DESERT JEWEL

Ras Al Khaimah 2017 | TOURISM | REVIEW

Authentic and unique, Ras Al Khaimah is on track to achieve its goal of attracting 1 million visitors by 2019. The long-term aim is to attract 3 million by 2025.

Rather than compete with the ever-popular tourism hotspots of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah is carving out its own niche in the sector, with a number of innovative and unique attractions already existing or in the pipeline. Visitor numbers are consistently posting steady growth from key source markets in Europe and further afield. In 2016, the Emirate saw an increase of 45% in visitors from Europe, and an increase of 27% in tourists from the UK alone.

Hotels reported 6% growth in revenue per available room (RevPAR) in 2015, and 1Q2016 proved even more successful, with RevPAR growth reaching 9.2% YoY. The Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) has established specific goals to increase tourism numbers, and along with careful planning and closely monitoring supply and demand, Ras Al Khaimah is projected to easily meet or exceed those targets. “We are on a growth trajectory and extremely upbeat for the years to follow because certain decisions and activities that came to fruition last year are expected to yield results in the years to come," Yannis Anagnostakis, the CEO of RAK Hospitality Holding, explained to TBY. The pipeline of projects through to 2019 is expected to add another 3,000 rooms to the local hotels market.

Ras Al Khaimah's wide-open desert views, sandy white beaches, warm seawater, and stunning mountains comprise a few of its natural attractions. It is the only Emirate where visitors can combine a desert safari with a beach holiday and mountain climbing, ideal for adventure tourism, family vacations, and any traveler seeking a true cultural experience. Ras Al Khaimah also boasts some of the most sought-after beach properties in the UAE, which are complemented by two professional golf courses, making it a prime destination for leisure tourism.

Although each Emirate has its own tourism authority, the UAE collaborates to attract more tourists collectively. This has benefited the up-and-coming Ras Al Khaimah, which can both learn from the more experienced markets of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as receive tourists tangentially as an offshoot of more well-known destinations. Positioning itself accordingly, Ras Al Khaimah is capitalizing on its authentic Arabian flavor. However, close to 50% of tourism in Ras Al Khaimah still comes from neighboring Emirates. For that reason, the Emirate is seeking to promote itself as a getaway for families residing in other parts of the UAE. For other nationalities, Ras Al Khaimah makes a perfect place for a peaceful vacation, adventure, or as part of a tour of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Oman.

In 2017, Ras Al Khaimah will be looking for ways to combine its tourist friendly ingredients to form a unique recipe that will continue to attract tourists for years to come. Within the Emirate, the industry is collaborating; hotels, theme parks, and adventure tourism operators are all benefiting from each other's growth. As the sector strengthens, more tourism operators are seeking to create tailored packages for the new variety of leisure visitors that are expected to arrive. Meanwhile, in a convenient location just one hour from other UAE points, Ras Al Khaimah can continue to attract the business traveler who appreciates being a stone's throw from some of the most significant business hubs in the region.

NATURAL BEAUTY

With 7,000 years of history behind it, Ras Al Khaimah has a variety of natural and cultural assets that are destined to make it a favored tourist destination. Notably, the Emirate offers breathtaking vistas from its 64km of coastline to the peaks of Jebel Jais, the highest mountain in the UAE. Beyond landscapes, Ras Al Khaimah also boasts historic castles, fortresses, and towers that have already become popular with visitors.
In 2017, Ras Al Khaimah will begin a new marketing campaign designed to promote memorable mountain driving routes, including 39km of road that will take drivers through the Hajar Mountains. Visitors typically choose day trips to the mountains for a picnic or hike, with walks that open up to canyons and dramatic views. Adventurous tourists can trek up to the summit of the UAE's tallest peak, Jebel Jais, which rises up to 1,934m and is characterized by always being 10 degrees cooler than temperatures at sea level. In addition, biking and camping are possible around paths on the mountain. In the evening, Ras Al Khaimah provides a dazzling night sky, free from the light pollution found in cities and perfect for a one-of-a-kind stargazing experience.

MANMADE ATTRACTIONS

Golf courses, water parks, and ziplines are just a few of the man-made attractions on offer in the Emirate, with the latter still under development and designed to take visitor numbers to the next level in coming years.
One of the most lauded tourism attractions is a new zipline project, complete with a luxury mountain camp and a “via ferrata" climbing route on Jebel Jais. The via ferrata, or “iron path" in English, is a walkway that allows travelers to navigate safely on hiking paths around the mountains. Another project in the pipeline is Al Marjan Island, a 4.5km manmade archipelago, planned to house 20 hotels by 2025, as well as a new convention and exhibition venue that will seat over 1,000 people.

Some of Ras Al Khaimah's existing attractions are already drawing tourists in droves. Now in its fifth year of operation, Ice Land Water Park is the largest waterpark in the Middle East, covering an area of about 500,000sqm. The park features more than 3,000m of waterfront, in addition to a natural lagoon, which adds to its overall appeal. “We have capacity for 10,000 guests a day, which allows us to accommodate big groups and organize large events. We consider ourselves a family park so we promote the theme of family entertainment and what we call total family entertainment destination," Yasser Khorshed, the former CEO of Ice Land Water Park, told TBY. The park runs more than 30 separate attractions and offers a range of different activities, as well as guides throughout. Even on peak days, the park has streamlined its operations so that visitors never have to wait in queues or at the ticketing entrance. “Our largest visitation can be about 9,000 a day and this is our expectation for the coming year as well, our average visitation is between 6,000-8,000 on public holidays and weekends," Khorshed explained.

GOLF STANDARD

Golf tourism has made a direct and positive impact on the hospitality industry in Ras Al Khaimah. Local operators agree that hotels, restaurants, small businesses, shopping malls, and other tourist attractions all receive indirect business from visitors who come for the state-of-the-art golfing facilities on offer. Al Hamra Golf Club and Tower Links Golf Club are two pioneers in the industry, but both have also benefited from the support of RAKTDA, which has also contributed to the positive growth of golfing in Ras Al Khaimah.

Al Hamra Golf Club is arguably one of Ras Al Khaimah's most popular attractions. World-class accommodation, diverse dining options, easy access, and a championship golf course all make Al Hamra Golf Club a favorite among professional golf enthusiasts. In 2016, Al Hamra Golf Club hosted the European Challenge Tour, one of the largest golf events in the world. The event was staged with the support of RAK TDA. “This has really solidified Ras Al Khaimah as a golfing destination, which is great for the Emirate and for the country," Andrew Matthews, General Manager of Al Hamra Golf Club, told TBY. “Al Hamra Golf Club attends international events and exhibitions to showcase our club and the Emirate as a golfing destination." The club also provides golf tours to enable visitors to play various different courses during their stay, depending on their preferences. Often called a five-star destination at a four-star price, Ras Al Khaimah's Al Hamra is also known for its outstanding value. “The business of golf is competitive, but we have positioned ourselves in such a way that it is difficult to match us on price or quality. Here, we offer an incredible package and the perfect environment for golfing," Matthews concluded.

Tower Links Golf Club collaborates with Al Hamra to attract attention to the high-quality golf facilities that Ras Al Khaimah has to offer. Currently, Tower Links is carrying out a project to design a complete golf villa, which will offer the company the ability to host golfers for an extended getaway stay. Likely to be finished in 2018, the villas will provide accommodation without affecting the aesthetics of the course or compromising the natural environment. Speaking in regard to the lack of top-notch hospitality options, Simon Payne, General Manager of Tower Links Golf Club, told TBY, “We need more branded hotels, they do not necessarily have to be five-star beach properties, but they need have a global, reputable name." By increasing the presence of luxury hotels, the golfing sector would not only receive more attention, but could also boost its revenue. In 2017, Tower Links Golf Club expects a spike of about 35% in terms of guest numbers, largely sourced from the international market.

Undoubtedly, Ras Al Khaimah has something to offer every segment of tourists, whether they are seeking history, culture, adventure, or leisure, a fact reflected in the diverse profile of visitors year to year. With new attractions opening up, Ras Al Khaimah can look forward to welcoming even more segments of the tourism market. Local operators maintain a positive outlook on the sector, placing faith in the directives spearheaded by RAK TDA and optimism regarding achieving the goals laid out by the authorities. “With the launch of RAK TDA's new tourism strategy there is increasing focus being placed on marketing, a growing events calendar, and expanding the hotel portfolio across the Emirate," Uğur Kurt, Group General Manager of Bin Majid Hotels & Resorts, told TBY.