The market for adventure sports is wide open, but for entrepreneurs, fighting red tape could be the greatest adventure of all.
Entrepreneurs are venturing into adventure sports
Entrepreneurs are beginning to find success as they venture into an untapped market, even if it requires diving into some uncharted regulatory waters. Ivan Gale reports
Thinking about transforming your passion for adventure sports into your own business?
As several entrepreneurs can attest, the market is wide open in the Emirates, where the beckoning landscape includes thousands of kilometres of beachfront, hundreds of islands and vast desert expanses that are ripe for offering guided tours or sport lessons.
But the country's untapped market also comes with a twist.
Navigating rules, regulations and requirements in this budding industry can be a challenge.
In 2005, Mostafa Al Hussaini, who is originally from Egypt, began Kite Loop as a side business to his dentistry practice. Kite Loop acts as a distributor for kitesurfing gear and offers lessons for beginners. After investing a start-up capital of Dh50,000, Mr Al Hossaini says, the business now has its own momentum.
Kitesurfing uses a sail to catch the wind, which pulls a rider through the water on a small board. Riding on the crest of waves, seasoned kitesurfers are capable of achieving high speeds - the record is 50 knots, or the equivalent of travelling 92kph over land.
"It's a combination of going really fast on water and getting really big airs and hang time - you feel like you are flying," Mr Al Hossaini says. "Once you get into it, you start to think how fast the wind is and plan your holidays to windy places. It really changes your life a lot."
When he first began learning, Mr Al Hossaini noticed a lack of instructors and an abundance of overpriced gear.
"I felt there was a need for more kitesurfing brands in Dubai, so I began to bring more boards for myself," he says. "It turned into a business. Soon, people started buying from me."
An import licence was needed to purchase the equipment, which he says is a general business licence he received from the Dubai Economic Department after a one-month process, and after bringing in a local partner.
Kite Loop is the distributor for four kitesurfing labels across the region, providing boards, sails and impact vests from brands such as RRD, Ocean Glasses, Pat Love and Prolimit, which he markets to customers and also through his kitesurfing website, dukite.com.
Gear is no minor expense. A basic kite, board, harness, helmet and impact vest can cost between Dh6,000 and Dh18,000. Mr Al Hossaini later expanded his business to cater to other water sports, such as stand-up paddle boarding.
But the lack of instructors also created another opportunity.
"You're going at terrific speeds, propelled by the wind alone," he says. "In the wrong conditions and the wrong place, people can get hurt. That is why instruction is so important."
After becoming certified as an instructor in Mauritius by the International Kiteboarding Organisation, Mr Al Hossaini began taking on students. Now, the teaching side of his business is so busy he has hired 10 instructors, most of them part time.
Students pay Dh350 an hour for a lesson, which covers the cost of the equipment rental, and can be booked via e-mail or over the phone. The lessons are conducted on Jumeirah Beach, between the Burj Al Arab Hotel and the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club.
"You teach someone and he is there the next weekend with five of his friends - it's very addictive," he says.
It has not been all smooth sailing, of course. In accordance with the country's law, Mr Al Hossaini has a local partner who owns more than 50 per cent of the company.
But the biggest challenge, he says, was persuading authorities to allow kitesurfing off public beaches.
Government agencies, such as the Dubai Police and Dubai Ports Authority, all have a say on what goes on at local beaches.
"There was no specific area dedicated for kitesurfing, and beginners were crashing their kites, and there were clashes with swimmers," he recalls.
Recently, however, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, intervened, allocating space for kitesurfing as well as building showers and other facilities at Jumeirah Beach.
In Abu Dhabi, an eco-tourism service that began only 18 months ago is now ranked among the most popular tourist activities in the capital - second only to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque - according to Tripadvisor.com.
Mark Freeman, the co-founder of Noukhada Adventure Company along with an American business partner, says his venture has guided more than 5,300 participants on kayak tours through the mangroves, as well as offering sailing and mountain-biking trips.
Noukhada usually runs more than one tour a day, including the occasional nights when there is a full moon. An Abu Dhabi mangrove tour costs Dh150 per person and lasts 90 minutes, while a two-hour tour of Umm al Qaiwain's archipelago costs Dh200. "The business was born from a passion for sailing," Mr Freeman says.
"We got very frustrated with an inability to get onto the water, the challenges in finding suitable places to haul boats in and out of the water, and storing them. Kayaking is by far the most accessible means to get on water, hence we did that. It just ballooned from there."
Like Mr Al Hossaini, Mr Freeman was in the UAE on a work visa for another job; in this case, as a management consultant. He found the time to devote himself to Noukhada, which he runs with his wife, Annie, and markets through their website, www.noukhada.ae.
One way of measuring their success is the launch of other kayaking tour companies, which Mr Freeman says are beginning to appear.
But Mr Freeman says that among Noukhada's most intense adventures is its experience in navigating the legal process to set up the company. "There are no regulations for what we do. That is not a criticism of the system that is just the facts," he says.
His advice to budding entrepreneurs is to be patient throughout the start-up process. "Things take time here," he says. "You can't just wave a whole lot of money at it and expect it will work. It takes an awful lot of effort and time, too. If can't do that, don't start," he advises.
Other financial challenges tested the new business. One of them is the capital requirement that stipulates companies must have a set amount of money in a bank account to receive a business licence. However, there are signs these laws may be changed.
"For a multinational firm, the start-up capital is proportionate. But for a small start-up, it is out of proportion," he says.
"The capital required is as much as what our fleet of kayaks cost."
In addition, the licences and leases they were granted to run Noukhada are only valid for 12 months, which means they must be renewed.
Other start-up costs included paying one year's rent on office space. By contrast, in other countries, a kayaking tour company might operate out of a tiny shed by the water, he says.
"One year's advance rent for a small start-up firm is almost a non-starter," he says.
Both Mr Freeman and Mr al Hossaini agree that wading through the red tape to set up their businesses paid off and they are now enjoying the fruits of their labour: the freedom of working in the great outdoors.