x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Come to RAK and smell the coffee

Mountain tribes are preparing to open their doors to visitors as part of an initiative by RAK Tourism to link tourists with Emirati heritage.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Mountain tribes are ready to brew strong coffee and open their doors to visitors as part of an initiative by RAK Tourism to link tourists with Emirati guides. "If tourists come, they go to the hotel, they deal with foreigners and they don't meet Emiratis. We need to change this," said Mahmoud Abu Ali, the acting director of tourism promotion at the Department of Economic Development. "We're going to introduce the heritage to tourists. We're going to take them to the mountains."

RAK has more than a dozen folklore societies and six heritage museums. However, most are invisible to tourists, hidden in family homes or tucked away in neighbourhoods and far-flung villages. The museums usually display family heirlooms in replicas of traditional homes, such as the areesh palm houses used along the coastline or the stone houses used by mountain tribes. Folk art societies offer insight into traditional songs, games and handicrafts as well as colourful stories.

The problem is locating them. While guests are welcome, the personal museums can be impossible to find. That means putting together a map or a list of directions to bring the people to the exhibits. "Tourists are interested, Emiratis are interested, but there is no mechanism to bring them together," said Mr Abu Ali. "That's what we are working on, developing this mechanism." RAK Tourism will offer positions to three Emiratis to act as tour guides at the end of the month and five by the end of the year. Doing so should increase the depth of knowledge available to visitors.

"The priority and prerequisite is that they should be a UAE national and know the history of the emirate," said Aaesha Khamis, the head of the Tourism Promotion Division. Although hotels in RAK have struggled to employ Emiratis because of low salaries, there has been great interest from Emiratis at working for the heritage tours, the RAK tourism department said. "There are different tribes here in RAK, different bands, different folklore and those people have invested in their own heritage," Ms Khamis said.

One example is the Haboos Arts and Folk Society, which has a replica of an old mountain village. The tribe heritage festival in March had about 1,400 visitors, most of whom were Emiratis from RAK. "I think we have to work with the companies who do these tours directly," said Sultan Abdulla Alwan, a society member who helped organise the festival. "If there was a programme we would arrange for our people to be at the site when tourists come. Otherwise when tourists come no one is there or the people there do not speak English. Most of our visitors are only from the al Habus tribe. They don't come from outside RAK. Our tourists don't know about the societies in RAK and the places to visit."

The agency will also connect larger hotels to independent hotels that already specialise in heritage-related themes, such as the Dhayah Resthouse, which is tucked into a palm garden on the north coast. "From our side we will try to look at the past of Ras al Khaimah," said Ali al Mansouri, the director of the Dhayah Resthouse. His 14-room hotel is at the centre of his 2,000-tree date palm garden. Guests can see how date syrup is made or hike to the Dhaya Fort, where the Qawassim fought the British in the 19th century. Archaeological finds in the area date back to 3,200BC.

"We must care about the history of RAK, we must," said Mr al Mansouri. "We would like to see this guest house promoted by the economic department. We hope that in a few weeks we will start to make a link with these hotels. "Dubai many years ago was not known but, because of promotion and marketing, everyone knows Dubai. I want to see RAK in this position because, believe me, RAK has so many things to offer."

azacharias@thenational.ae