20% TOURISM GROWTH IN 2018

Ras Al Khaimah 2018 | TOURISM | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Haitham Mattar, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA), on branding the Emirate, domestic tourism, and encouraging MICE visitors.

What brand do you seek to create for Ras Al Khaimah, and what are the challenges in creating that brand?

We created a brand for Ras Al Khaimah three years ago. In January 2016, we launched a 10-year strategy for tourism in the Emirate and part of that strategy was its repositioning and rebranding. We were able to change the misconceptions of Ras Al Khaimah being only a destination that catered to people seeking the sun, sand, and sea. Ras Al Khaimah has 64km of uninterrupted pristine beaches, fantastic resorts, and is great value for money. However, having done a study on its natural assets, we realized only 10% of the UAE population could recall we have mountains in Ras Al Khaimah; no one remembered the name of the mountain or that it is the tallest peak in the UAE. The focus and repositioning of Ras Al Khaimah's brand involved a great deal of work on the ground to define the unique selling points of the Emirate: its natural assets, the proximity of those natural assets, the mountains, the desert, the sea, and so on. Finding the white space that the other Emirates have not occupied, our natural assets would definitely provide us a stronger ground to play on for us to place Ras Al Khaimah as the future hub of adventure tourism. That involves not only focusing on adventures but also wellness seekers and people who want to connect with culture, heritage, and history. These are the three main pillars that we work with. The beach, desert, and mountains are grouped under adventure. The historical sites go under history, and then with wellness we have fantastic spas here as well as hot springs, which we seek to develop further. Diversity is the name of the game and have been working on diversifying our markets.

How do you focus on international tourism in Ras Al Khaimah?

Four years ago, Ras Al Khaimah had about half a million visitors and today we are just nudging 1 million. This is a testament of the hard work and efforts we have done to create awareness by giving Ras Al Khaimah its own identity to diversify not only our markets but also our clients. We were extremely reliant on one or two major operators and three markets, namely Germany, the UK, and Russia. I came at a time where all three markets were in decline because of the devaluation of the ruble and euro, and Brexit. This placed a huge risk on the future of Ras Al Khaimah. The diversity that we have worked toward is attracting new markets such as India, Poland, Czech Republic, Scandinavia, and most Eastern European countries. One of our initiatives was to open an office in Russia in 2016. One of Ras Al Khaimah's key advantages is that we are a beach destination offering a five-star product at a four-star price point. For international visitors, Ras Al Khaimah is value for money and affordable, and they are only one hour away from Dubai. Having Dubai just next door is a fantastic advantage for us and we leverage that tremendously.

What role does domestic tourism play?

Three years ago, 60% of our business was from the domestic market. Through our strategy we are now focused on growing the international market further. The growth in the international market had an impact on the domestic market, though that was a deliberate strategic decision. The rationale behind that is whilst it is great domestic visitors come during weekends, the average length of stay is one or two nights. This does not fully support the GDP growth that we have targeted or the growth of occupancies and visitors that we want to drive. Currently, that 60% figure has fallen to 31% while the growth from the international market has supported our length of stay growth and GDP growth. An international visitor stays for an average of 5.9 nights and spends more throughout the hotels. Still, we continue to focus on the domestic travel; it is important for us, especially during holidays where Ras Al Khaimah has naturally become a getaway. The domestic market decline is because there is less availability of hotel rooms due to the growth of international visitors.

What are the major investment opportunities for the tourism sector?

The growth in visitors in 2018 is close to 20%, while in 2017 it was 11%. However, hotel room supply is only growing by 3%. Our demand periods and windows of opportunity are limited. For example, the opportunities for growth now are limited to the summer months or the last two weeks of January because the rest of the year we run at an average of 80-85%. Whilst we have about 5,000 rooms in the pipeline, they are not due to open until 2020 or 2021, and there will be phased openings. When we look at 2025, our target is to reach 3 million visitors, which is why we need another 10,000 rooms to cater to that demand. Besides the hotel business, the longest zip line in the world was built in Ras Al Khaimah by a foreign investor from Costa Rica, and we are now looking at proposals for further adventure activities. We will partner to build different adventure parks and opportunities mainly focusing on Jebel Jais at the moment. We want to create a cluster of activities and events there where people can spend a day or two. This will trigger other investments in terms of accommodation or retail. We are investing in building accommodation that will be the first luxury camp in the mountains with about 36 units. There are also great investment opportunities in other tourist attractions. We have identified seven clusters in Ras Al Khaimah's master plan for tourist attractions. Those clusters are presented on different occasions for investors across the globe. We continuously seek investors to build authentic Emirati restaurants so foreigners can enjoy the local food.

How does MICE tourism fit in the strategy?

We are a 95% leisure destination. However, part of our strategy is to grow the business sector through MICE. The Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) is one big example of 2018. Thus far, we have been able to host the German, Austrian, Indian, and British travel associations. This is our appetite to demonstrate our ability to host small to mid-sized events in Ras Al Khaimah. Furthermore, 35% of Ras Al Khaimah's GDP comes from industries and we seek to work together with manufacturing companies on their products launches and conferences to be held in Ras Al Khaimah to support them and build the right infrastructure for such events.