x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE dune bashing tours for the discerning

Adam McEwan, co-founder of Platinum Heritage Tours, is offering a new, more luxurious and traditional take on the standard desert safari experience.

Adam McEwan positioned Platinum Heritage as a provider of upscale desert safari anchored on Emirati culture and cuisine. Lee Hoagland / The National
Adam McEwan positioned Platinum Heritage as a provider of upscale desert safari anchored on Emirati culture and cuisine. Lee Hoagland / The National

Desert safari companies are as ubiquitous as skyscrapers in Dubai, but Adam McEwan wanted to put an Emirati stamp on his.

Eating spaghetti bolognese at the desert camp following an afternoon surfing the dunes in four-wheel-drive vehicles is not on the itinerary.

“Everything is mass market here, and you don’t really exceed anyone’s expectations,” Mr McEwan, 38, says, referring to the dime a dozen safari companies in town.

“We wanted to make people try it themselves, where they would build camps, have breakfast with Bedouins; we wanted people to smell the desert.”

Founded in October 2012, Platinum Heritage Tours is among more than 300 tour operators in Dubai with most offering the standard dune bashing experience followed by dinner at a desert camp.

But Mr McEwan’s company is one of a handful tapping into the luxury travel market sector offering niche packages.

Instead of just dune bashing and an evening of belly dancing and western food, the trip serves only Emirati food, organises local entertainment such as Khaleeji dance and oud music, and offers activities such as meeting farm animals that Bedouins herded in the desert.

Night safaris include breakfast with a Bedouin family. Transportation is offered via a 1950s Land Rover or a Mercedes wagon.

While around half of the business of Platinum Heritage Tours comes through direct booking, almost 20 per cent is via luxury hotels, and the rest through its partners.

“There are many ultra high net worth individuals who are ideal customers seeking such lifestyle-enriching services, whether it be tourists or residents within the city,” says Gaurav Sinha, the chief executive of the branding company Insignia.

The start-up ties up with luxury hotels who may not otherwise offer desert safari trips to important clients because they worry about quality, says Mr McEwan, who co-founded the company with Bassam Chamoun.

The company’s ethos was born when Mr McEwan, who is Australian, asked a 75-year-old Bedouin camel farmer if he would be interested in interacting with tourists during a camp experience. And he said yes. “Nobody had asked him before,” Mr McEwan says. “He was extremely interested in people, and Bedouins by nature belong to a storytelling people.”

When the entrepreneur approached the farmer, who lived in the desert before relocating to the city in Dubai in 2009, his only response was why would strangers want to hear about his life?

The Bedouin soon discovered that they did want to and he has been hosting visitors at the tour company’s camp in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve – which aims to protect endangered species and the desert ecology – since the Platinum Heritage Tours started. The tours cost more than their competitors, but Mr McEwan says the vehicles used, smaller camps that do not give them the volume advantage to go cheaper, and conservation fees, as well keeping a herd of 10 camels, all add to the overall expenses. Tours cost from Dh395 to almost Dh1,400 for an adult.

The company employs 30 people, says Mr McEwan, who believes the inclusion of activities such as wildlife safaris and private falcon sessions in the safari experience has helped it to appeal to a new market – families with children who would have passed on a regular dune bashing day out.

Platinum Heritage also offers tours to local companies looking for team-building projects for their staff.

While much of the clientele is from the UAE market, the tours are available in eight languages, including Russian, German, Portuguese and Italian.

Mr McEwan wants to spread the services of the company over the next year to either the Northern Emirates or Abu Dhabi, and plans to incorporate the special features of these emirates, such as Abu Dhabi’s islands or the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah.

“We thought we have to do something authentic, fun, engaging but also that gets people interested in the local culture,” Mr McEwan says.