With a perpetual slight breeze swishing by, the paved waterfront promenade at Al Marjan Island in Ras Al Khaimah could look eerily similar to Palm Jumeirah, another archipelago off the coast of Dubai. But unlike the Palm, which is built in the shape of a date palm tree, the man-made Al Marjan is an amalgamation of four coral shaped islands that signifies Ras Al Khaimah’s intentions to transform itself into a tourist hub. If signs are to be believed, the emirate has been succeeding in its efforts to raise its profile among visitors and hoteliers alike. Al Marjan, for instance, has enjoyed strong demand from major hospitality groups such as Hilton and AccorHotels for their respective properties. “Ras Al Khaimah is an exciting destination, with the number of visitors increasing significantly year on year,” says Rudi Jagersbacher, Hilton’s President for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey. “We have achieved unprecedented success in the area, and currently have two further hotels under development, including the Hilton Garden Inn and an ongoing refurbishment of 151 villa guestrooms at Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa.”
The northern emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain, most of which have retained their rugged beauty, are gradually becoming a magnet to visitors. A monthly report by consultancy STR noted that occupancy rates across Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah grew at 7.2%, 10.1% and 5.5% respectively in January. Meanwhile rates in Abu Dhabi saw a decline while Dubai rates remained flat as aver-age daily rates across the country took a hit. One reason for the dip could be the additional pressure on the existing inventory of hotel rooms in Dubai and Abu Dhabi due to excessive supply, but figures show that the intensities northern emirates are emerging winners as competition to draw in tourists intensify.
Surrounded by a ring of mountains and dotted with azure beaches and hot springs in certain locations, the northern emirates offer a more varied experience than Dubai or Abu Dhabi. In a survey carried out by Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) this year to gauge visitor satisfaction, the majority rated their experience very favorably. “When we delve into the results and look specifically at families, single travelers and couples, the results are comparable, with similar satisfaction feedback on their holidays,” Haitham Mattar, CEO of RAKTDA said in a statement. The emirate recorded about 820,772 visitors last year, with its hotels clocking 2.73 million guest nights. Visitors to Ras Al Khaimah grew 8.3% year on year in Q1 2017. Sharjah, another northern emirate, re-ported that about 360,000 Gulf nationals visited during the first nine months of 2016. Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) revealed that the emirate received about 62,936 visitors from China during the first nine months in 2016, up 75% from the same period in 2015 while it saw a 12% and 8.7% rise in tourists from Pakistan and Russia respectively. Sharjah hotels and hotel apartments registered a 19% growth in room nights booked during this period, totaling 2.94 million room nights.
Emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah are making headway because they have formulated clear and viable goals to tap into tourism. Most importantly, they have made tourism an integral part of their economic diversification just like their peers Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Sharjah has a mandate of attracting 10 million tourists per year by 2021 while Ras Al Khaimah has a vision to attract one million visitors by 2018. To fulfill these ambitious aims, the respective governments are also undertaking massive projects to make the destinations more appealing to visitors. Some of the current projects taking shape are the restoration the of Heart of Sharjah heritage area, a mixed-use development on Maryam Island and the development of a five-star Al Khan Village Resort. In Ras Al Khaimah, another mixed-use development called Al Hamra adds to its slew of tourism attractions. Moreover, the emirate is also focusing on adventure tourism while taking a special interest in conferences and events. Last year it opened Jebel Jais Via Ferrata, the country’s longest zip line and it is planning to open comprehensive biking and hiking routes, with a focus on Jebel Jais—one of the U.A.E.’s highest peaks.
The northern emirates have also become a hotbed for hoteliers, who are rushing in to take advantage of tourist-friendly conditions and investor incentives that the governments are keen to hand out. One such destination that has been seeing large scale activity is Fujairah. Last year, Abu Dhabi-based Eagle Hills partnered with The Address Hotels + Resorts to launch The Address Residences Fujairah Resort and Spa. A mixed-use project, it features premier serviced and branded apartments along with a 196-keys five-star hotel, 10 beach and garden villas, four residential buildings with central courtyards, adding to a total of 170 branded and serviced residences. Sharjah too is not lagging in building hotels to lodge its visitors. A new $100 million art and culture themed five-star luxury beachfront hotel and resort, to be managed by AccorHotels, is taking shape in the emirate currently.
Meanwhile a four-star, 200-room Novotel located adjacent to Sharjah Expo, a four-star Four Points hotel and an Aloft boutique hotel are also set to open. In addition, Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq) is building a five-star hotel in the Heart of Sharjah. The emirate also recently got a vote of confidence as Hilton announced that it would debut its DoubleTree by Hilton property there by 2020. DoubleTree by Hilton Sharjah Waterfront Hotel & Suites will offer 254 suites and serviced apartments to visitors of the U.A.E.’s third largest city. Ras Al Khaimah is seeing strong interest from international brands too. Recently Minor Hotels announced the development of a new property under its Avani brand in Al Marjan Island. The 225-key property will be operational by 2019. “We see a lot of potential in the emirate, both for our upscale Avani brand and in the luxury segment, where we already have an Anantara resort under development,” Ramzy Fenianos, VP Development, Minor Hotels Europe, Middle East and Africa said in a statement. Dubai developer Emaar, along with Al Marjan, is also building two million square feet mixed use development in the islands. The first phase of the project will feature a five-star hotel, serviced hotel apartments and a retail precinct. Upon completion, it is said to feature a multitude of retail and hospitality projects.
Although the northern emirates are transforming into hotspots for new hotel openings, this will not alter the focus from the more influential cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But it is helping the U.A.E. to build tourist destinations that can supplement its main offerings.
“With a close location to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we welcome a large amount of U.A.E. or neighboring residents to our properties in RAK for people seeking weekend trips and staycations by the beach. However, over the past few years, we have seen the number of international visitors rise dramatically,” says Jagersbacher. “It’s great to see that the reputation of these smaller emirates is growing internationally, and it shows that people are interested in exploring the areas surrounding the larger states of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. With a vast amount of cultural heritage, beautiful landscapes and interesting sights—we expect interest in the area to grow immensely in the coming years.”