The northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah has a lucrative mix of pristine beaches, exotic mountains, breathtaking desert landscapes and rich historical sites, putting it in an advantageous position as compared to any other emirate. Steven Rice, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority has well realized this potential. In a chat with Amey Borkar, he expresses that tourism is not only about getting tourists; it is also about boosting involvement of locals in the industry.
ROBUST RAK (RR): You have completed six months with Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, still relatively new to the place. Does it get daunting at times to handle the mantle of establishing an emirate on the world tourism map? How has the journey been so far?
STEVEN RICE (SR): It has been a very exciting journey for me and very different from my earlier career ones. Coming from the quaint Dublin in Ireland to the bustling Ras al Khaimah, UAE has been a pleasant change. Every day when I wake up, I am more than convinced of the huge tourism potential this place has. Being charged with establishing Ras Al Khaimah on the global tourism map is certainly a big challenge – we are a young organisation with a long road ahead of us, and no doubt, we will have to handle many hurdles along the way, but we face the challenge with relish, energy and in full confidence. Already we’ve seen a 63 per cent year-on-year increase in guest visitors (January-May inclusive) so we’ve got off to a great start.
RR: How would you describe Ras Al Khaimah’s tourism potential? According to you, what are RAK’s strengths?
SR: Ras Al Khaimah is going from strength to strength as a tourism destination. With a massive tourism potential, we are in a fantastic position to attract investment. If you look at what Ras Al Khaimah has, there are four areas that are the strengths of Ras Al Khaimah and also the key points RAK TDA has identified and working upon.
The first strength of Ras Al Khaimah is the pristine and exotic 65-km beach coastline dotted by hotels and resorts 80 per cent of which are five-star rated. Whether you are coming for a beach holiday with your family, a romantic weekend getaway with your partner, vacation trip with your friends or arriving for a business trip, the beaches offer something for everyone, and that too at a relatively affordable price.
The second asset that Ras Al Khaimah is really proud of is the natural bounty it is blessed with. In Ras Al Khaimah, while we have the immaculate beaches on one hand, we have some beautiful mountains on the other that offer some breathtaking views. This is a very unusual mix of beaches and mountains and we are very proud of it. We have the mighty, hazy Hajar mountains here. Then we have the Jebel Jais mountain which is the tallest mountain in the United Arab Emirates at 5,700ft and 1900m above sea level. The government of RAK has built a really good quality road to go up there; the scenery and surroundings are really stunning and this has opened possibilities for us to make that place more tourist-friendly. The terrain is perfect for outdoor adventure activities such as mountain biking, rock climbing, trekking. In addition to that, we have got some beautiful desert landscapes—more beautiful than anywhere in the UAE. We have many natural mangrove areas along the coast. We also have the Khatt Springs, a natural hot water spring which people have been using for hundreds of years because of the healing properties of the water. We are blessed with natural assets and this is our second strength.
Another of our biggest strengths is the history and heritage which is so rich and vivid. Not a lot of people realize that Ras Al Khaimah is the place where a lot of UAE history and heritage originated from. We’ve got historical sites covering every major period of history over the last 5000 years and that is something we want to really build upon for heritage tourism and historical tourism.
Last but not the least, the relaxed, tranquil atmosphere in Ras Al Khaimah is something that is hard to find in other emirates. The fact that we are just one hour away from Dubai also puts us in an advantageous spot. The way we describe RAK is: ‘If Dubai is like New York, Ras Al Khaimah is like California’. The aforesaid four areas, we feel, are our strengths which we are leveraging upon to build our tourism profile.
RR: According to travel trends, most travellers choose Dubai or Abu Dhabi over Ras Al Khaimah. Do you find yourself fiercely competing with other emirates when it comes to travellers’ choices?
SR: We don’t regard any of the emirates as competition; in fact we feel all the emirates complement each other. We are part of one country that shares common goals and objectives of development and progress.
At the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) held recently, I had an interaction with the heads of Sharjah Tourism, Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) and Abu Dhabi Tourist Development Authority and we all agreed upon the same point that we all complement each other. People come to Dubai to immerse themselves in the shopping experience and why not, after all it is THE place for shopping. However, if they want to enjoy a scenic landscape and come close to nature, they can easily take off to RAK. Whether it is Dubai, Abu Dhabi or any other emirate, we are part of one big country so the idea is to work in tandem so that the palettes, the tapestry and availability of various options to visitors coming to UAE is rich and diverse.
RR: Ras Al Khaimah has now got a dedicated airline in the form of Air Arabia. In your opinion, how important is it to have a designated carrier for an emirate?
SR: It is really important for Ras Al Khaimah to have designated airlines and we are glad we are working with Air Arabia; we couldn’t have found a better carrier. Having a dedicated carrier and someone as experienced as Air Arabia gives us a foothold in the GCC market as we are going to have direct flights to Muscat, Cairo and Jeddah including four flights from the Indian sub-continent as well. GCC market is a potential area of growth for us and Air Arabia will not only bring tourists to RAK but will also boost the profile of RAK airport which has got a number of features such as the length of the runway, its proximity to the city, et al. We want Air Arabia to grow their traffic and become successful but we also want to be able to attract more business charters as well and this is a big step towards it.
RR: RAK is increasingly becoming a family destination but is also witnessing an industrial revolution. Do you, at all, think this side of RAK can be used to leverage the tourism potential?
SR: We work closely with government departments such as the RAK FTZ to leverage business and tourism together. RAK is an attractive destination for companies to set up units because of the favourable conditions that the zone offers—low labour costs, non-existent taxes. We are starting to see increased interest for not just tourism but from B2B companies especially from places such as Italy who are setting up their units in the RAK FTZ.
RR: Can you share with us some of RAK Tourism Development Authority’s plans to boost tourism in the emirate?
SR: RAK Tourism Development Authority is promoting RAK as an overall leisure more than just a family destination. Families do form the single biggest group that come to RAK however the range of different segments we can attract is very diverse—we can have couples, GCC nationals, singles, outdoor adventure enthusiasts, history and heritage aficionados, businessmen. Families will and always be important to us but we are giving equal importance to other groups as well.
‘Friends of Tourism’
Tourism, we feel, is not just about bringing tourists. It’s also about activating the local community and getting them more involved in the industry. We are working on an initiative called ‘Friends of Tourism’ whereby we plan to engage the local community with the tourists by way of organising events. Ras Al Khaimah is a friendly and a relatively liberal emirate so we want the tourists to connect with the locals and understand the culture better. People usually don’t see this (local-tourist connect) as part of tourism and hence do not focus on developing it, but the fact-of-the-matter is that locals are an integral part of tourism and cannot be neglected.
‘Events, best way of marketing a destination’
Everything that RAK TDA does is done with locals in mind and one of the strategies this year is to focus more on organising of events. Events are a very good way of marketing a destination. If we do interesting events and get people talking about it, then there’s nothing like it as the best way of marketing any product is ‘word of mouth’ publicity. We had the RAK Half Marathon this year which is one of the most well-known marathons in the world. We’ve had the Arabian Sea Sailing event and the underwater clean-up event where we teamed up with various hotels and resorts and did an underwater clean up with 50 divers. Recently, we also had a ‘Dhow’ racing competition which saw 30 teams from all over the UAE participate. It recorded an attendance of 600 spectators. These are just few of the many events organised by RAK which have been well-received by the locals.
Some of our other plans include building stop-off areas along the road that goes to the Jebel Jais mountain so that people can stop over and enjoy the beautiful scenery. We are building a footpath between Marjan island and Al Hamra so that people can take a nice walk between the two.
RR: How many annual visitors is RAK TDA expecting this year? What are your expectations from Q2 2014?
SR: The number of tourists increased by 53 per cent in the first quarter of 2014. We forecasted around 1.8 million guest visitors for the year, which would be a 45% increase from 2013 but already we’ve surpassed the targets for each month, so we may approach the magic figure of 2 million guest visitors; let’s wait and see. For Q2, we expect to exceed half a million guest visitors and experience some of the biggest months ever for tourism in Ras Al Khaimah.