Changing perceptions of the Middle East, its culture and societal norms forms a vital part of Ras al Khaimah’s (RAK) tourism strategy, tourism chief Haitham Mattar told delegates on the opening morning of the Aito overseas conference on Friday (November 23).
Mattar, chief executive of the Ras al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA), was joined by Andrew Jackson, British Consul General, Dubai, and presented RAK as a burgeoning, liberal destination that offers a very different experience to neighbouring Dubai.
“Too long, people thought of RAK as a suburb of Dubai,” said Mattar. “We have worked tirelessly to give it its own identity and space. We focus on experiences - but we are not trying to beat our neighbours.”
Mattar detailed some of the region’s rapid growth in recent years, and RAKTDA’s plans to continue growing the destination for years to come.
RAK currently has between 15,000 and 20,000 beds spread across 6,300 rooms. By 2021, it intends to add another 5,000 rooms by working in partnership with groups such as Marriott and Intercontinental.
Mattar added it was RAKDTA’s ambition to grow visitor numbers to three million a year by 2025. “That would put us on par with places like Oman,” he said.
Sustainable adventure tourism is one area where RAK has invested heavily, with significant development of infrastructure for activities and wellness already under way, including 80km of walking and hiking trails due to open in the coming months.
It is currently home to the world’s longest zipline, which allows thrillseekers to hurl themselves some 2.8km down the Jebel Jais mountain in a matter of minutes at speeds of up to 170kph. Mattar said another six lines would be added, with each line currently limited to around 100 "flights" a day.
Over the next 12 to 18 months, the destination plans to add a luxury tented camp set some 650 metres up in the mountains a short drive from RAK itself featuring spas, gyms and other facilities, but not internet connectivity.
Mattar said it would be a place for people, particularly families, to get away from trappings of modern day life like phones and tablets. “It’s about re-connecting with nature, yourself and your family,” he said.
Despite heavy investment in infrastructure, Mattar said RAKDTA was happy with its relationship with neighbouring Dubai just an hour’s drive away, with many visitors arriving there rather than through RAK’s own airport, which currently operates at around half capacity.
“Dubai has great airlines, and it’s a great experience coming to RAK [from there]," said Mattar. “People also like to land in the biggest duty free in the world.
"People can spend a couple of days in Dubai and then they can have a true resort experience in RAK. Perhaps they want a bit of adventure - that’s what we offer in addition to the city.”
Delegates were later asked to contribute what they perceived to be barriers to tourism in Ras al Khaimah and the UAE more broadly, with many citing uncertainty about local customs and laws among concerns raised by travellers, as well as skewed perceptions of the region based on news coverage and a general lack of awareness of Emirati culture.
Mattar said while the UAE has many federal laws, its seven emirates were free to set their own local laws, with Ras al Khaimah among the most liberal in so much as it being largely permissive of alcohol and public displays of affection.
He urged visitors to disregard any cultural preconceptions or stereotypes and embrace the Emirati people, whom he said would always welcome visitors warmly.