The former professional paraglider, who was on the Red Bull team for two years, is tripling his fleet of boats to fifteen and jet skis to eighteen to accommodate expected growth.
Ozturkmen’s family also own Sky and Sea Adventures at the Hilton resort in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence, and similar outlets at the Rixos on Palm Jumeirah, and at the Rotana Hotel in Fujairah. But it is RAK where the investment is presently going.
By next year he will be operating from five RAK hotels.
“By 2014 [business] will increase by almost 300 percent, I think,” Ozturkmen says. “The numbers will increase, the revenue will increase, the number of staff will increase — everything will increase.
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“We are targeting AED15m a year [in revenue] by 2015. We’re investing a lot of money; each station is costing us almost AED3m, with the new boats and the fleet and all the equipment and the setup.”
While sports such as sailing, waterskiing and diving are so far the most popular, Ozturkmen is expanding beyond the water. He has already started the UAE’s only micro lighting — a two-seater, open air light aircraft — and is scouting for the best paragliding locations in the as yet mostly undiscovered mountains. There is nothing to stop RAK from becoming the next must-go location on the international paragliding scene, Ozturkmen says.
“We have 1,900 metre [high mountains] and nobody knows about it; so that’s huge potential for paragliders to come fly here,” he says. “If you create a take-off point, paragliders will come; it’s like diving, you don’t dive in the same place, you travel.”
Ozturkmen says a similar effort in Turkey has seen a once-hidden paragliders’ paradise attract more than 50,000 tandem flights and 250,000 solo flights each year, creating a wealth of tourism revenue.
The entire outdoor activities business in RAK will eventually be similar in size to Dubai, he says.
“At the moment the [Dubai] business is much, much bigger than here but slowly, slowly it’s going up,” he says.
“It’s a growing place, it’s unknown, it has beauty, it has mountains, it’s different than some other places and I believe with the opening of the new hotels it has a big potential to grow the tourism industry.
“So for us, watching this growth brought us here. When we started here we knew the business wouldn’t be picking up very quickly but we knew it had a future, that’s why we made a big setup here and we invested almost AED3m to start and that’s bringing us new opportunities.”
It is little known that RAK is the home to the UAE’s first water park, Ice Land, and micro light and flying lesson club, Jazirah Aviation Club. The club is expanding its scenic flights for tourists as well as acting as a hub for aircraft enthusiasts from micro light aircrafts to gyrocopters, powered parachutes and para motors.
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There is also something for history buffs, with several archaeological sites.
Along with its nature, RAK is positioning itself as a luxury destination, somewhere to escape — whether it be for a weekend from Dubai, other emirates or Oman, or a longer vacation for international tourists.
Significantly, one of the world’s most luxurious hotel brands, the Waldorf Astoria, has made its new property in RAK the brand’s flagship, taking over from the original in New York. Owned by Hilton and opened this month, Hilton Worldwide RAK manager Mohab Ghali says it will rival the best in the world and attract the elite of the elite.
It is large enough to house 1,000 rooms but contains only 346, boasting some of the largest hotel suites in the UAE at between 72 sq m and 422 sq m, as well as ten restaurants and bars and a mammoth 1,650 sq m spa.
The hotel also helped to beam RAK to millions of television viewers, mostly in the UK, when it was featured in an episode of the popular reality series ‘The Apprentice’ earlier this year.
Hilton was the first hotel operator in RAK, undertaking the running of a rundown city hotel in 2001. It will soon open its seventh property there, including a second DoubleTree and converting the Al Hamra Fort into a Hilton-branded hotel.
“Eleven years back there was nothing; we managed in a couple of years to turn this [first] hotel into a big success,” Ghali says. “I’m sure right now most of the hotel chains would love to come to RAK. We have started this [trend]; we were pioneers to the destination and we really have a commitment to this destination as a company.
“Most of our properties are government properties; the tie between Hilton and the government is quite strong. They’re all successful properties; they’re all doing very well in terms of occupancy rate and RevPAR (revenue per available room).”
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Ghali says Hilton’s growth in RAK has been phenomenal, particularly when compared to the Middle East as a whole. Much of that is due to creating the beachside resorts as destinations in themselves. Ghali says 20 percent of bookings are from repeat customers.
“Every year we are growing by double digits. Occupancy rates last year were in the 80 [percents]. It’s exceptional,” he says. “We are in line with Dubai in terms of occupancy levels, especially the beach properties.”
The company plans to increase from 2,000 keys to 10,000 by 2016 and to 30,000-40,000 within ten to fifteen years — about half of Dubai’s current inventory. Ghali says RAK has the potential to reach the size of Egypt’s famous coastal resort town, Sharm El Sheikh, which has about 100,000 hotel rooms.
“We’re still too small,” he says. “RAK is a real holiday destination; it’s quiet, it’s calm, you have huge beaches. I don’t think you find this in a lot of places.”
“The Europeans, if they want to stay two weeks, they want to stay on the beach in a quiet area, they feel the local feel of the place and the culture. You can always access Dubai in one day; you can go for three or four days to see the Burj Khalifa.
“[Hilton resort operates] a shuttle bus to Dubai three times a week, so people can go to Dubai and they can see it in a day. But I can tell you they don’t go more than once.”
Saudi Arabia’s growing numbers of wealthy are a key target for RAK’s luxury tourism sector, with specific marketing strategies focused on the oil-rich kingdom. The number of Saudi tourists to the emirate has more than tripled already this year compared to 2012.
“We are putting a particular focus on attracting new visitors from across the GCC and especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which we have identified as a high value and fast growing tourism market for Ras Al Khaimah,” Motik says.
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“Significantly, Saudi visitors to Ras Al Khaimah have a considerably higher average hotel spend per guest than other source markets, spending, on average, $110 per room in 2012, compared to $98 per UAE guest, $78 per German guest and $68 per Russian guest.
“We anticipate that the premium luxury Waldorf Astoria and the all-inclusive Rixos Bab Al Bahr, both due to open in Ras Al Khaimah in 2013, will be prime attractions for these wealthy and family orientated KSA and GCC tourists.”
RAK International Airport and government-owned carrier RAK Airways also have ambitious expansion plans.
The airport announced last year it was investing AED2m ($544,500) upgrading its terminal as it looks to boost passenger traffic from 500,000 to 2 million by 2015.
Several European and Russian carriers are due to start flying to the emirate later this year as part of the airport’s push to increase its global reach.
Meanwhile, the emirate’s flagship carrier RAK Airways, which was re-launched in 2010 in line with new tourism aims, has already recorded 40 percent growth in passenger numbers this year compared to 300,000 people last year. The airline added services to Islamabad and Amman in August and intends to quadruple its destinations to 40 by 2015.
A codeshare agreement signed with Etihad Airways a year ago also gives the small airline access to five UK markets.
With only three aircraft presently, the airline is looking to make significant investments in the near future.
“RAK Airways has an ambitious growth plan and the strategy is being studied to roll out the plan effectively in a short span of time,” RAK Airways president and CEO Murabit Al Sawaf said recently. “We are working on diversifying travel options to Ras Al Khaimah, whether it’s for business or tourism purposes.”
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