Haitham Mattar, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority
What key changes have you personally seen in RAK since joining the RAK TDA?
Since Joining RAKTDA, I’ve seen a number of key changes across the Emirate mostly around infrastructure and tourism development. Our Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, is closely involved and at the forefront of the Emirate’s tourism development. His clear vision and sound direction has enabled us to achieve great results at a very fast pace. This has enabled us to reposition the Emirate as a great holiday destination for beach goers, adventurers and those seeking wellness and a connection with the Emirate’s culture, history and culture.
Ras Al Khaimah TDA has been very successful in increasing the Emirates visibility all over the globe and just recently RAK set a record for the longest zip line in the world. What’s the significance of that?
The launch of the world’s longest zipline is a major milestone in the development of our tourism offer. This incredible feat of engineering has given us is a product that adventure seekers from far and wide will have on their bucket list and many will visit us to experience. The media interest Jebel Jais Flight has garnered all over the world will also really help build global awareness of Ras Al Khaimah and drive consideration of the destination amongst our target groups.
Is Ras Al Khaimah targeting adventure tourism?
Absolutely, we are building our reputation as the ‘Adventure Emirate’ in the UAE and focusing on targeting the active adventurer audience with our product in and around Jebel Jais, the UAE’s highest mountain. This includes the Via Ferrata climbing and hiking routes, mountain biking routes and Jebel Jais Flight: The World’s Longest Zipline at 2.83km.
However, adventure tourism isn’t our only target. As the region’s most diverse destination with a combination of amazing beaches, rugged mountains, luxury resorts and desert wilderness camps and just 45 minutes from DXB Airport we have great appeal to a broad audience. As part of our ‘destination Ras Al Khaimah 2019’ strategy we are looking beyond traditional sun and sand holidaymakers and targeting cultural explorers and luxury indulgence and wellness seekers with product that meets their every need.
What kind of people are drawn to RAK?
The UAE remains the most significant source market for tourism, accounting for almost half the visitors to Ras Al Khaimah in 2017, however we are also seeing significant growth from international markets. Last year, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and India respectively were Ras Al Khaimah’s largest international source markets with the number of visitors from Russia increasing 79% versus 2016. The UK also saw solid visitor growth of 17% in 2017, largely due to the increase in UK tour operators bringing British holiday-makers to the Emirate.
With the growth of our adventure tourism product we are seeing more active adventurers visiting Ras Al Khaimah to experience the Via Ferrata and Jebel Jais Flight: The World’s Longest Zipline.
How do you feel RAK is different from other Emirates?
Ras Al Khaimah has a diverse proposition with a unique combination of pristine beaches, rugged mountains, luxury resorts and desert wilderness camps. Ras Al Khaimah is the richest Emirate in Historical sites. We have site that date back over 7000 years, with ancient stone houses, palaces, and historical villages where the Emiratis used to Iive before the oil. Ras Al Khaimah has managed to preserve its authenticity and culture, which is felt in every corner of the Emirate, from local foods, to date farms, old Souqs and more.
Can you elaborate on your tourism strategy?
Our strategy focuses on how we’ll reach our goal of 1 million tourists by the end of 2018 and 2.9 million by the end of 2025. It is in effect a roadmap to success and looks at how we’ll grow our infrastructure, inventory and tourism product to deliver against these objectives. One of the areas we closely monitor as we implement this strategy is managing the pace of visitor growth and demand against our accommodation inventory. The increased demand from visitors highlights the need for more hotel rooms and we have plans to grow our current resort portfolio from just over 5400 rooms to more than 10,000 by the end of 2020. Diversification of the accommodation options is equally important and we recently signed an MoU fwith Airbnb to regulate and increase the inventory of holiday homes ensuring high quality stays are available for tourists.
What trends have you seen in the tourism industry?
One of the areas we’re seeing is the growing definition of adventure travel. Adrenaline activities are still a major draw for what we call the ‘active adventurer’ but equally these travelers are also increasing looking for unique cultural experiences. With our heritage as the homeland of three Arabian tribal traditions, spanning coast, mountain and desert – we are well placed to offer these travelers a truly authentic Arabian experience and capitalize on this trend.
Digitalization of the industry also remains a key trend with the last few years seeing a rush for investment in technology – smart rooms with curtains that close at the touch of a button; on-screen orientation for hotels, apps replacing room service calls and other labour-saving tricks and tools. I think what’s important here though is that technology serves its purpose in meeting real demand from customers and that it isn’t detrimental to the differentiation of brands. Innovation should ultimately create richer, more rewarding experiences for customers.
With the recent flagging of the Ritz Carlton Al Wadi Desert and Al Hamra Beach, do you feel that RAK can be competitive as a luxury destination?
Yes, with our incredible natural assets, we can sustainably grow our luxury proposition. The Ritz Carlton Al Wadi Desert and Al Hamra Beach are two great examples of high-end, luxury properties in stunning desert and beach locations that attract more discerning visitors and we have plans to grow our luxury offering including the development of a luxury camp in the mountains. However, we don’t plan to compete with the breadth of luxury in Dubai for example. In Ras Al Khaimah our focus is having a diverse range of accommodation options to suit different kinds of travelers. So, whilst the luxury indulgence and wellness seekers are an important target for us, we also need to cater for the active adventurers and the cultural explorers who may be looking for a different experience.
From what market have you seen the most growth in terms of visitors to RAK?
The UAE remains the most significant source market for tourism, accounting for almost half the visitors to Ras Al Khaimah in 2017, however growth from international markets was also prevalent. Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and India respectively were Ras Al Khaimah’s largest source markets with the number of visitors from Russia increasing 79% versus 2016. The UK also saw solid visitor growth of 17% in 2017, largely due to the increase in UK tour operators bringing British holiday-makers to the Emirate.
2017 was also the year of emerging market growth particularly amongst visitors from Eastern European countries. Inbound tourism from Poland was up 160% versus 2016 and the number of visitors from the Czech Republic also increased by 51%. The strong performance came on the back of ongoing strategic partnerships and agreements that took place between RAKTDA and in-market tour operators and an up-weight in marketing activities to showcase the breadth of offer in the destination for key tourism segments.
What infrastructures do you feel need to be developed for RAK to remain competitive with tourism industry?
Ambitious growth targets come with challenges and for us to remain competitive we need more hotel rooms to meet our growing visitor numbers – up 19% in 2017. We have plans to grow our current hotel portfolio from just over 5400 rooms to more than 10,000 by the end of 2020 and as we grow ever closer to reaching our visitor targets the need for quality hotel accommodation has never been so important. One of my big areas of focus is working closely with travel and tourism stakeholders to attract the right brands and accommodation options to support sustainable growth across the Emirate.
Congratulations on playing such an important role in increasing the visibility of this beautiful emirate and the visitors to RAK. Where do you see RAK a decade from now?
It has been a great journey and I’m looking forward to 2018 and beyond. I’d like to think a decade from now people from across the world will not only have heard of Ras Al Khaimah but they will know what to expect from a visit to our stunning Emirate. What’s more, we’ll be firmly on many people’s list of must see destinations. We need to think big or go home in a competitive global tourism landscape.
Deve Sanford, Upscale Living Magazine writer, about to take on the World’s Longest Zipline in Ras Al Khaimah