Ras Al Khaimah, like other northern Emirates, and indeed countries in the region, faces the challenge of being outshone by Dubai, which has gained a towering reputation as a tourist destination in recent years. And, like other emirates and countries, it is sensibly rejecting the idea of attempting to match Dubai’s glamour and glitter.
Instead, it is playing to its strengths as by a fair distance the UAE’s most geographically diverse emirate, as well as its historic sights.
RAK has mountains, a long coastline of natural beaches, deserts and hot springs, all within a relatively small area.
The emirate also has a series of forts, palaces and archaeological sights as well as Jazirat al-Hamra, said to be the last authentic traditional town in the UAE. It is therefore concentrating on offering cultural tourism, golfing holidays, ecotourism and outdoor tourism holidays to the more adventurous.
RAK’s Khatt Hotel is the UAE’s first true spa hotel, built as it is over a natural hot spring in the mountains, while the Jebel Jais project under construction will offer tourists a base in the mountains, from which they can enjoy outdoor pursuits and explore the remote villages of the interior. Two eco hotels underway as part of the large but low rise Mina al-Arab complex will also add to the sustainable and refined tourism developments that RAK is seeking to promote. Meanwhile, a series of golf courses are being developed.
So while Sharjah, probably the Northern Emirate with the most developed tourism infrastructure, has set its stall out as a budget holiday destination, RAK is aiming very much for the top end of the market. This is apparent both in the type of holidays it is promoting and in the fact that the hotel developments in the pipeline are currently almost exclusively five star.
In its emphasis on high end natural and cultural tourism, RAK could be seen as coming into direct competition with its neighbour, Oman, which has cornered a large and growing part of this market in the region. However, the growing popularity of these forms of tourism in the Gulf should actually increase the visibility of RAK as a destination, if it can promote itself effectively.
RAK will also benefit from its proximity to Dubai, which allows two centre holidays and weekend escapes from the big city to the northern emirate, which should support the tourism sector in its early growth phase.
One interesting factor in the development of tourism in RAK could be RAK Airways, the UAE’s fourth carrier, which was launched in 2006 and dispatched its inaugural flights in November 2007. The airline’s future form is still somewhat uncertain, due in part to a series of delays in initiating flights, and three CEOs in 12 months. There have been suggestions that the airline might fly partly on a charter basis, which would help support the development of package tourism to the emirate.
However, current destinations are Colombo, Dhaka and Beirut – i.e. countries more likely to be sources of workers rather than tourists, at this stage at least. CEO Khalid Almeer has said that the airline will concentrate on developing in the Middle East at first, before looking to South Asia and East Africa, whereas most tourists to RAK come from Europe.
While RAK Airways is looking to the west in the medium term, for the time being, Dubai is likely to remain the main entry point for visitors, which, given that emirate’s visibility and popularity, may well help draw tourists to RAK in the short term by providing them with an easy, well known and trusted place to fly to.
Nonetheless, if it can face off competition from the likes of Emirates, Etihad, Air Arabia and Qatar Airways, RAK Airways may play a role in the development of tourism in its home emirate. Watch this space.
n Oliver Cornock is the regional editor, GCC at Oxford Business Group
By Oliver Cornock