Even as it calls itself a nature-based emirate, Ras Al Khaimah is keen to earn the reputation of being a leading meetings, incentive, conference and event hub. The emirate is adopting a measured approach with a controlled pipeline of sustainable development to help strike a balance.
Ras Al Khaimah, part of the United Arab Emirates, is pushing ahead with bold and ambitious tourism projects — but do they align with its own sustainable tourism destination strategy that it launched in September 2021?
The emirate mapped out the steps needed to secure long-term sustainability targets, but cascading this down to operations, policy and implementation won’t be easy, particularly given its track record of hosting events and conferences with limited or no link to the strategy.
Take the previous annual conventions of the German Travel Association, the Outbound Tour Operators Association of India, as well as the Arab Aviation Summit and the Gulf and Indian Ocean Hotel Investors’ Summit, for example.
In October, Ras Al Khaimah will host the Pacific Asia Travel Association Annual Summit, while further ahead casino giant Wynn Resorts will open a 1,000-room luxury hotel with a “gaming” area.
The emirate’s extensive outreach and engagement with charter operators and mass-market tour companies, also don’t add up to the sustainability perspective.
Counter this against Saudi Arabia’s Neom, which is working to develop policies, regulations and operating procedures to attract sustainable tourism investment and then position the destination to the travel trade and end consumers as a ‘regenerative’ tourism destination.
Not on The Intrepid Traveler’s Radar
More than three in five international leisure travelers actively seek out tour operators that adhere to responsible standards, according to a global study conducted by Twenty31, a tourism brand consultancy with Ras Al Khaimah as one of its clients.
“Our ongoing travel consumer tracking research has identified the intrepid traveler segment — a higher-value, authentic and immersive seeking travel consumer guided by sustainability briefs and needs,” said Oliver Martin, partner at Twenty31.
He agreed that Ras Al Khaimah may not be on the intrepid traveler’s radar unlike destinations with a comprehensive sustainability positioning and offering, such as New Zealand, Costa Rica or Slovenia.
“Right now, this is an untapped market for Ras Al Khaimah and somewhat the opposite from their more mass-market, charter and package based, sun-seeking consumer,” Martin said.
The emirate is firmly embracing balanced tourism, said Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, adding that they are committed to ensure that there is no overtourism.
“The emirate has adopted a measured approach with a controlled pipeline of sustainable development,” argued Phillips. “This includes the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions offering and being strategic as to which events we bring over.”
“Often when people talk about sustainability, it is usually just a buzzword, meaning recycling or reducing single-use plastic. In Ras Al Khaimah, our goal is to go far beyond this and apply sustainability to everything we do,” Phillips said.
While many global destination marketing organizations are focused on volume-based recovery efforts, Ras Al Khaimah’s sustainable strategy is progressive, said Twenty31’s Martin.
“This public announcement is a powerful step and makes the emirate stand apart,” said Martin.
The emirate has also partnered with EarthCheck — a scientific benchmarking, certification and advisory group for travel and tourism.
Casino Tourism in Ras Al Khaimah?
With Wynn Resorts coming in to the emirate, Ras Al Khaimah may soon be one of the first destinations in the United Arab Emirates to get a casino — another model to attract droves of tourists to a destination
On the same day that Wynn Resorts announced the hotel opening, the tourism body introduced a Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation to regulate entertainment and “gaming” operations within the emirate.
While Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority’s Phillips acknowledged that the Wynn Resort announcement is big for the emirate, he said there are no immediate plans for additional integrated resorts.
Calling the multi-billion-dollar Wynn Resorts project a new tourism attraction and a new way to develop, Phillips said it would not just fuel the growth of tourism and hospitality sectors, but would also help to create employment opportunities.
The Strategy to Long-term Sustainability
An investment of $134 million is geared towards 20 sustainable tourism developments across the emirate especially on Jebel Jais — UAE’s highest peak — where projects are being designed to not just protect the mountain ecosystem, but to enhance it.
“Being recognized as a sustainable tourism leader is an ongoing journey and not an end goal,” said Martin.
“Ras Al Khaimah’s strategy and sustainability goals seem to be heavily focused on the supply side of the equation. A strategy needs to be in place to focus on the demand side as well,” he added.
In tandem with their sustainable destination development plans, the tourism board will need to fully re-think their brand positioning, marketing, PR and travel trade activities to meaningfully engage with these sustainable travelers, Martin observed.
Photo credit: Ras Al Khaimah has mapped out steps needed to secure long-term sustainability targets. Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority