News Analysis: The rebranding of Ras Al Khaimah

This year, Ras Al Khaimah has seen significant change to and growth in its tourism strategy. Hotelier Middle East explores how and why the emirate is repositioning itself

A rendering of the upcoming Four Points by Sheraton Ras Al Khaimah.
A rendering of the upcoming Four Points by Sheraton Ras Al Khaimah.

Earlier this year, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA) announced a new tourism target of one million visitors by 2019. According to RAK TDA CEO Haitham Mattar, this is in fact the first of two tourism targets for the emirate, with a more ambitious 2.9 million visitors aimed for by 2025.

One immediate effect of this has been the rebranding of RAK TDA, unveiled earlier this year at ATM, as well as a rebranding of the destination itself. This includes Ras Al Khaimah’s recently released destination video, which attempts to push the emirate’s culture and heritage offerings, as well as wildlife and adventure activities.

“The misconception about Ras Al Khaimah was always about us being a destination that offered great resorts and beaches only,” Mattar told Hotelier Middle East.

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He added: “We have found that for most travellers from Europe (and other parts of the world), while the first motive for travel is beach, sun and sand, the second is connecting with the country’s culture, heritage and history, and there’s also people looking for adventure.”

RAK TDA’s attempts to promote the emirate’s non-beach-based charms include the construction of a five-star glamping experience at Jebel Jais, the first in the region located within mountains, as opposed to in the desert. Also coming up this year in the Jebel Jais area is the construction of a via ferrata (or “iron path”) mountain climbing trail currently expected to open in September. By the end of the year, there will also be the launch of three zip lines, the longest of which is 300 metres, which will make it the longest zipline in the world, Mattar said.

Diversifying the activities offered is one part of RAK TDA’s plans to hit its visitor targets. Another is the increased pipeline of hotels.

“For us to reach those sort of numbers, we need more rooms,” Mattar explained. “Today Ras Al Khaimah has about 5,000 hotel rooms, over 42 hotels. In order for us to reach the first hurdle, which is the first target of one million visitors, we need to have at least 8,000 hotel rooms in the destination. In order to reach the 2.9 million visitor target, we need to have 20,000 rooms in the destination,” he added.

There are currently 3,600 hotel rooms in the pipeline to open between now and 2019. Properties that are signed and either under design or under construction include Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International, Anantara Hotels and Resorts, Crowne Plaza, Golden Tulip, Hilton Garden Inn, Citymax and Four Points by Sheraton.

The Mövenpick Resort Ras Al Khaimah is currently expected to open in 2020, slightly shy of RAK TDA’s first visitor target.

Asked why the Swiss brand decided to make its first foray into the Northern Emirates, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts vice president sales and marketing Toufic Tamim told Hotelier that the occupancy growth in the emirate made this a “better time than ever to enter the market”.

According to Mattar, this year, RAK has seen a 15% growth in occupancy year on year (up to 75.5%), and 7.55% growth in visitor numbers year-on-year, in contrast to 6% growth in 2015, versus 2014. “Our growth numbers, according to the FDR, are the highest in the GCC. We seem to be the only, and fastest growing emirate in terms of tourism,” he said.

“Ras Al Khaimah is an important growth market for Starwood,” confirmed Starwood Hotels & Resorts senior vice president acquisitions and development Africa and Middle East Neil George. Four Points by Sheraton Ras Al Khaimah, which opens in Q1 2019, marks Starwood’s debut in the emirate. “Not only is Ras Al Khaimah a popular destination for UAE and GCC residents, it also continues to attract international travellers. Bringing our first property into the emirate is in line with the strong demand for affordable yet modern accommodation in the UAE and also underlines RAK’s plan to enhance the destination and diversify its hotel portfolio,” George added.

Tamim added: “We have noticed an increase in demand from our key European feeder markets for UAE holidays which combine a beach holiday in RAK along with a city shopping break in Dubai.”

Just as Tamim expects Mövenpick’s existing Dubai properties to cross-pollinate the new RAK hotel, the perception of Hotelier’s readers is that RAK’s current tourism growth is linked to Dubai’s visitor targets and growth. 50% of readers who voted in our recent poll attributed RAK’s increased pipeline to a “knock-on effect of Dubai’s tourism plans ahead of Expo 2020”.

Mattar dismissed this somewhat, and was keen to emphasise RAK’s “own identity and differentiators”. Nevertheless, Mattar conceded that a “UAE umbrella” approach to tourism has benefitted the country as whole. “You get a growing trend in some markets, like Germany, India, UK, and China, who visit Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah in one trip,” said Mattar. He added that RAK TDA works closely with other emirates, giving the example of a recent roadshow in Eastern Europe, which saw tourism boards from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah collaborate to promote tourism to the UAE.

Dubai’s role in supporting RAK also comes from RAK’s ties with Dubai’s key airlines.

“Fly Dubai and Emirates Airlines continue to be our strongest supporters. Over 90% of our visitors today come through Dubai Airport. Dubai Airport being such a hub and strong tourism brand has helped us leverage on the back of that, and continue to grow our visitor numbers,” Mattar said.

Nevertheless, RAK is also working on increasing its own incoming traffic to Ras Al Khaimah Airport, through new agreements signed with Qatar Airways, Air India Express and Air Arabia.

“Our strategy is about diversity,” concluded Mattar. “Diversify our product, which we have started to work on by bringing new brands to the destination, and also diversify our customer by diversifying our key partners.”

Ras Al Khaimah’s top source markets and percentage increase in visitors in 2016

1. Germany (93% increase year-on-year)
2. UK (30% increase year-on-year)
3. Russia (flat)
4. India (22% increase year-on-year)

NEW SOURCE MARKETS

5. Kazakhstan (270% increase year-on-year)
6. Czech Republic (60% increase year-on-year)
7. Finland (70% increase year-on-year)

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