Robust tourism initiatives and investment in hospitality infrastructure has led to a tourism boom in the northernmost Emirate of the UAE.
When the COVID-19 induced lockdown grounded travel last year, Dubai-based journalist Deepthi Nair, like several others, decided to rediscover the country of her residence. Going for staycations at each of the Emirates (there are seven that make up the United Arab Emirates), she managed to keep her wanderlust alive in a year that saw the closure of most international borders. But among all the places she visited, the one that impressed her the most was Ras Al Khaimah (or RAK as it is popularly called).
“It’s become my favourite, I found it progressive and tourist-friendly with varied attractions. Most of the other Emirates, excluding Dubai, lag RAK in terms of infrastructure. I would absolutely recommend it to all tourists visiting the UAE,” says Deepthi, echoing the thoughts of travel lovers who are now waking up to the charms of a destination that’s crafting a unique identity of its own, distinct from its more glamorous, better-known siblings – Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
A new narrative
Some time back, Ras Al Khaimah – named the Gulf Tourism Capital for both 2020 and 2021 by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – unveiled a new logo titled ‘RAKashida’ which was rather interesting to decipher. Inspired by ‘Kashida’, an aspect of Arabic calligraphy – a line that connects letters to form a word – RAKashida aimed to flow and tell a story between different elements that defined the Emirate. These included ‘the sea’ with its perpetual swelling and subsiding, ‘the desert’ with its undulating dunes, and ‘the mountains’ with their staggering elevations.
The new logo was not a mere cosmetic change. Rather, it was emblematic of a plan, in place for the last few years that has seen Ras Al Khaimah emerge as one of the hottest new destinations in the GCC. Led by a dynamic tourism board, the approach was underlined by innovative campaigns centered on nature, leisure, culture and adventure activities, huge investment in sustainable tourism projects and massive support to the hospitality infrastructure.
The results have been encouraging as the numbers below prove:
- At the peak of the pandemic, when the tourism sector around the world was crippled, RAK’s 25 per cent drop in visitors was around three times less severe than the global average.
- According to Colliers’ MENA Hotels Monthly Market Forecast, the Emirate’s occupancy is expected to reach 89 per cent in 2021, up 27 per cent on 2020.
- The Middle East Hotel Benchmark Survey report conducted by Ernst and Young said Ras Al Khaimah led the region in ADR (average daily rate) and RevPAR (revenue per available room) in 2020. The ADR, in fact, saw an increase from July 2019 to July 2020 of over 70 per cent resulting in robust RevPAR growth of 13 per cent.
- Visitor data from two years ago show Ras Al Khaimah exceeded over a million visitors in 2018 for the first time and over 1.12 million in 2019. And 61 per cent of these visitors were international, while 39 per cent were domestic.
Each of the above statistic points to the evolution of Ras Al Khaimah as a prominent tourism destination, one that is being finally talked about in isolation and not clubbed with other cities/countries in the region.
Was the pandemic a turning point?
Ironically, what seems to have turned the tide in RAK’s favor has been its proactive approach in tackling the impact of the pandemic. While tourism to the Gulf was majorly affected by COVID-19, RAK seems to have escaped much of its wrath, thanks to a robust plan that was set in motion in April last year.
RAK was the first destination in the world to receive both, the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Safe Travels Stamp and the Bureau Veritas Safeguard Label. It was also the first destination to offer complimentary PCR testing for international arrivals, in addition to running an Emirate-wide vaccination programme.
“These achievements not only validated the huge efforts of our hospitality partners but also reassured visitors that they were in safe hands, encouraging them to visit and explore the Emirate,” says Raki Phillips, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA). In perhaps the first case of ‘revenge travel’ in the region, once the restrictions eased up a little, Dubaiiites, who would normally fly to a Georgia or Armenia for a weekend, were seen choosing Ras Al Khaimah instead.
Helen Jacobe, Cluster General Manager, Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa and Hilton Garden Inn, believes that the last few months forced travellers to look within their own country.
“During the past 12 months, UAE residents have been limited in their travel options, so instead they have ventured to take a short road trip north to RAK and been blown away by the experience of the nature, sea and fresh outdoor air and activities. Many residents who have lived their entire life in the UAE, have never visited RAK and now after visiting once, are hooked,” she says.
The big attractions
So, what makes this Emirate stand out among the rest? “RAK’s key strength lies in its natural terrain and landscape as well its proximity with Oman, which brings with it the benefit of the coastline that can be leveraged for visitor experiences,” says Rabia Yasmeen, Consultant, Sales and Payment, Euromonitor International and a keen observer of travel trends.
And leveraging its natural beauty with modern amenities has indeed been the focus of RAKTDA. Purely in terms of tourist attractions, RAK has much to offer – 7,000 years of history, traditions and culture, pristine beaches, lush mangrove trees and terracotta dunes, the awe-inspiring vistas of the Hajjar mountains including Jebel Jais, (the UAE’s highest mountain peak) and more. In addition, four sites – Julfar, Jazirah al-Hamra, Shimal and Dhayah – have been included in UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites.
Carefully curated experiences like the Bear Grylls’ Explorer Camp featuring the world’s first branded accommodation as well as the highest restaurant in the UAE (1484 by Puro), the Jais Sky Tour, the Jais Sky Maze and a host of sporting activities introduced by RAKTDA have captured the imagination of the discerning tourist. “The unique natural beauty of RAK combined with its extensive offerings and world-class hospitality has been a key driver in its successful growth,” says Raki.
Rabia also credits the establishment of new hotels and positioning the region as an adventure hotspot as prime reasons for the burgeoning numbers. “The promotion of Jebel Jais area for cycling, trekking, hiking and adding the world’s largest zipline, have played a huge part in the Emirate gaining traction,” she says.
Needless to say, hospitality brands have lapped up the opportunity. As Helen notes, “Nowadays people seek nature, wellness, historical, cultural and adventure activities. They don’t only look for rooms to stay. RAK is promoting itself as a nature-based travel destination, as it is home to sprawling deserts, pristine ocean and mountain peaks.”
Currently, some of the huge global names that have set up addresses in RAK include Hilton, Rixos, Rotana, Ritz-Carlton among others. Most recently, the world’s largest Hampton by Hilton with over 500 rooms opened in the Emirate. On the anvil are a series of new properties operated by global players like Marriott, Movenpick, Anantara, Intercontinental, Radisson Blu and Conrad with a total of 6,943 rooms.
These properties act in close collaboration with stakeholders, especially RAKTDA and other authorities for the overall development of tourism. “There are several hotels within RAK and though we cater to different segments, we try to support each other when it comes to any communications or cross selling. We are working towards the same goals and building the destination together,” says Helen. Like other resorts, Hilton too faced challenges during the pandemic but a judicious investment of capital in F&B including promotion of a greener and sustainable approach to food, and campaigns to position it as an ideal weekend staycation option, helped sustain the interest of the local expat community resulting in healthy numbers. “We enjoy a high proportion of repeat visitors over many years. International business is still slow but has picked up 18 per cent since the borders and restrictions started to ease,” informs Helen.
Sustainable tourism investment
At the core of these efforts is a larger vision where investment in tourism initiatives go hand in hand with measures to promote business opportunities. For instance, some time back, a strategic high-impact programme with an array of benefits to investors, positioned RAK as a destination for tourism and investments in affordable luxury. The idea: to simultaneously build all economic sectors including healthcare, hospitality, education, trade, and retail.
Similarly, at this year’s Arabian Travel Market in May, RAKTDA announced over 20 sustainable tourism initiatives making an investment of half a billion Dirhams in partnership with RAK Hospitality Holding and RAK Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “These projects are purpose built with sustainability standards and processes and center our new destination strategy to attract a growing segment of travellers who desire a different, safe and expansive experience,” says Raki.
Incidentally, sustainability seems to be the keyword for many of these initiatives. Some of the steps to enhance sustainability include a collaboration with EarthCheck, the global environmental experts, to address climate change issues in tourism, a strong focus on recycling, reducing wastage and energy consumption, scholarship programmes with universities for tourism education and the launch of ‘Green Hotels Rating’. “We have seen that consumers are becoming more mindful of sustainability and travelling in a responsible manner. They look to positively impact the community and places they visit. Therefore, by creating attractions that preserve the Emirate’s culture and local communities, guests will be able to enjoy authentic experiences,” says Raki.
The India plan
The overall objective of all these measures is to attract tourists not just from newer countries but also from those places like India where often a trip to the UAE equates to shopping in a Dubai mall. While Dubai has been a magnet for Indians for business, pleasure and destination weddings, RAK is now going all out to lure the typical Indian tourist. “India is a key source market for us, and we are continually measuring ways in which we can welcome more guests from this market,” confirms Raki. With the airport recently expanding operations by SpiceJet, connecting Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi, Amritsar, Lucknow and Jaipur to RAK, efforts are truly on to build an Indian tourist and investor fan base.
The challenges and the road ahead
Aside from India, RAK is focusing on long-haul measures to ensure a steady inflow of tourists. Be it by ensuring more hotel keys and further strengthening connectively or entering into strategic airline partnerships to increase accessibility, the goal is to present the Emirate as an all-in-one-destination.
The challenge, however, is the uncertainty. Despite the intense vaccination drives in many countries, the future for tourism continues to remain unclear while the effectiveness of health documents such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA’s) Travel Pass is yet to be seen. “One thing is clear though –with the uncertainty being created by new variants and constantly shifting ground, we have to continue to remain agile in our response,” says Raki. “Destinations must navigate the pandemic’s long-lasting effects, which include more stringent guidelines relating to safety, hygiene and physical contact.”
Ras Al Khaimah will also have to hold on to its newly won fans as the decline in domestic tourism would be a natural fallout of borders opening up, says Rabia. “We already see a rise in outbound travel from UAE to emerging and open destinations such as Greece, Georgia and Zanzibar. People are looking forward to explore new destinations given that most of them have stayed within the country over a year or two on average.”
Additionally, with Expo2020 Dubai heating up, the spotlight once again will fall on Dubai. “However, RAK can develop collaboration to offer adventure and wellness trips during this period for international tourists. It also needs to develop collaboration opportunities with other Emirates to compliment city and nature tourism as well as focus on destination tourism as a key to attract more visitors, working with travel partners and offering competitive packages,” she adds.
It might be a while before RAK can overtake the allure of Dubai but for a traveller who likes to take the less trodden path, perhaps it’s time to discover this gem of a destination that has just the right amount of exotica and modernism. Sometimes, a visit to the untainted vistas of Jebel Jais offers the right foil to get over the frenzied energy of crowds at the Burj Khalifa.
Top Experiences to Enjoy in Ras Al Khaimah
- The world’s longest zipline where thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies can travel at speeds of up to 150kph at a height of 1,680 metres above sea level on top of Jebel Jais Mountain.
- The UAE’s highest restaurant, 1484 By Puro on Jebel Jais.
- Cycling thrills at Jebel Jais, Jabal Yibir, Wadi Showka and Wadi Shewa.
- Some of the interesting sporting events promoted at RAK include the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon, The Road to Ras Al Khaimah (final of the European Tour Challenge Tour), Tough Mudder, Ras Al Khaimah Terry Fox Run, Spartan Ras Al Khaimah Race, Desert Warrior Challenge, UAE Cycling Championship, and the UAE Tour.
- This November, Ras Al Khaimah will host the first ever ‘HIGHLANDER’ hiking experience in the GCC.
- Earth Altitude, an eco-based pop-up hotel concept, is set to feature 15 fully fitted accommodation units, an activation center and swimming pool.
- Saij, A Mantis Collection Mountain Lodge, comprising 70 luxury lodges, will offer a unique wellness experience.
- Adventure seekers can take off on a paragliding experience from the top of Jebel Jais with Jais Wings.
- Balloon Base has fixed hot air balloons that visitors can take in the infinite beauty of Jebel Jais.