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Mon 14 Jan 2008 04:00 AM

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Northern soul

The Northern Emirates can provide a welcome break for locals and a true Arabic experience for visitors to the UAE, as Gareth Rees reports.

The Northern Emirates can provide a welcome break for locals and a true Arabic experience for visitors to the UAE, as Gareth Rees reports.

Ras Al Khaimah

With RAK Tourism claiming a 100% increase in visitor numbers to the Emirate and 89% hotel room occupancy throughout 2007, Ras Al Khaimah's hotel industry is looking decidedly healthy.

RAK Tourism manager Hilary McCormack argues that the Emirate is in no way competing with Dubai or even the other Northern Emirates.

"We are focused on developing our own personality based around an authentic and culturally-focused Arabic experience. We are also looking to develop more soft adventure activities around the mountains in addition to water sports activities," she says.

Currently RAK hotels receive 80% leisure guests and 20% business, but the business market is growing.

"We get primarily leisure visitors, with a steadily growing business segment. As more new companies open in the Free Zones of Ras Al Khaimah we expect a levelling of the numbers between the two segments," she says.

The challenge for Ras Al Khaimah is to ensure that the growth of the hotel industry matches the rising visitor numbers, but that problem is being solved according to McCormack.

"The main challenge is the lack of hotel rooms, but this is only a short-term issue, as in late-2008 and early-2009 we will see the next hotels coming into the market.

In 2008 the opening of the five-star, 101-villa Banyan Tree Desert Spa and Resort, Ras Al Khaimah and the five-star 261-room The Cove Rotana Resort & Spa will add to the five current five-star hotels already providing 1190 rooms.

The most popular of these five properties according to McCormack are the two Al Hamra Village properties and the Hilton Beach Club.

"These are both very spacious beach properties, with Al Hamra Village offering an 18-hole championship golf course, a 200 berth marina and two hotels and the Hilton Beach Club coming in early 2008: a lovely new beach property with a roof-top bar that offers stunning ocean views and a good selection of restaurants," she says.

Following on from that, 2009 will see the arrival of the five-star 400-room Mina Al Arab Rotana Resort, the five-star 300-room Ras Al Khaimah Marriott Resort and the five-star 269-room Radisson SAS Al Qurm Ras Al Khaimah, with the four-star 250-room Golden Tulip Ras Al Khaimah coming on line in 2010.

"We will have 20 hotels in the next five years and between 30 and 40 properties in approximately 10 years, offering an estimated 350 rooms each. This will relieve the pressure," says McCormack.
Sixty-five percent of visitors to Ras Al Khaimah come from Europe - with 18% travelling from Asia, 12% from Russia and the CIS countries, and 5% from the GCC and other countries. Ras Al Khaimah Tourism is aggressively promoting the Emirate in that region, as well as looking to the future and sustainable development.

"We are attending tradeshows, developing marketing and multimedia material and working closely with the travel trade," explains McCormack.

"Ras Al Khaimah has all the natural elements of a world-class eco destination, with the mountains, the Arabian Gulf and the vast desert areas. With the Emirate's proximity to international airports, its up coming new hotel projects and the growing number of tourists, RAK Tourism is working to ensure the destination's sustainability by developing a marketing plan weaving all of these elements together.

Ajman

Ajman is the smallest of the seven Emirates and, according to Ulrich Eckhardt, the managing director of its only five-star property Kempinski Ajman, sometimes suffers from being perceived as a far away destination.

In reality it neighbours Dubai and is no more than 45 minutes car journey away from the city; but Ajman is not competing with either Dubai or the other Emirates.

"The product we offer is different to that of Dubai [and the other Emirates]. Kempinski Hotel Ajman is a leisure resort catering to both corporate and leisure guests," explains Eckhardt.

He adds that as the best-kept secret of the UAE, Ajman is steeped in nature and culture, and offers welcome relief from the traffic of busier Emirates.

"Visitors can enjoy the breathtaking view of the beaches along the Corniche, which open to the Arabian Sea. As the appeal of Ajman becomes more apparent to those who have previously not considered this idyllic Northern Emirate we see an increasing number of visitors here.

Those visitors can be split into 70% leisure travellers and 30% business, with the majority coming from abroad - there's a growing portfolio of Russian, German, Swiss, Italian and UK guests - plus some Middle East guests visiting Ajman for weekend breaks from the city.

"The location is the perfect getaway from the traffic jams, and with 500m of natural white sandy beach, privacy and serenity, what we can offer here at Kempinski Hotel Ajman eludes most hotels of the same capacity in Dubai," says Eckhardt.

As well as offering a range of spa, honeymoon, weekend and holiday packages for leisure travellers, the Kempinski Hotel Ajman offers both indoor and outdoor meetings facilities, a ballroom capable of holding up to 1200 guests and a dedicated meetings concierge.

"The mix we have in Ajman is truly one which serves both markets well. We may see mainly leisure guests eager to enjoy the peace of tranquility of the Emirate, but we also see business guests who find Ajman an ideal venue for brainstorms, seminars and corporate functions, being only 26km from Dubai and 25km from Dubai International Airport," explains Eckhardt.

He adds that just five years ago Ajman only had a few hotels to cater to either market, but that as Kempinski Hotel Ajman enters its 10th year in operation he is beginning to see more hotel growth.
We at Kempinski Hotel Ajman have seen buildings and new infrastructures develop, not quite as fast as other Emirates such as Dubai but certainly at a steady rate. There are definitely more hotels coming up in the Emirate, and as we see an increase in the number of leisure guests to Ajman it is a timely move."

The first of these new developments will be the first phase of the four-star Golden Tulip Ajman, with 504 rooms, being opened in the first quarter of 2008, with the second phase completed in the first quarter of 2010 with an additional 468 rooms. The 243-room five-star Mövenpick Resort Ajman will also come online in 2010.

Sharjah

Just 20 minutes from the bustling behemoth of Dubai, Sharjah is a modern destination that has retained its traditional culture and distinctive appeal, according to Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority's director HE Mohamed A Al Noman.

"Sharjah has its own unique ambience, which promises a true taste of Arabian hospitality. It is probably also the most family orientated of the Emirates. Its central location offers easy access to all the neighbouring Emirates have to offer, as well as a safe environment with many sights of natural beauty and all the conveniences one would expect from a modern holiday destination," he says.

"Sharjah can also match any other destination in terms of shopping, culture, fine dining and outdoor activities, and is particularly proud of its family-focused approach to shows, festivals and other leisure activities."

The Emirate is planning huge hotel development over the next two years; HE Mohamed A Al Noman explains the efforts are to ensure the Emirate keeps up with international growth.

"We've gone to great lengths in the past 12 months to enhance infrastructure and put measures in place to ensure that our hotel industry measures up to and surpasses international hospitality standards," he says.

Large hotel groups are already present in the Emirate, including the 300-room Radisson SAS Resort Hotel Sharjah and 156-room Coral Beach Resort Sharjah.

These are to be followed by the 400-suite deluxe Bavaria Executive Suites Sharjah in 2008 and in 2009 Accor's economy 212-room Ibis Sharjah; the 500-suite deluxe Bavaria Corniche Hotel Sharjah; the three-star 294-room Centro by Rotana at Sharjah Airport; the 248-room five-star Sharjah Marriott Resort; and the four-star 350-room Swiss-Belhotel International Sharjah. The 250-room mid-scale Novotel Expo Centre Sharjah will follow in 2010.

Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority hopes to entice visitors to the Emirate by providing them with entertainment like the International Powerboat F1 last month, according to HE Mohamed A Al Noman.

"Providing visitors with enough to do during their stay is as important as ensuring that their accommodation meets the required standard, which is precisely why our year-round strategy includes a variety of seasonal festivals and promotions, which attract tourists to the Emirate and keep them returning," he says.

Fujairahand Umm Al-Quwain

Considerable hotel development will take place in Fujairah over the next three years, with 2009 seeing the arrival of the five-star Angsana Resort, Fujairah with 110 suites and 18 villas, the deluxe 224-room Fujairah Rotana Suites property and the five-star 284-room Radisson Al Aqah Beach Resort, Fujairah, which will offer 80 apartments. The 180-room economy Ibis Fujairah Town Centre and the 220-room Novotel Hotel and Residence Fujairah Town Centre will follow in 2010.

The five-star Imar Spa in Umm Al-Quwain offers five guests suites, and is the UAE's first stand-alone spa hotel, promising "the perfect balance between Arabic beauty and Western standards".

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