x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Brand RAK chases holidaymakers

RAK's Hotel and Tourism Development Authority hopes tourism will contribute 20 per cent of the emirate's GDP in the next five years.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The new RAK tourism board wants tourists to account for 20 per cent of the emirate's GDP by 2016.

The number of visitors more than doubled to 542,000 between 2008 and 2010, according to the Department of Economic Development.

But the emirate is still well short of its ambitious goal of attracting 2.5 million tourists in 2012, a target announced in 2008 just before the recession.

"We are launching RAK as one of the key leisure destinations in the Middle East and positioning RAK as a value-for-money destination," said Victor Louis, the chief operating officer of RAK's new Hotel and Tourism Development Authority, which was formed last month.

"We will not have cheap resorts, but the prices here are at least 40 per cent less than in Dubai. We want to brand RAK as the up-and-coming emirate."

RAK's Hotel and Tourism Development Authority aims to release a brand for RAK in the coming weeks to help market it as an attractive spot for holidaymakers.

Their target markets include the UK, Germany and Russia, with an eye to China and India in the future.

RAK is particularly interested in taking a piece of the pie in the lucrative cruise ship industry, a business that is expected to generate US$29.34 billion worldwide this year. More than 100 cruise ships travel through the Gulf - a number that is growing year on year.

If the tourism authority's ideas go to plan, a cruise with 1,500-passenger capacity will dock in RAK as early as this autumn. As a result, the number of hotel rooms will quadruple to 10,000 within the next five years, according to Mr Louis.

The cruise ships will arrive at downtown RAK Khor Port, where passengers can have their UAE visas processed on the spot.

Passenger excursions will include mountain safaris and tours to a pearl farm in the fishing town of Al Rams where tourists can pick their own pearls from oysters.

Cruise operators say they are positive about RAK's potential.

"It would be great to have RAK, because we have very limited options [in the Gulf] as of now," said Lakshmi Durai, the executive director of Royal Caribbean Cruises in the Middle East. "RAK has very good golf courses and they have good culture, and anything to do with culture is of interest."

But Mr Louis says resort and leisure tourism will take priority over heritage and eco-tourism.

"I do not really want to stress on heritage a lot," he said. "If we talk culture we are in a tough-to-compete market with Greece and Egypt. You need to really know where you stand."

Fujairah is using its heritage to lure tourists and has already positioned itself as a cultural centre for cruise ships. Last season, cruises brought an estimated 100,000 visitors to Fujairah, according to Saeed al Samahi, the general manager of Fujairah Tourism and Antiquities Authority.

Passengers typically visit the 15th-century Bidya mosque, the fish market, the Fujairah fort, the mountains and the Wadi Wurayah nature reserve on their four- to six-hour visits of Fujairah.

"Heritage is everywhere in Fujairah and this is what distinguishes us from other cities," said Mr al Samahi.

RAK, on the other hand, plans to focus on resort development. The government this week signed an agreement to take over the Banyan Tree Al Wadi desert resort from Rakeen, the property branch of the RAK Investment Authority.

The RAK government will invest Dh20 million into Banyan Tree to increase the number of units and create an equestrian club.

In the past, Al Hamra Fort Hotel and Beach Resort had been responsible for attracting visitors to the emirate, who otherwise might never have heard of it.

RAK government invested more than $20 million in tourism infrastructure at Al Hamra when RAK was selected as a venue for the America's Cup in 2010. The yacht race was later moved to Valencia.

But investments in resort development do not guarantee visitors. Ice Land Water Park, with a capacity for 10,000 guests, opened last September. Ten months after the opening, its car park remains conspicuously empty.