Patrick Antaki, general manager of Le Meridien Al Aqah explains how the newly established Fujairah Tourism and Antiquities Authority (FTAA) will make the emirate a tourism force to be reckoned with.
ATN: What drove the formation of the new Fujairah Tourism and Antiquities Authority?
His Highness the Ruler of Fujairah saw that tourism was here to stay and that Fujairah is going to be a major player in the tourism market so he decided it was time to make it official.
The objective of the authority is to grow the infrastructure and to grow the investment as well. We have to make it attractive for investors to come into Fujairah, and put their money into it.
ATN: What will the FTAA be responsible for?
The authority’s job is to put the tourism house in order and to utilise the assets of Fujairah. I don’t know if you know but Fujairah has the largest number of antiquities in the country.
I mean forts, old houses, old mosques and nobody knows about them – it’s the UAE’s best kept secret. It’s up to the authority to make a big noise and to make everybody know Fujairah, whereas in previous years it was very much the individual hotels’ responsibilities.
ATN: What are the selling points of Fujairah as a destination?
People who want beach holidays have a much better product on the east coast and the value for money is a lot higher than on the west coast. The options available are not as big but you can have a beach holiday with diving, fishing and specialised fishing.
If you want to do fly fishing Fujairah is the one place that offers it and Al Aqah is the only hotel. We bring in an angler from the UK and we do a two-day academy.
There are also areas of natural beauty like Wadi Wurayah, which recently received a US$1 million protection grant because it’s the only waterfall area in the UAE.
It’s a very wild place of natural beauty, and it was totally unprotected. So the FTAA now needs to start protecting it with a ranger and proper security and start looking after the entire area.
ATN: So is it about finding niche ways to differentiate Fujairah as a destination?
Absolutely. Dubai has spent millions and millions on promoting itself and it has done a fantastic job. If it wasn’t for Dubai and for Emirates Airline Al Aqah probably wouldn’t even exist. But we don’t have the resources of DTCM or Emirates Airline.
And we are not trying to be at the same level as them. We have to appear different and use niche markets so what better than to use the nature and the history? Under the water it’s beautiful – I was diving with some guests last week to Dibba Rock and we saw sharks, turtles and all sorts of colours of fish.
There are not many places around the world where you can get this type of diving. The other part is the antiquities, which the FTAA will now start to promote. But first you need guide books, an infrastructure, facilities for the guests, maps etc.
ATN: What are your strategies for increasing visitors to Fujairah – do you have any targets?
At this stage we are preparing the back bone so we don’t have any plans ready to fire up in the next few days.
The work at the beginning might appear to be slow but that’s how you get established. You set up, you prepare a strategy, and the next five to ten years you start really making some noise.
We are not trying to compete with any other emirate; we are trying to make the emirate complement the rest of the country. There are bigger plans to do direct marketing with the bigger tour operators, doing ‘Fujairah weeks’ or ‘Fujairah months’, but first we have to educate people where Fujairah is.
A lot of people still don’t know. You are talking to me at a very fragile moment because we are still very, very new, so there are a lot of thoughts banging around and I don’t want to give any false hopes.
ATN: How has tourism development in Fujairah been impacted by the recession?
It has slowed things down. There were three active projects. One of them, the company that was building it has gone bankrupt – that was Damas Hotels.
Another is InterContinental management group, but the owners have slowed down the process in order to save money. So they are still building it but it’s taking its time. And the third one – Mina Al Fajer [a Fairmont resort] is still going ahead so that should be ready by the end of 2010.
ATN: Are there any other tourism developments in Fujairah?
Fujairah has a lot of hotels coming up in the town itself. On the main street there is a Rotana opening, there is a Concord opened, there is a Coral residence, there are another two under construction – Premier Inn has signed on some land there.
Don’t forget Fujairah town is growing through a lot of commercial investments. The port is doubling in size, there are a number of industries as the oil pipeline so we are looking at between 20 and 30,000 new residents coming to Fujairah.
ATN: How has business at Le Meridien Al Aqah been impacted by the recession?
It’s had less of an impact for people who were thinking outside of the box, who still put investment and development of the product as a major objective, who still made sure that quality and service delivery is the number one.
You can do two things in bad times, you can start cutting costs or you can make sure that your services are top notch to make sure the people who are still travelling will come to you, not your neighbour.
So that’s what Al Aqah is doing. We are just about to go into a room refurbishment; we are refurbishing our main restaurant. People ask me: why are you investing in the middle of a recession? But it’s so that I’m ready for the upswing so that when business starts pulling back, we are there and we’re fresh.
ATN: Have you had to drop room rates to entice guests in the current market?
Yes thirty to forty percent. You have to work with a formula called the ‘elasticity of pricing’. It’s about supply and demand. So when I see it’s not selling, you have to reduce your prices. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. We are competing today against different countries, not just within the UAE. We need to attract customers going to Egypt and Turkey too.
ATN: What are the major challenges ahead in promoting Fujairah as a tourist destination?
To be heard above all that noise, and the other destinations coming up against us. There are people with more money that can shout louder, so this will definitely be a challenge. Otherwise it’s a beautiful destination and a very sellable destination.