True North: The Northern Emirates are the UAE's rising stars

28 Mar 2024 by Varun Godinho
True North: The Northern Emirates are the UAE's rising stars. (Images supplied by: RAKTDA; SCTDA)

The UAE’s Tourism Strategy 2031 aims to increase the sector’s contribution to the national GDP to Dhs450 billion and attract 40 million hotel guests. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two key emirates within the UAE, have a modern, robust and ever-expanding tourism infrastructure to support that growth. In fact, in 2023, Dubai recorded the highest-ever number of annual tourist arrivals with 17.15 million international overnight visitors, beating the previous record of 16.73 million in 2019 by a sizeable margin. Meanwhile Abu Dhabi, after having attracted 18 million visitors in 2022, set itself a target of more than 24 million visitors for 2023.

While Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the well-established nerve centres of tourism within the UAE, it is the Northern Emirates – comprising Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman – that will likely play a major role in the country’s mission to collectively reach its desired levels of tourism by the beginning of the next decade.

Of the five emirates that make up the Northern Emirates, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah are sprinting off their starting blocks. Last year was the best year on record for Ras Al Khaimah, with it attracting 1.22 million overnight arrivals – an 8 per cent increase over 2022. “Tourism is the fastest growing sector in Ras Al Khaimah. It currently accounts for 5 per cent of the emirate’s GDP and our goal is to make this a third of the economy by the end of the decade. The sector currently employs over 7,700 people, and this is expected to reach 20,000 people by 2030,” Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA), told Business Traveller Middle East.

Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, the chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), added that Sharjah too witnessed significant growth in tourism last year. “In 2023, we welcomed over 1.14 million visitors between Q1 and Q3, an 18 per cent year-on-year increase. Hotel occupancy rates reached 66 per cent, reflecting the emirate’s growing appeal to both leisure and business travellers. This translates to significant job creation across various sectors, from hospitality and tourism to retail and transportation. In terms of economic contribution, in 2022, the tourism sector generated revenue of nearly Dhs527 million, a 28 per cent increase compared to the preceding year of 2021.”

Hospitality will be a bedrock to determining the future growth of tourism across the Northern Emirates. While day visitors are welcome, it is the overnight arrivals who will typically end up spending far more in each of the emirates they visit.

True North: The Northern Emirates are the UAE's rising stars. Pictured here: Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah. (Images supplied by: RAKTDA; SCTDA)

Ras Al Khaimah, in particular, has been a beehive of activity as far as hotels setting up camp there are concerned. Already, last year, the emirate had an impressive hotel occupancy rate of 74 per cent. In 2023, several new hospitality projects were announced for the emirate including Nobu, Le Méridien, W Hotels, JW Marriott and Hilton on Al Marjan Island, in addition to Nikki Beach on Mina Al Arab, representing over 1,800 keys in total. All eyes though are on the mega Wynn Al Marjan Island resort which is under construction and is expected to radically supercharge the profile of the emirate once it opens. “Design details of the new US$3.9 billion Wynn Al Marjan Island were revealed [in 2023]. The integrated resort will offer approximately 1,500 lavishly styled rooms, suites and villas, a wide array of entertainment options, a gaming area, 24 dining and lounge experiences, innovative spa and wellness experiences, a high-end shopping esplanade, a state-of-the-art events centre, a theatre hosting a unique production show, and other amenities,” says Phillips of the hotel, which is expected to open by 2027.

Ras Al Khaimah’s Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah Resort fully opened its doors in January 2024 and features the emirate’s first overwater villas. Additionally, the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah reopened recently after having undergone an extensive refurbishment. “Upcoming hotel projects in 2024 include the Sofitel Al Hamra Beach Resort and Saij, A Mantis Collection Mountain Lodge. The Westin Resort, Rove Al Marjan Island, and Rotana Mangrove are set to open in the next two years,” adds Phillips.

While several new hospitality entrants are making their way to Ras Al Khaimah, one of its longest-serving establishments remains BM Hotels and Resorts, which has three properties in the emirate. These include the BM Beach Hotel, BM Beach Resort and Longbeach Campground. “Year on year, Ras al Khaimah has been breaking all records on number of visitors and room nights,” says cluster general manager Ashraf Saleh. “We continue to upgrade our current properties along with the emirate’s strategic vision to enhance its tourism and hospitality sector. We are in the process of developing a mountain retreat nested in the majestic mountains of Ras al Khaimah – it will offer a sanctuary for travellers seeking to connect with nature.”

True North: The Northern Emirates are the UAE's rising stars. Pictured here: Wynn Al Marjan Island resort. (Images supplied by: RAKTDA; SCTDA)

Sandeep Walia, chief operating officer for the Middle East at Marriott International, is similarly bullish about the growth of hospitality in the Northern Emirates in general, but more specifically in Ras Al Khaimah. He said, “The Northern Emirates is home to a growing tourism sector. The area has something for everyone, and with our current and future projects, we are proud to have a portfolio of properties across all segments that align with the diversity of experiences that the Northern Emirates offers. We are dedicated to fostering the growth and development of the Northern Emirates. We are particularly excited about the strong demand for hotel and branded residences in Ras Al Khaimah. Ras Al Khaimah has positioned itself as an attractive leisure destination and we look forward to strengthening our presence in the emirate by bringing the invigorating energy of W Hotels, the enriching experiences of JW Marriott, and the contemporary design of Le Méridien to the market.”

Over in Sharjah, the hospitality sector is rapidly evolving there too. Last year, IHG Hotels & Resorts signed a management agreement with Sharjah Asset Management, the investment arm of the Government of Sharjah, to open a voco hotel in Sharjah. The 191-key voco property is scheduled to open in 2027 and was the first IHG hotel announced for Sharjah. Meanwhile, luxury hotel brand The Chedi has its only operational UAE property located in Sharjah. Other high-end projects include LUX Al Bridi resort which is expected to open this year close to the Sharjah Safari project, as is Kalba Hotel, Autograph Collection, which will be spread across 60,000 sqm along Sharjah’s northeast coast.

The UAE’s only Oberoi Hotels & Resorts property – The Oberoi Beach Resort, Al Zorah – is located in Ajman. Other key hotels in the emirate include Fairmont Ajman, Bahi Ajman Palace Hotel and Ajman Saray.

Hospitality aside, the prime consideration for the emirates that make up the Northern Emirates is building air and sea connectivity to encourage the flow of international visitors. Sharjah airport confirmed that 15.3 million passengers passed through its facility last year, a 17.4 per cent increase over 2022. The airport is linked to more than 100 destinations through 33 international airlines in 62 countries. Earlier this year, the cornerstone of the New Passenger Terminal Expansion Project was laid at Sharjah airport. It is expected to increase the airport’s capacity to 20 million passengers annually.

True North: The Northern Emirates are the UAE's rising stars. Pictured here: Longbeach Campground by BM Hotels and Resorts. (Images supplied by: RAKTDA; SCTDA)

Ras Al Khaimah, which reported a 24 per cent increase in the number of international visitors last year, has also been growing international connectivity to its airport. “Increasing airlift into Ras Al Khaimah is crucial to achieving our tourism arrival goals. For example, in November 2023, the new Qatar Airways daily service to Ras Al Khaimah International airport opened the emirate to a network of 160-plus destinations globally via the airline’s Doha hub. With India, a major tourism source market for Ras Al Khaimah, particularly for leisure, incentives and weddings, IndiGo’s introduction of a direct service from Hyderabad, adding to its direct Mumbai flight, helped accelerate arrivals growth too.

Last year also saw the launch of various direct flights to Ras Al Khaimah International with charter operators including SmartWings from Katowice; CentrumAir from Tashkent; and Smart Lynx from Munich,” says Philipps.

Apart from air connectivity, cruise tourism has the potential to channel significant numbers of international visitors directly to these emirates. Ras Al Khaimah welcomed six calls by four luxury cruise liners in the first half of last year and is expected to receive 14 luxury cruise calls during the ongoing 2023-2024 season, growing to 20 by 2025-2026. Philipps notes, “Recognising the importance of cruise tourism – an industry that is expected to grow by 10.4 per cent between 2022 and 2031 – RAKTDA has been working with RAK Ports to develop the emirate’s burgeoning cruise offering further, with an aim to attract 50 luxury cruise ship calls each season by 2030, and more than 10,000 passengers within the next few years.”

Each of the emirates is also building their own unique positioning. Sharjah, for example, positions itself as a culturally rich emirate, whereas Ras Al Khaimah’s main draw is as an outdoor adventure destination.

Umm Al Quwain has also pushed forward its outdoor exploration segment and has reportedly decided to allocate 20 per cent of its land area to natural reserves by 2031, and is also developing three carbon-neutral areas including a mangroves area, a heritage district and the corniche.

Others like Fujairah are pushing forward their historical archaeological sites – the emirate reportedly attracted nearly 113,000 visits to its top seven archaeological sites in 2022, and now intends to grow the number of visitors to its historical sites to half a million.

But to be successful tourist destinations, all the emirates are well aware that they’ll have to broaden their value propositions to attract a diverse set of travellers – including those from the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) sector. Explaining Ras Al Khaimah’s deliberate steps to cater to that specific segment, Philipps says, “While Ras Al Khaimah is predominately a leisure destination, we are strategically enhancing our position as a sustainable MICE destination, recognising that MICE visitors often stay longer and spend more and therefore represent an important segment.

True North: The Northern Emirates are the UAE's rising stars. Pictured here: Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah (Images supplied by: RAKTDA; SCTDA)

“Ras Al Khaimah has implemented a series of targeted initiatives and incentives designed to attract and support the hosting of business events. These efforts have already borne fruit, with the emirate witnessing a 23 per cent year-on-year growth in MICE revenue in 2023.”

A focus on its MICE offerings is something that Sharjah is doubling down on too. Some of the major events it hosts include the Sharjah International Travel and Tourism Forum, Sharjah International Book Fair, Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival, Sharjah International Film Festival, and the Sharjah Biennial, among others. “We’ve strategically positioned ourselves as a prime destination for MICE as well as other business events. Our focus on innovation includes cutting-edge facilities such as the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park, the Sharjah Expo Centre, and Al Jawaher Reception and Convention Centre,” observes Al Midfa.

Each emirate is also countering their own set of unique challenges to growth. Ras Al Khaimah, explains Philipps, faces external challenges including geopolitical tensions and economic downturns, both globally and in key source markets, that act as pressure points on its tourism growth. “These factors can significantly influence travel patterns, affecting tourist arrivals from key markets.” He adds that it is therefore important for the emirate to diversify its tourism markets to reduce dependence on any single region.

Often, the emirates realise that collaboration and a cross-pollination of ideas is what will help mitigate some of their challenges. “Collaboration, rather than competition, is key to our approach. We actively share best practices and participate in joint initiatives with our neighbours, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We approach challenges strategically, recognising the distinct identities and strengths of each emirate,” says SCTDA’s Al Midfa.

RAKTDA’s Phillips also advocates a closer collaboration among the emirates to grow tourism, noting, “Ras Al Khaimah is constantly leveraging collaborations with other emirates. A great example of this is the nationwide ‘Coolest Winter in the World’ campaign, which highlights the UAE’s climate and diverse geography, encouraging residents and international visitors to explore the unique characteristics of all seven emirates. Such efforts coupled with regular meetings and dialogue held by the National Tourism Council to share insights, strategies, and learn from each other’s successes and challenges, help in ensuring sustained growth in our tourism sector.” He further cites examples of this collaboration even extending to entities beyond the UAE. Ras Al Khaimah has signed an MoU with Oman Tourism Development Company (OMRAN Group) to enhance cross-destination travel facilitating improved transportation links and favourable visa arrangements for international tourists moving between the UAE and Oman, given that the border between the two countries is located in Ras Al Khaimah.

The emirates are taking steps to ensure that their pace of growth isn’t just a flash in the pan, but instead sustainable and scalable. Philipps wants Ras Al Khaimah to attract 3.5 million visitors by 2030 and cites examples of this sustainable growth when he says, “The aim is not just to meet the increasing demand of our growing number of visitors, but to do so in a way that safeguards and enriches [Ras Al Khaimah’s] natural and cultural assets for future generations. Over the long haul, we have applied a mindful approach to new hotel developments, consulting with hospitality partners to ensure thoughtful development and a measured pipeline to avoid rapid, less well-planned expansion. Additionally, the promotion of off-peak visitation is being pursued to ensure a balanced flow of tourists throughout the year.”

As the five emirates that comprise the Northern Emirates work on their individual strategies to ensure year-round visitations, the goals of the UAE’s Tourism Strategy 2031 are increasingly becoming a near-term reality.

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The cover of the Business Traveller April 2024 edition
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