Ras Al Khaimah: The Forgotten Emirate

As Ras Al Khaimah edges closer to reaching its one million visitor target by the end of 2018, its Tourism Development Authority affirms the Emirate’s role as an ideal destination for events, congresses and conventions

While Dubai and Abu Dhabi continue to grab headlines, attract celebrities and boast the limelight amid the UAE’s surge to prominence, one of the remaining seven emirates is slowly evolving as a hidden gem; leveraging more natural attributes to catch the attention of tourists and business travellers alike.

Its name deriving from the meaning, ‘headland of the small huts’, Ras Al Khaimah actually attempts to stay true to this more humble of origins rather than ditching its indigenous appeal in preference of more modern glitz.

Split between Old Ras Al Khaimah and Nakheel on either side of the creek that runs through the northern Emirate, its beaches, mountainous terrain and hospitable inhabitants make for much more of a quaint, picturesque, adventurous experience in comparison to some of its counterparts’ Riviera-esque make-up.

That being said, some facets do remain consistent across the entire UAE contingent; namely the hot and arid desert climate, and the religious influences on both the country’s people and infrastructure.

But whereas the familiar visitor stomping grounds of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have then gone to great lengths to modernise and westernise its spectacular offerings, Ras Al Khaimah offers a much more grounded - if not equally refined and developed - environment.

And people’s heads are turning. On the tourism side, outdoor pursuit enthusiasts and adventurers are arriving to the Emirate in their droves, eager to soak in the stunning scenery across ‘RAK’s hot springs, sun-baked desert, sandy beaches, and striking mountains.

And inevitably, the same attractions also serve as effective pastimes for the executive and corporate community, which Ras Al Khaimah is looking to capitalise on more and more in the years to come.

Haitham Matter of the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) says: “As Ras Al Khaimah edges closer to reaching its one million visitor target by the end of 2018, RAKTDA is pursuing expansion plans to enhance the destination and broaden our offering by drawing up a dynamic events calendar.

“With an abundance of natural landscapes, coastline, mountains, adventure activities, history and culture - as well as the world-class hotel offering - Ras Al Khaimah is the ideal destination for hosting a wide variety of boutique incentive events, international congresses and conventions.”

Facts and figures

Languages: Arabic, English, Persian, Urdu, Hindi

Area: 650 square miles

Population (2008): 263,000

Currency: UAE dirham

Time zone: UTC+4

Dialling code: +971

Internet TLD: .ae

Climate: Desert

Highest recorded temperature: 48.1 °C 

The Business End

Perhaps the reason for Ras Al Khaimah’s dissimilar evolution to the likes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi is its historical economic influencers. Untouched by the riches that the oil industry has brought its neighbours, the Emirate has instead developed virtue of a more diversified business infrastructure which has more recently incorporated areas of real estate, construction, manufacturing, technology, professional services, finance, agriculture and - of course - tourism.

Capitalising on its growing appeal, the latter sector has bloomed over the past few years across sub-sectors of hospitality, catering, leisure and adventure tours to create a more holistic offering to visitors of all kinds.

Four and five-star hotels have risen in abundance; usually to complement the natural beaches, mountains, oases and sea views to help blend aspects of nature and nurture.

And ultimately, the result is now a tourist destination akin to anything you’d find in the Caribbean or Southern Europe, albeit maintaining the essence of Middle Eastern culture that has become so popular over the past decade.

From an ongoing business perspective, the enhancement of its trade and transport routes have further compounded RAK’s progression; Saqr Port and Ras Al Khaimah International Airport especially bridging the Emirate to the rest of the world from a bulk, cargo, container and passenger perspective to cater for the area’s growing appeal.

Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority

The Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) was established in May, 2011 as a Government entity of Ras Al Khaimah. RAKTDA’s main purpose was and is to develop and promote the Emirate’s tourism infrastructure and potential both domestically and abroad, and to establish Ras Al Khaimah as a destination that delivers a comprehensive set of offerings to visitors, from luxury through to affordable travel.

In order to achieve its goals, RAKTDA has a Government mandate to license, regulate and monitor the Emirate’s tourism and hospitality industry, to develop the Emirate’s tourism infrastructure and attractions, and to generate and encourage direct tourism investment and investment opportunities into Ras Al Khaimah.

RAKTDA’s ambition is therefore to advance the development of a sustainable and competitive tourism industry by working with the industry and other stakeholders to achieve its targets for visitor numbers, revenue and job creation.

EME Outlook (EME): Since inception, how has the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority developed and progressed in terms of its key objectives and the messages it tries to get across?

Haitham Matter, RAKTDA (HM): Ras Al Khaimah is now one of the fastest growing tourism destinations. In 2016, we welcomed 820,772 visitors, a 10.9 percent year-on-year increase. Full year figures show impressive growth from all our top markets; Germany, UK, Russia and India.

In addition to double-digit year-on-year growth in international guest arrivals during H1, 2017, average hotel occupancy jumped to 72.7 percent, an increase of 4.7 percent on the corresponding six-month period in 2016.

Robust H1 growth was posted across all key performance indicators with total guest nights up 17 percent, the average length of stay up by 10.5 percent and room revenue up by 13.3 percent.

These strong performance figures indicate that Ras Al Khaimah is on track to welcome 900,000 visitors in 2017. By the end of 2018, our target is to reach one million visitors.

EME: Taking a more general industry stance, how would you evaluate the tourism sector in Ras Al Khaimah now compared to its condition when the Tourism Development Authority began?

HM: Ras Al Khaimah’s tourism strategy involves attracting high-yield segments from core target markets to create a more sustainable destination. These core markets include the UAE, Germany, Russia & CIS, UK, India and Western and Northern Europe.

Furthermore, we will target both consumer (cultural explorers, adventurers and wellness seekers) and corporate (travel trade, investors, industry, government and community) audiences.

These markets not only outline our product differentiation, but they also allow us to promote Ras Al Khaimah’s USPs, including 64 kilometres of pristine beaches, the highest mountains in the UAE, hot springs, mangroves and a terracotta desert.

[Meanwhile], a key area for hotel growth is Al Marjan Island, an archipelago stretching 4.5 kilometres out to sea. Already boasting the Rixos Bab Al Bahr, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Resort & Spa Marjan Island, and Marjan Island Resort & Spa, managed by AccorHotels, the island has been earmarked for an additional 20 hotels by 2025. 

Working with independent assessors, we have outlined strong return on beach and mountain properties. Looking at beach resorts in particular, existing hotels have shown high profit conversion when compared to similar regional markets.

EME: What is in store for Ras Al Khaimah for the remainder of 2017 and beyond to continue the good work already commenced and to enhance its reputation as a tourism and business travel hub further in the future?

HM: For the rest of 2017, we will be promoting Destination Jebel Jais, which includes development projects focused on the UAE’s highest mountain. These projects spearhead a drive to transform Jebel Jais into an adventure activity hub: including the Jebel Jais Via Ferrata, the Gulf’s first commercial iron path; the Jebel Jais Viewing Deck overlooking the Hajar Mountains; and in Q4, the world’s longest zip line.

All of our upcoming tourism products have been designed to enhance our natural assets and protect the environment. For example, construction on our observation deck utilises environmentally-friendly resources, such as LED lighting, solar panels and photovoltaic fabric materials to allow for clean energy operations.

Looking to the future, we plan to achieve continued growth from all our key markets. Specifically, we look forward to welcoming one million visitors by the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, new product launches, representation offices and trade partners, along with increased marketing and promotional activities and overseas roadshows with trade and media, will all help to raise awareness, boost visitor arrivals and diversify our source markets.

EME: Finally, what progress and development would you hope and expect to be able to report back in the future for both the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority and Ras Al Khaimah as a whole?

HM: Our vision is to create a sustainable and competitive tourism destination and a leading contributor to the Ras Al Khaimah economy. We will inspire people from around the world to visit the Emirate and grow tourism into Ras Al Khaimah’s leading socio-economic driver, enhancing the quality of life for residents and offering investors attractive and sustainable opportunities across multiple sectors.

Out and About

Attractive opportunities inevitably come about by trying to create an ‘everyman’ appeal, and this is indeed how a lot of tourist hotspots or business travel destinations stake their claim to the international community. However, in Ras Al Khaimah’s case, the focus has conversely been on retaining authenticity and originality, and upon your visit, you will be encouraged to embrace typically Islamic and Arabian culture.

This stands for architecture, music, attire, cuisine and lifestyle, before becoming localised furthermore when you turn towards its rugged mountains and white beaches.

The Hajjar Mountains have now become a familiar hunting ground for avid hikers and explorers, while on the calmer ground, fishing, golf and picnicking are among the most popular pursuits and may fit more suitably into a work-visit dynamic.

The Ras Al Khaimah Golf Club and Hilton’s Al Hamra Golf Club go one step further in bridging the hospitality-leisure gap in becoming two of the most sought-after resorts in the area.

Thrill seeking between meetings isn’t beyond possible either with the majority of the Emirate’s attractions within short bus, car or walking distances, and the Ice Land Waterpark, Al Sawan Camel Race Track, quad biking, parachuting and micro-light flying are just a select few of the more frivolous options to this end. Finally, falling under the ‘must-do’ category, Corniche Road ties in all of the above quite nicely.

And there’s more to come too. Matter adds: “Over the past 12 months, RAKTDA has increased its focus on Jebel Jais, the UAE’s highest mountain, to attract active adventurers from around the world. With further products to be introduced later this year, there is no shortage of opportunities to develop luxury mountain resorts and wellness retreats in Ras Al Khaimah.

“RAKTDA has also announced an anticipated 4,445 new rooms to open over the coming years, ranging from three-five star properties; thanks to growing hotel occupancy levels and growing RevPAR rates, as well as the low cost of land in Ras Al Khaimah compared to neighbouring destinations.”

Outlook Recommends

“Ras Al Khaimah will be a compelling destination for both business travellers and leisure visitors seeking authentic cultural, historical and natural Arabian experiences.” - Haitham Matter, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority

Hospitality

Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort

Blending the global recognition and prestige of Hilton Hotels & Resorts, with the local feel and ambience of Ras Al Khaimah, the former’s Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort capitalises on the great love of the outdoors that exists within the Emirate. Mixing pleasure with leisure, the hotel was nominated for UAE’s Leading Beach Resort at 2017’s World Travel Awards.

Ras Al Khaimah Hotel

Al Nakheel Hotel Apartments

Bedouin Oasis Camp                

History

Sheba’s Palace

Al Hayl Fort

Retail

Old Souq

Fish Market

Sport and Leisure

Al Sawan Camel Race Track

Ice Land Water Park

Tower Links Golf Club

Food & Drink

Marjan

Al Waha

Transport Links

As mentioned, travelling around Ras Al Khaimah couldn’t be simpler, and neither could your entry into the Emirate. Citizens from most countries are able to enter via a free of charge visa, to the Ras Al Khaimah International Airport which is situated just 20 minutes from the city centre.

And from that point on, especially on your business travels, it’s probably best to keep a reputable taxi company’s number nearby.

Without a railway system to speak of, and unless you fancy getting by under your own steam through a car rental, the metered taxi network is by far the best way to go and this all begins from your airport pick-up which you can arrange prior to arrival.

The other less glamorous option is to opt for the comprehensive bus service that runs not just around Ras Al Khaimah but between Ras Al Khaimah and the neighbouring cities of Al Quwain, Ajman, Sharjah and Dubai too.

Again though, while the taxis are on meters and costs can mount up, nowhere is so far away that it’s not worth taking the stress out of a journey between these bordering locations.

Landmark Attractions

Al Jazirah Al Hamra

“Frozen in time and coated with a layer of ochre desert sand, Al Jazirat Al Hamra is a hamlet of perfectly-preserved Ras Al Khaimah history. And dust isn’t the only thing covering the town; it’s shrouded in mystery, surrounded by rumours and possibly even haunted by ancient ghosts... It can’t compete with Dubai – and doesn’t want to, anyway. Ras Al Khaimah has a rich and fascinating history, which it’s proudly determined to preserve.” - The Travel Hack

The National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah

“Today the 'Late Fort ' exhibits historical, ethnographical and archaeological material relating to the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah and provides an interesting insight into the history and traditions of this area... Like all other traditional houses in Ras Al Khaimah Old Town the 'Late Fort' was originally constructed from coral stone, a fossil building material originating from the sea. Although being fairly lightweight it possesses excellent insulation qualities, keeping buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. Today the massive rectangular tower represents the oldest part of the 'Late Fort'.” - Ras Al Khaimah Heritage

Dhayah Fort

“With a backdrop of steep mountains, the bay of Dhayah has always been a very fertile area and has been settled in at least since the third millennium BC. A conical shaped hill at the edge of the palm gardens and at the foot of the mountains, served as a natural defence post for the oasis. People have used this hill since prehistoric times for settlement and fortification alike... It is the only hilltop fort still existing in the UAE and offers a fantastic view of the lush palm gardens, the sea and the dramatic mountains.” - Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority