Ras Al Khaimah possesses many draws for tourists: the UAE’s longest stretch of coastline, the Hajar Mountains, year-round sunshine and a history stretching back 7000 years. How does Ras Al Khaimah differ from the other emirates and surrounding countries?
Well it differs in the sense that it is a much smaller destination and therefore we are not looking for the mass tourism or following mass tourism as part of how we develop tourism within the emirate. The emirate is one hour north of Dubai, it sits on the coast line, it has 64 kilometers of virgin beach, much of which is not developed at this point, it has got its own mountain range, called the Al Hajar Mountains, which goes from Ras Al Khaymah north into Oman and over into Fujairah, and it also has very interesting hintered desert land which is very unique because the sands in those desert areas are a reddish colour and far more dramatic than perhaps you may see in some other part of the United Arab Emirates. The scenery is very attractive and it is a very authentic, sort of Arabian feel to the Emirate. I think, for me anyway, it is always very charming to see the camels and to see the local communities. It is still very possible to drive into the country side and see farm life and see the guys cultivating the date palms, and that is really the charming aspect of the emirate. It’s a very big attraction for many people who want to come and see that side of life in Arabia.
It has a border with Oman, so how does it differ from Oman, for instance?
Well, Oman has been involved in tourism definitely a lot longer than we are, so perhaps you could say that it is a bit more developed. But there are lots of similarities, because heritage and culture are very important aspects for both of us, and Ras Al Khaimah is lucky in the sense that from the very early stages of Islam it was a very important port, and therefore heritage and cultural aspects are very strong and still remain from very early times. So we have got lots of sites that are locally important and regionally important, and that we are going to develop and make them ready for tourists to visit.
HH Sheik Saud Bin Saqr Al Qassimi said “I want to build a diverse economy that enjoys strong, sustainable growth through attracting investments to create wealth and raise the standards of living for all the people of Ras Al Khaimah.” How does the tourism sector fit into this vision and how important is it for the emirate’s growth?
Well, I guess one of the main things that tourism looks for, obviously, is local business and many auxiliary services that perhaps local people would own and manage. But also on a much bigger level, obviously, within the hospitality factor, hopefully going forth we will be able to approach the local people of Ras Al Khaimah, the young men and women to work within the industry and that will definitely be a main objective for Sheikh Saud.
What is going to be the percentage in terms of the tourism sector in the economy?
To be honest, it is sort of sadly difficult to answer that one yet because we are really at the beginning of the development of the industry. At the moment, the contribution is quite small for tourism, but going forward, the expectations of growth and plans for growth will be quite significant. So I suspect that there will be quite a considerable jump percentage-wise of the contribution of tourism, but I could not really give you a figure at this stage because it’s a bit of an unknown really for us.
Ras Al Khaimah is the newest tourism success story in the region with its enormous growth in tourist footfall and aggressive investments into tourism infrastructure and facilities. What are some of the top projects you are envisaging to attract the tourists and to improve the infrastructure? You have the new convention centre and the WOW RAK theme park or entertainment park, can you elaborate on these?
Well, we have got a lot of interesting projects coming up and, again, we try to use the three main geographical areas, the mountains, the desert areas and the coastline. So, at the moment the one that is currently being developed and moving forward quite quickly is Al Marjan island, which is the first man-made island just off the coast of Ras Al Khaimah, near to an area called Al Hamra. It stretches 4.5 kilometers into the ocean. It will be a mixed-use project with a number of hotels, resort style living, residential areas. It will have also leasing and retail commercial areas as well. And the whole concept of that island will be built on 40 percent green housing. That means 40 percent of the land will affect the main green areas for parks, for walklands, and so on. That will fit very nicely into the overall plan for Ras Al Khaimah, is that we develop a lot of sensitivity, with a lot of the projects that are coming up in the future. The next project that we have, which is further along the coast, again moving more towards the city of Ras Al Khaimah, is Mina Al Arab. This is a seven kilometer beachfront project that is built alongside an ecologically important area which has been kept in such a state, like a reserve, and there will be a mixture of branded international properties such as the Intercon, Marriott. The Hilton will be there as well, in addition to the Rotana, which are a local group. And then on the north end of the project where the reserve area is, we are looking for special operators, so eco-type operators that would come in and help work in that particular project. Then in the mountains one of the projects that is planned for the mountains is a project called Jebel Jaiz Mountain Resort. The project will again be a mixed-use project so it will have residential, hotel apartments and a convention center, a small convention center. Again, the concept of soft adventure will be incorporated into the project, using specific sports that can be carried out in the mountains such as walking, hiking, four wheel driving, and mountain climbing. The interesting thing about the mountain area is that our mountains go about 2,000 meters in height, and so in the winter months the area is quite cool. And so for approximately 2 months of the year there is the potential to have an outdoor skiing area, and so we are looking at the possibility of developing that.
How many degrees does it reach?
Well it gets down to zero so it obviously would be artificially-enhanced snow.
But enough to make snow.
Yes, enough to sustain some snow, so we are looking at that. That would be a very interesting project and very exciting, and one of a kind for sure for us. So we are doing that. And then in the hinterland areas where we have really beautiful desert areas; it almost sounds like a contradiction to say wild desert, but in fact that is what it is. And so we are going to do some eco-projects there that will complement that area. One of the projects at the moment is with Banyan Tree Spa, which are very famous in Asia for their spa products; and they are working with us to develop a really nice sort of desert style camp area which will have villas and some other small, deluxe villa-type accommodations. It is not a very big project. I think, approximately, it has the capacity for about 120 rooms. Very much boutique. Everything will be low-rise and sort of just blend in to the environment that it is being constructed in. Again, all of those projects are looking at different markets for us, and different types of visitors, so that, hopefully, we can have a diversified tourism portfolio when we go forward.
What are your visitors like?
It is interesting. A lot of visitors are coming from Germany, from France, or perhaps I should say German-speaking countries and French-speaking countries. And those are the main groups at the moment, typically because they are very interested in the heritage and the culture, and they are a little bit more discerning as travellers, so they are quite interested in creating their own adventure and they like to go to the mountains). In addition, luckily for Ras Al Khaimah, we are positioned in a unique location because we are very close to Musandam, which is one and a half hours north of us and that is a really great day trip for people to travel north.
Tell us more about Musandam?
Well, you travel from Ras Al Khaimah north across the UAE-Omani border, and you can do that driving. Then you drive all along the coast north for one hour, a really dramatic, beautiful drive, to the village of Kessab and from there you can take a boat that will take you up out into the Straits of Hormuz. And it is really a very beautiful area. I mean, the scenery is quite dramatic; we call the area the “fjords of the Middle East” because it is just sheer mountains down into the ocean. It has a quite interesting, barren look and feel about it. Almost hard to imagine that many tribes still live in some of these remote areas. Then, as you go out onto the Arabian Gulf and into the Straits, there’s just an abundance of sea life. A particular attraction in that area is the dolphins, which everybody loves to see. So that’s a really good, fun day out.
So, what is the feedback you are collecting from your visitors from France and Germany?
HM: Well, I guess the main thing is that everybody is always saying, “Just don’t overdo it; we love it in Ras Al Khaimah because it’s just so real, so authentic.” And so, of course, we’d love to say “Of course, we don’t want to develop it,” but we do need some things. We need more hotels and we need more things for people to do. We need to develop tourism as an economic enterprise. So, unfortunately we will have to do some things, but we will hope to try to keep the authenticity of the destination, and keep the Arabian feel intact as we do develop.
And these are mainly the tourists more into recreational travel. You are also building the convention and exhibition center. So are you about to tackle the business segment as well?
It’s an interesting question, and we’re not actually going in a big way after that market. What we’re doing is helping to develop a sustainable tourism industry. Actually, for example, with the convention center, we really support the other businesses that are already setting up there, as part of the development of the emirate. We do have a number of international companies that are moving there, and we have new real estate projects, and we have other commercial complexes. What will happen going forward, is, obviously, these guys will need to have facilities for meetings and conventions and so on, and we don’t actually currently offer that. So it’s just normal that we would provide those facilities for our own development within the emirate. Obviously, once the facilities are there, then it will attract people that will want to take an internship from Dubai, for example, because we’re still so close to them. And, of course, there will be other opportunities. But primarily the reason we’re doing this is we need those facilities.
You also mentioned on numerous occasions that your projects are very oriented towards ecology, and you’re also interested in developing ecotourism. How important is the notion of corporate social responsibility and environment for Ras Al Khaimah?
It’s very important, because, actually, in our emirate we’ve got four really unique, ecologically important areas, and we’re hoping that by keeping those locations in mind, that we can, again, develop a very sustainable and responsible tourism portfolio. So we know this, everybody is becoming more aware and responsible, and has to take more responsibility for the environment for the future. Actually, it’s really great that now people recognize the value of some of these assets. For example, in Ras Al Khaimah we’ve got wetland area; and this area, in the spring and the autumn months, is on the path of all the migrating birds between Africa and Asia. These areas are really important, and we need to make sure that we safeguard them for the future. And also that we safeguard them for the people that come and visit us, so that they can see this great, wonderful natural occurrence that takes place each year.
The 2007 statistics reveal an annual footfall of over half a million visitors, and within the next four years, extra project is figured to increase a phenomenal 400%, reaching over 2.5 million visitors by 2012. These are impressive figures. So what role does RAK Tourism play in these projections?
Well, obviously, our main role is to promote the destination, and we do that by going along to international events, such as ATM, ITV in Berlin, World Travel Market in London, and then we also target specific niche markets, niche shows, as well. So, for example, we’ll look at going to the shows that are for culture, for, especially, soft adventure focus, and go from there.
What are you expecting from this particular event, the World Travel Market?
This is, as I’ve mentioned already, one of the big, big events of the year, so there’s lots of things. Obviously, if we’re here to talk about the growth within the destinations or to promote the convention center. We are here as a tourism board to support our hotels, the present ones and the future ones, and to strengthen the relationships we have with tour operators. Our airline is here with us as well; this is their first year to join with us. So our role is to get everybody together and make sure that we’re all moving together in the same, and, hopefully, the right, direction.
We see that there is a lot of interconnection between the public and the private sector. How do you assess this relationship in the emirate?
It’s very important that we work together, and I think that we recognize that we’ve had considerable success, particularly in the last 16 to 18 months, because we have come together and we go together to international events. I mean, everybody has their own business interests, and, obviously, they will always pursue those interests, but when we come along to events like this, it gives a message that we’re serious about developing tourism and we want to make things happen in the right way for the future.
Dubai has announced to attract 15 million tourists by 2015, and Abu Dhabi to attract 3 million tourists by 2015, as well. What are some chances associated with competition on the UAE level?
Sure. Hopefully, what will happen as we go forward is that we’ll all complement each other. At the moment, definitely Dubai has got a very different product offering than, certainly, we do. We’re different, again, to Abu Dhabi. And, hopefully, going forward what will happen is that the tourists will want to have diversity in their holiday packages. So, typically they may have come in the past to spend maybe 4 or 5 days just shopping in Dubai, but in the future we’d like to see them coming for 7 days. They would spend, maybe, 3 days in Dubai, a couple days with us, some days with Abu Dhabi, and that will really give them a complete, a holistic holiday experience in the United Arab Emirates.
What are your strategic priorities for 2008 and 2009?
We’ve got lots of priorities. We’re a very young tourism board. We have got a lot of work ahead of us; we’ve got a lot of relationships to develop. So we’re just going to push ahead with that. And we’re going to work very closely with the airline going forward, and supporting them in getting new routes. We would like to see more charter business coming out of Europe, for example, and this will happen as soon as our new hotels start to open up. Then we’re working with the airline to have some scheduled traffic going into Europe as well and then extend into Asia, and just keep going from there. I think the future is all about work. Working hard, make it happen.
What would you like Ras Al Khaimah’s name, or brand, to be associated with internationally?
We’re working hard to develop a really unique personality for Ras Al Khaimah. And we’re doing that by sticking close to what is authentic about the destination. I think the word ‘Ras Al Khaimah’ itself is a very charming word, and so conjures up, already, the whole idea of what the destination will offer. So we want to bring it in that way. It’s a very, very, exciting destination because of the four ecologically-important areas, the mountains, the wetland, the coastline and the desert hinterland that I mentioned before. So we’ll be focusing on that as well. And, luckily enough, we also have the heritage and cultural aspect on top of that, as well. And so that gives us a fairly full tourism portfolio.
What are some of the strategies to accomplish this goal?
There’s a number. From an emirate-wide approach, our office is working closely with environmental protection, for example, we’re also working very closely with museum and ticketing. And between the three of us, we are putting together a plan which will incorporate the assets that I talked about earlier into an overall strategy and look to develop. Certainly, in the immediate term we can start working on the heritage sites. Many of them have already been identified and are known to us, so we need to, really, not do a whole lot of work, to be honest. We just need to make them ready for tourists to go and visit. So we have to implement some new signage, some boards and some parking areas, and shortly after that we’ll start some tour guide programs, so that we can start to encourage local people to be involved in some of these projects.
Well, we would love to start tomorrow. But it will take a little bit of time. There’s lots of work to do. Most likely we’ll need to go for outside partners. We need to know who the right people are. One of the other things we’re doing in the next couple years is developing a hospitality college or university in Ras Al Khaimah. So we’re working with those guys, because they will, obviously, provide us with the new talent from the local market to work in either the hotels or the other new heritage and cultural sites we’re developing.
As general Manager of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism, what do you want Ras Al Khaimah to be in 5 years, or in 10 years?
Well, it is going to obviously change, but hopefully it is not going to change hugely from where it is now. We are just going to be perhaps a little bit more ready to receive more visitors. We will be, certainly, a lot more recognized and known, and have definitely a few more hotels, I mean at the moment we have only got a small number of hotels, 1400, and when you compare us to any of the other emirates that’s really nothing. So we will grow up a little bit and we will develop a personality, and we will become better known, as I mentioned. But, really, we are going to stay pretty much the same, I think, as a tourism destination.
You just mentioned the outside partners you are looking for, are you talking about the hotels, the hotel chains, or are you talking about other things.
Well, it’s a combination. We are still looking for new hotel developers, people that are interested, particularly in special interest projects. And there are many other auxiliary services that can be provided. We have a lot of hotels at the moment, but there are other things. There are more tour operators coming in that can offer, particularly, eco-tourist activities, and there are many opportunities for small business operators that want to do something special. And of course the exciting things are the eco-tourists.
And it will be welcomed by the government?
Yes, absolutely. Yes. Certainly. I mean, they can contact my office if they wish to or they can go directly to RAK investment authorities, who are one of the main bodies to give out licenses.
Is there any final messages you would like to address to our audience, viewers and readers?
Yes, well obviously we would like to encourage people to consider Ras Al Khaimah if they are coming to Dubai already; we are one hour away, so they should come and have a look and see what we have to offer.