Features

Ras Al Khaimah: Way Forward

31 Oct 2016 by Neha Gupta Kapoor

The drive to Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), the UAE’s northernmost emirate, is a serene one. For most part of my time on highway E611, I was accompanied by sand dunes of the terracotta desert, unique desert shrubs at intervals and that one odd camel as a reminder that I am in Arabia.

Both multilane highways that cut through Ras Al Khaimah, E311 and E611, connect to all neighbouring emirates and some neighbouring countries, making them important gateways for trade. The five seaports there help just as much in building Ras Al Khaimah’s economy. They trade more than 50 million tonnes worth of commodity, provide docking space for ships in need of maintenance and repair, and offer cargo handling facilities and services.

Ras Al Khaimah welcomed me with its striking Statue of Justice on Al Mamourah Road, just as I was admiring the imposing minarets of Sheikh Zayed mosque — one of the most beautiful ones in the UAE. Turn right from the roundabout with the sculpture and head into the main city centre — a contrast, made up of short, beige, cement, commercial and residential buildings, and casual roadside eateries.

Don’t be fooled by its rustic appearance though. Judging the emirate from its lack of shiny skyscrapers and swanky buildings would be rather unfair. True, it doesn’t exude the same external glamour as its sisters, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but what many don’t know is that this is where the big bucks are spent for a quick weekend getaway. The fastest growing tourism destination in the UAE, its top source market is made up of the country’s residents, citizens and expats themselves.

In fact, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism has launched Vision 2019 this year, which aims to attract a million visitors worldwide by the end of 2018. Haitham Mattar, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism says,
“The strategy has been put in place to manage and increase the growth of the emirate across a range of platforms including the expansion of our tourism offering, cementing more strategic partnerships and increasing the emirate’s event portfolio.” In 2014- 2015, its visitor count totalled to 7,40,383, “a six per cent increase from the previous year”, he adds. To date, Ras Al Khaimah’s visitor numbers are showing a similar trend with a seven per cent increase versus the same period in 2015.

Just like Yas Islands in Abu Dhabi and Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, RAK’s Al Marjan Island is also an artificial reclamation of land, stretching 4.5km out to sea. This one is especially important for Ras Al Khaimah Tourism’s Vision 2019. Commenting on the ongoing development that was apparent from the cranes and tractors in sight during my tour, Mattar says, “The island will feature 20 hotels by 2025, alongside a brand new convention and exhibition centre for 1,000 people. Some of the hotel brands confirmed so far include Mövenpick, Crowne Plaza, and Radisson.”

AccorHotels-managed Marjan Island Resort and Spa (301-keys), Turkish brand Rixos Bab Al Bahr (655-keys), and Double Tree by Hilton Resort & Spa Marjan Island (485-keys) — second after the one on Al Jazah Road, are the existing and functional upscale properties on the island. Of these, Double Tree and Rixos are two of four hospitality partners of the RAK Tourism-Seawings Lifestyle (seaplane company) collaboration to curate luxury experiences for visitors. The Cove Rotana Resort and Banyan Tree Al Wadia are the other two hospitality partners.

A basic escapade on the seaplane includes an aerial tour of the city’s beautiful Hajar Mountains, the desert, and crystal blue Arabian Gulf — affordably priced at AED 1,295/₹23,619 per person. Adding extravagance to this is a pick-up from Dubai Creek by a Seawings plane for the aerial tour, and a drop at one of its partner hotels.

Adding variety to the luxury package, the hotels on Al Marjan, block slots on request wherein guests can try a hand at archery and falcon handling, spend a day at the spa, and can indulge in water sports in the crystal blue seas. If you’re lucky, you may even see a few turtles swim up to the shore early morning.

Not far from Marjan, is the Al Hamra area that is home to Waldorf Astoria (346-keys), The Al Hamra Residence and Village (366-keys), Hilton Al Hamra Beach and Golf Resort (265-keys), and The Banyan Tree Beach Resort (32-pool villas), amongst others. Each of them have a private beach that is just as beautiful as the one on the neighbouring island. The added advantage of these hotels is that they enjoy a prime location for golf overlooking the 18-hole Al Hamra golf course.

One of the first convention centres in Ras Al Khaimah opened there too — Al Hamra Convention Centre — in 2009, with a capacity for 1,200 people. Being centrally located means it is within proximity to 3- and 5-star hotels, and is a quick drive from the 18-hole golf course and the marina.

Ras Al Khaimah

Forthcoming construction will only bolster Ras Al Khaimah Tourism’s long-term goal of reaching three million visitors by 2025. Mattar says, “Our Vision 2019 Destination Strategy will see our current hotel inventory of 5,000 rooms increase to 20,000 rooms by 2025. The opportunities for hotel investment are very attractive due to the excellent returns that hotel owners are benefitting from. From January to July 2016, the average hotel occupancy increased by 15 per cent year on year, and revenue per available room (RevPar) was up by 7.6 per cent. Ras Al Khaimah’s hotels saw a peak in occupancy in July this year, which grew by 36.7 percent since July 2015. Over the last 12 months we have signed strategic global partnership agreements with Thomas Cook, TUI, Ctrip, Cox and Kings FTI, Emirates, Flydubai, Air Arabia, Qatar Airways and Air India Express.”

The UAE’s residents are the largest source market for Ras Al Khaimah, representing just over a third of the total visitors. On second and third positions are Germany and the UK, India standing at number four, before Russia.

“Ras Al Khaimah has been witnessing a positive trend from India in the last few years,” confirms Mattar. “The trend has been identified as one of the fastest and strongest growing source markets for inbound tourism. In 2015, the emirate saw an 80 per cent increase in visitors from India when compared with 2014.”

He highlights the emirate’s close proximity to Dubai, a long-standing destination of choice for Indian tourists that has proved to be a key factor in making Ras Al Khaimah an attractive destination. “Ras Al Khaimah is only a 45-minute drive from Dubai International Airport; our stunning landscapes, unspoilt beaches, lush mangroves, highest mountains in the UAE, world-class hotels and resorts, and abundant adventure activities are easily accessible. Ras Al Khaimah also boasts a number of ancient archaeological sites, giving visitors a fascinating insight into rich culture that still runs through the very heart of the local population.”

It’s not just tourism that is adding to RAK’s coffers though; the Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone (RAK FTZ) launched in 2000 has made it easier for foreign companies from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia to invest into the emirate. So far, more than 8,000 companies from over 100 countries, represent more than 50 industry sectors there.

Being a client of RAK FTZ means working in a tax-free environment, getting fast-track visa service, and having the freedom to source labour without adhering to the mandatory quotas (for private firms, 15 per cent workforce must be Emirati), amongst others. Further, because real estate is less expensive as land is more freely available in this developing city, Ras Al Khaimah is an excellent value for money for investors.

The free trade zone is divided into a business park, industrial park, technology park and academic zone, receiving maximum investment from India (21.2 per cent). Dabur and Ashok Leyland have units set up there too. It is basically an entire infrastructure with value-ads such as getting assistance from RAK FTZ in acquiring business licences, carpentry services, logistics, IT, auditing services, infrastructure, consultancy for expansion plans, and so forth.

With this much international investment, Ras Al Khaimah is bound to receive MICE groups, and it does, says Mattar, who cites India as an example. In fact, the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (TDA) highlighted itself as a perfect “MICE and Luxury Destination” at MICE India and Luxury Travel Congress (MILT) 2016, held in Mumbai in July 2016. “The combination of excellent location, great value for money and beautiful natural assets makes Ras Al Khaimah ideal for meetings, incentives and events,” says Mattar. “Furthermore, we are focusing on promoting Ras Al Khaimah as a boutique destination for Indian weddings too, as we have seen a recent surge in interest from them.”

So, whether you’re travelling to Ras Al Khaimah for business or leisure, the panel to the left lists activities that have a been attracting an increasing number of visitors from around the world.

Being a client of RAK FTZ means working in a tax-free environment, getting fast-track visa service, and having the freedom to source labour without adhering to the mandatory quotas (for private firms, 15 per cent workforce must be Emirati), amongst others. Further, because real estate is less expensive as land is more freely available in this developing city, Ras Al Khaimah is an excellent value for money for investors.

The free trade zone is divided into a business park, industrial park, technology park and academic zone, receiving maximum investment from India (21.2 per cent). Dabur and Ashok Leyland have units set up there too. It is basically an entire infrastructure with value-ads such as getting assistance from RAK FTZ in acquiring business licences, carpentry services, logistics, IT, auditing services, infrastructure, consultancy for expansion plans, and so forth.

With this much international investment, Ras Al Khaimah is bound to receive MICE groups, and it does, says Mattar, who cites India as an example. In fact, the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (TDA) highlighted itself as a perfect “MICE and Luxury Destination” at MICE India and Luxury Travel Congress (MILT) 2016, held in Mumbai in July 2016. “The combination of excellent location, great value for money and beautiful natural assets makes Ras Al Khaimah ideal for meetings, incentives and events,” says Mattar. “Furthermore, we are focusing on promoting Ras Al Khaimah as a boutique destination for Indian weddings too, as we have seen a recent surge in interest from them.”

So, whether you’re travelling to Ras Al Khaimah for business or leisure, the panel to the left lists activities that have a been attracting an increasing number of visitors from around the world.

Ras Al Khaimah Bedouin Oasis Camp

THINGS TO DO

Dhayah Fort

Originally built as a 16th century fortification to defend against invading forces and now the only hilltop military tower left standing in the UAE, Dhayah Fort offers a glimpse into Ras Al Khaimah’s riveting past while providing a modern symbol of the emirate’s enduring heritage. Sightseers are sure to enjoy the breathtaking bird’s-eye view of Ras Al Khaimah, framed by the Arabian Gulf and Al Hajar Mountains, thanks to the fort’s elevated position atop a rocky outcrop.

Jazira Al Hamra Fishing Village

Al Hamra has an interesting history that goes back to the 16th century. Its original denizens were fishermen who left the village abruptly — no one knows the real reason behind this sudden departure. Since then, this oldest fishing village of the UAE has been preserved well. Visitors can admire its ancient mosque structures, and coral-stone houses that occupy a small part of it even today. Such is their beauty, that many international fashion campaigns choose its bare walls and rustic appearance as a backdrop for photo shoots.

Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre (AWEAC)

Spread across 1,235 acres in Wadi Khadeja, AWEAC is built within a natural desert landscape. While riding over the dunes, one can easily spot sand gazelles, Arabian gazelles, camels and Arabian oryx year round, and in the winters and during sunsets, desert foxes and wildcats may appear. Birdwatchers have much to look forward to as well. Apart from horse riding, visitors may enjoy camel rides, falconry, archery, and educational interaction with the horses and ponies. (alwadiequestrian.com)

Jais Mountain

At 1,934 metres, Jebel Jais is the highest peak in the UAE and is occasionally dusted with snow. Adventure seekers can experience hiking tours and trekking excursions along the artistically eroded cliffs and deep canyons.

Bedouin Oasis Desert Camp

This one is a traditional experience on an Arabic desert that gives a flavour of Bedous’ (ancient tribe) lifestyle. Of course, the entire episode will unfold with luxuries such as cosy tents, a spread of local fare, and live entertainment. Self-drives, drumming sessions, horse riding, and DJ parties are some of the other activities on the menu. (arabianincentive.com)

Digdaga Camel Race

An old sport of the UAE is betting on racing camels. An intrinsic part of RAK’s culture, these races are held even today on the camel racetrack amidst dunes and thickets of ghaf trees in Digdaga and Hamraniya, on weekends. On weekdays the camels are dressed colourfully and made to exercise on the tracks, to build on their endurance.

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