BOOSTING RAS AL KHAIMAH’S TOURISM

Ras Al Khaimah | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Haitham Mattar, CEO of the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA), on changing perspectives, attracting international tourism, and future prospects.

 Haitham Mattar
BIOGRAPHY
Haitham Mattar holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Central Florida and an MBA from the University of Liverpool, having completed a thesis on the sustainability of tourism in Dubai. With more than 25 years of experience in global destination and hospitality management, Mattar has held senior roles with leading global brands including Marriott, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), and Hilton Worldwide. His cross-continent experience and valuable global insights have allowed him to effectively lead Ras Al Khaimah’s destination growth strategy, through capturing existing and emerging source market movements and global tourism trends.

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

In January 2016, we launched a 10-year strategy for tourism in RAK and part of that strategy was its repositioning and rebranding. Through that, we were able to change the misconceptions of RAK as a destination that only catered to people seeking the sun, sand, and the sea; RAK's 64km of uninterrupted pristine beaches, and fantastic resorts make it a great value for money. Notably, the highest mountain in the UAE is situated in RAK, and upon conducting a survey, we found out that only 10% of people were aware of it. 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, such as the mountains, the desert, sea, and so on. These provide us with a stronger ground to showcase RAK 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.

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

Four years ago, RAK had about half a million visitors and today, the numbers are close to 1 million. This is a testament of the hard work and efforts we have done to create awareness by giving RAK its own identity. Initially, we were extremely reliant on one or two major operators and three markets, namely Germany, the UK, and Russia. Later, all three markets went in decline due to devaluation of currencies and Brexit. The diversity that we have worked toward is attracting new markets such as India, Poland, Czech Republic, Scandinavia, and Eastern European countries. RAK is a beach destination that is offering a five-star product at a four-star price point.

What role does domestic tourism play?

Three years ago, 60% of our business was from the domestic market. The growth in the international market had an impact on the domestic market, though that was a deliberate strategic decision. While a domestic tourist stays for one or two nights on average, an international tourist stays almost six nights. Still, we continue to focus on the domestic market; it is important for us, especially during holidays where Ras Al Khaimah has naturally become a getaway.

What are the major investment opportunities for the tourism sector?

The growth in visitors in 2018 is close to 20%, compared to 11% in 2017. 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. 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. Moreover, we are investing in building accommodation that will be the first luxury camp in the mountains with about 36 units. In order to attract further international investors, we have identified seven clusters in Ras Al Khaimah's master plan for tourist attractions.

How does MICE tourism fit into 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) was one such initiative in the strategy for 2018. Thus far, we have been able to host the German, Austrian, Indian, and British travel associations.