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Sun 7 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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Ocean deep, mountain high

Fujairah is quietly establishing itself as a tourism hotspot as a steady stream of hotel names plant their flags in the sand and the combination of mountains, beach and sea prove alluring.

Fujairah is quietly establishing itself as a tourism hotspot as a steady stream of hotel names plant their flags in the sand and the combination of mountains, beach and sea prove alluring.

A little slice of history - the Fujairah Tourism Bureau was established in 1995. The following year it took part in Arabian Travel Market and World Travel Market for the first time; Abjar Hotels announced a new 110-bed resort and a consultant was brought in to draw up a tourism masterplan to boost hotel beds to at least 5000 within five years.

A model development was commissioned in 1996 too, encompassing a marina, two hotels, villas, riding stables, 27-hole golf course, and three-kilometre beach at Rul Dadnah, scheduled for a 1999 opening.

Overall, everyone is advertising and marketing and there is a lot more noise about Fujairah, so we all benefit.

Sadly, not much of this happened, and it was seven years later that the emirate got its first new beach resort when Emirates Airline joined forces with the government to develop Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach, giving an added incentive to promote the Fujairah name on the world tourism stage.

Another lull, roll forward to 2008 and the picture has changed dramatically, in hotel terms at least.

The sell remains the same; a backdrop of rugged mountains, a fringe of golden beaches, ancient forts and monuments, an ocean of delights and a location currently some two hours' drive from Dubai, depending on traffic.

All of which underpin its essential charm as a getaway destination long favoured by residents but increasingly being discovered by overseas markets and tour operators in search of the new.

In contrast with its more glitzy neighbours, Fujairah has never gone out to wow its potential audience.

Limited resources, a natural inclination to take things slowly and a reluctance by investors and operators to take the plunge into the east coast waters meant whispers of new hotels for years tantalised the markets, but never materialised - even after Le Meridien showed what could be done.

Today still, the Fujairah Tourism Bureau has a limited role confined to providing the focus for promotion at overseas shows such as WTM and ITB, although the windfall of a tripling of available beds in the past year should engender more funding for marketing the Fujairah name.

"Previously our task has been limited by the amount of rooms on offer, but now this situation is changing and hopefully we will gain approval for increased promotional activities to participate in more exhibitions and improve our exposure," says an FTB spokesman.

"The development of tourism depends on the capacity to cope and now we have more beds we can focus on marketing the getaway feel of the emirate - the difference we offer is that we are not in the Gulf but on the Indian Ocean."

Certainly, the package is now wooing investors and hotel management companies from far and near - Iberotel, JAL Hotels and Rotana have all opened new resorts during the past year around the Al Aqah Beach area and a host of other majors have lined up to hoist their flags in Fujairah, from Australian and Asian names to multi-brand Europeans and iconic North American groups.

In the city itself, increased commercial activity prompted Coral to move in with a 176-apartment property in March that offers a range of dining, banqueting and conference options.

Rotana, Ibis, Novotel and Abu Dhabi-based Escan will be the next names on the streets and incumbent Al Diar Siji has a 78-unit hotel apartment property opening this winter, addressing the need for serviced living in the emirate.

"Siji Hotel Apartments will combine the flexibility of living in an apartment with the service of a hotel," explains general manager, Fouad Melham, who also heads the Al Diar Siji team.

"Each one-, two- and three-bedroom suite will be furnished with superb in-room entertainment and kitchen amenities, providing the atmosphere of a ‘holiday home' for our guests."

The property is 10 minutes from Fujairah International Airport, a five-minute walk to the beach and will feature a pool, gym, business centre and restaurant.

Meanwhile, the Al Diar Siji has upped the ante in anticipation of competition, installing IPTV in all rooms to deliver on-demand entertainment and internet connection as well as allowing guests to access video games, a hotel guide, wake up service, room service ordering and to check their bills.

Also coming up is a 180-room Ibis Fujairah, a 220-room Novotel Hotel & Residence and a 300-bed hotel at Al Fanar Towers, as part of Escan's three tower development in the city, all scheduled for a 2010 launch.

Meanwhile, Australia's Rendezvous Hotels & Resorts International is making its Middle East debut in Fujairah with a distinctly different design hotel near the international port, aiming to tap in to the regional corporate and leisure market.

According to Tony Balch, vice president development for the group, the opening date is set for October 2009 and the 217-room hotel will bring in new international markets to Fujairah from its Australasian network and out of Asia and China.

"The typical Rendezvous hotel is 200 rooms plus, four-star corporate in gateway cities and while we see a particularly strong local conference and meetings market from Dubai, our location is also part of the Al Safeer Mall and near the port, which will form a major source of business," he says.

"Fujairah is a hot spot currently with billions being invested in the port, airport, a super highway from Dubai as well as offices, shopping centres and hotels - and the scenery is spectacular with the soaring mountains bordering the ocean."

It's an environment that the 92-room Hilton Fujairah has made its own since its debut on the beach in 1978, benefiting now from increased interest in the emirate with occupancy in the high 80s this year, reveals general manager Louis Victor.

Bullish on the prospects for tourism in the city as well as at Al Aqah he says that 60% of the resort's client base is leisure travel with corporate customers coming in second, followed by meetings business.

"Our main priority will continue to focus on leisure travellers and our AED 10 million (US $273 million) refurbishment concluding this month will see a dramatic facelift of the hotel, to its external structure, guest rooms, health club and restaurants," he adds.

Once promoted as the ‘smallest Hilton in the world', the message this winter is that the new-look hotel will provide Fujairah's perfect boutique style resort, says Louis, one that can be combined with other Hilton properties in the UAE.Northern lights.

Drive north from Fujairah city and - aside from the quaint oddity of the Sharjah enclave of Khor Fakkan sited right in the middle of the emirate - there are a string of developments along the coast that bear witness to the future.

Although not of the size of Gulf ventures, projects such as Mina Al Fajer, Fujairah Paradise, Fujairah Al Dana and even the inland Al Wurayah Valley wilderness eco lodge and Golden Beach resort and waterpark from Escan are making a statement that Fujairah is going places.

The fact Fairmont will put its name to a 200-room hotel at Mina Al Fajer where mountain, marina and solarium villas are also part of the package indicate that the image of Fujairah as a cheap flop-and-drop destination is changing.

On the way is a 287-room Radisson Al Aqah Beach Resort opening in Q3, 2009; a 109-key Angsana, opening next year, details of which are under wraps; the 350-room Iberotel Royal Miramar, again scheduled for a 2009 opening; the 250-key Golden Beach farther north near Dibba; and another resort on the Al Aqah strip developed by Rmal Hospitality, which promises a "new level" of hotel to be run by an acclaimed international operator.But while signs indicate that mass tourism is on its way there is some concern that a greater range of accommodation is needed, aside from the glitzy five-star module.

Even Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort & Spa, now revelling in its pole position on the Al Aqah strip, is looking to broaden the horizons of the destination.

"There is a very positive outlook for Fujairah, as long as we can offer a variety of hotel options," says general manager Patrick Antaki.

"We don't want a five-star strip as that won't work - we need the three- and four-star."

The difference we offer is that we are not in the Gulf but on the Indian Ocean.

He concedes that occupancies have been affected slightly by the new competition - primarily during off-peak months in June and September - but welcomes the company of his new neighbours who he says have shown great camaraderie.

"We have started an informal general managers' forum to get together on issues such as marketing, operations and suggestions for the government and already we are seeing more business for our F&B as we all encourage guests to dine around - I would recommend the sushi and Arabic at the JAL Hotel for instance," Antaki explains.

"Overall, everyone is advertising and marketing and there is a lot more noise about Fujairah, so we all benefit."

Antaki and his neighbour, Rotana, have also co-hosted big corporate events, sharing the rooms, while Le Meridien held the actual conference.

"We have plans to work together on this sector in future to attract bigger events," he says, confirming the conference rooms at the resort are currently being upgraded.

It's one sector that Jean-Francois Laurent, general manager at the Fujairah Rotana Resort is keen to exploit.

"There is definitely an increase in demand for corporate groups, incentives and workshops as this is a perfect destination where they can focus on their targets and benefit from the attractive packages," he says.

"Currently the local market contributes some forty-five per cent of our occupancy, which illustrates that Fujairah is still driven mainly by domestic demand - it needs to be further efficiently marketed and will benefit from continual infrastructural improvements, including the airport, malls and leisure attractions."

For the Miramar Al Aqah Beach and the multi-hued JAL Fujairah Resort & Spa, leisure is key with beach, food and spas among their selling points.

"We are mainly a leisure hotel although we do have a conference room and have had an amazing season of corporate deals for meetings, team building and company functions," says Miramar marketing manager Noha Hossam El Din. "Our major source markets are Germany, Italy and Russia and we sell Fujairah for sun and sea, relaxation and its serenity."

Next year will see Royal Miramar debut next to the existing hotel, offering a five-star plus product, with six restaurants, villas and chalets, bigger rooms and more facilities, she adds.

It's ‘all go' out on the east coast and this time around, concrete and clay will ensure the success of the Fujairah package.

Rmal Hospitality CEO Anthony Liddiard sums it up: "Fujairah is fast becoming an obvious choice for a weekend getaway; an ideal destination for training and retreats and will benefit from the continued growth of the infrastructure - which will then attract international tourism in its own right. The growth of rates in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have highlighted the good value of other destinations such as Fujairah.

Packages

Dnata Holidays is offering Ramadan packages at the five-star JAL Fujairah with a complimentary upgrade to a Sakura Suite during the week. For a three-night stay, inclusive of breakfast and all taxes and service, the rate is AED 1275 (US $347) per person.

At the five-star Miramar Al Aqah Beach Resort, a two-night package is priced from AED 685 ($186) per person sharing a superior room, including breakfast, tax and service. The offer is valid until October 31, except for the Eid period.

The airport connection

While a new highway that is scheduled to open next year will dramatically cut journey times down to 45 minutes from Dubai, Fujairah's own airport facility is determined to capture a slice of the emirate's incoming business.

The airport's business development manager, Charles Hadju, says his aim on taking up the post was to "fix, focus and grow" - a strategy that encompasses upgrading the facility to international standards to attain global aerodrome certification, following which a number of scheduled and low-cost airlines would be targeted to launch direct services.

"I will be going to the Routes forum this October to present Fujairah International Airport as a new proposition and also have consultancy contracts in place to assess potential clients, so I will have a list of potential carriers," he says.

"With 15 hotels of 200-plus rooms, I could have half a million passengers; we know the business is there - and small is beautiful in airport terms. Once we get our first scheduled carrier, there will be two or three more wanting to come in."

The Fujairah sell

The Hajjar mountain range, long sandy beaches, location nearby Dubai and excellent diving. Anthony Liddiard, CEO, Rmal Hospitality.

A tranquil setting offering travellers a more relaxing alternative to other UAE experiences. Craig Senior, regional sales & marketing director, Radisson SAS.

The scenery is spectacular with the soaring mountains bordering the sea, and the weather is less oppressive than Dubai in the summer due to onshore breezes - the scuba diving is also excellent. Tony Balch, vice president development, Rendezvous Hotels & Resorts International.

A perfect destination for corporate, incentive, workshop, team building groups etc, where they can focus on their targets and benefit from attractive packages. Jean-Francois Laurent, general manager, Fujairah Rotana Resort & Spa

One of Hilton Fujairah Resort's core strengths is its location - our resort provides a rare combination of a valley resort setting in a cityscape, while offering privacy and space. Victor Louis, general manager, Hilton Fujairah Resort

We sell Fujairah for its sun and sea, relaxation and serenity. Noha Hossam El Din, marketing manager, Miramar Al Aqah Beach Resort

Fujairah has finally become a destination and we have something to sell, with a choice of hotels offering family, diving and beach options. Frederic Bardin, vice president, Arabian Adventures and Congress Solutions.

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