The blossoming rose of the UAE

While Dubai is the standard bearer for the Gulf’s tourism industry, the lesser known emirate of Fujairah is looking for a piece of the action.

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By  John Irish Published  June 1, 2003

|~||~||~|Mention the United Arab Emirates outside of the Middle East, and it’s likely that the average tourist will have very little idea as to where it is or what it has to offer. Mention it within the Middle East and most people will highlight Dubai’s golden beaches as the main focal point for a trip to this area of the Gulf. Nevertheless, stretching along the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, the emirate of Fujairah is looking to make a mark for itself on the world tourism map.

Doing this is never going to be easy, even at the best of times, but with the Middle East perpetually recovering from conflict, a new player may find it even more difficult. In Fujairah’s case the question has to be, how much tourism can it really attract? The emirate’s governmental institutions claim that they can achieve significant progress in the next five to ten years. An optimistic plan, but to what degree have the authorities considered the side issues that come with an increase in tourism?

In addition, conflicting messages emanate from Fujairah visionaries. On the one hand, Dubai is the shining example that it hopes to emulate in the future. Yet, Fujairah aims to hold on to its cultural heritage, play on its tranquillity and avoid the construction work that characterises Dubai. Finally, Fujairah’s conservative feel is also what some say may hold back the emirate’s tourism development. So while the desire to build the tourism framework may be there, to what degree do mindsets need to change to kickstart development?

Fujairah is one of UAE’s fastest growing emirates, but is still relatively modest size-wise; a population of around 107,000 is distributed over an area of 1,488 square kilometres. In terms of GDP, it comes fourth behind Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, providing 5.6% annually to the UAE’s GDP. Essentially, as a non-oil producing emirate, it relies on a wealth of natural resources, ranging from minerals such as gabbro rock to limestone.

This, along with major oil bunkering operations and an efficient trading port, constitutes the majority of Fujairah’s income. But like most idyllic untouched locations, there’s a sense that a steady growth in tourism is crucial to its future. At present, Fujairah receives around 120,000 visitors a year, many of which are UAE nationals and residents.
Mohammed O. bin Majed Al Aleeli, director general, Department of Industry and Economy is one of the players focused on Fujairah’s future. Speaking to Arabian Business, he outlined that his government is in talks with European travel consultants to create a five year plan for the emirate.

“We’re expecting that tourism will become a dominant contributor to the economy in the number of tourists coming, building facilities such as hotels and tourism villages and developing other related services such as restaurants, sports centres and entertainment areas,” says Al Aleeli.
Development is underway with the recent opening of the Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach resort on the outskirts of town. It is the first major international hotel chain to open in

Fujairah for almost two decades. Facing seawards with wasteland on either side of it, the resort seems a little secluded, but Fujairah hopes it will soon be accompanied by a number of other hotels, eager to following Le Meridien’s example.

Having invested a great deal financially in the project, Emirates Airline, the Hotel & Resort Investment Company and Le Meridien, which manages the hotel, have brought the essential industry knowledge, experience and prestige that Fujairah needed to attract tourism to the area. “We have already seen the impact of the hotel, bringing more people to the emirate and this is helping to put Fujairah on the map,” says HH Sheikh Saleh bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, chairman of the department of industry and economy.

Despite the crisis in the region, Le Meridien has managed to buck the downward trend, reporting almost 100% occupancy rates at weekends. “It’s a relatively small investment for Emirates but a big move for us as it underlines their confidence in Fujairah tourism,” says Sheikh Saleh.

New ventures are now eagerly waiting for the nod, though twenty story high hotel projects strewn along the beach are widely thought of as inappropriate in Fujairah. The emphasis is on constructing smaller chalet type buildings in an Arabian style. Sheikh Saaed bin Saaed Al Sharqi, chairman of the Fujairah Tourism Bureau, confirmed that the German tour operator TUI had provisionally signed an agreement for three new hotel projects, while both Shangri La and Rotana have also been touted as possible candidates for openings.

But how realistic are Fujairah’s authorities being in approving smaller projects to minimise the impact of tourism? Aesthetically, this may seem the perfect solution, but it seems unlikely that hotel chains will be willing to play second fiddle to the towering Al Aqah resort for long. Sheikh Saaed dismisses this notion. He firmly believes that on past experience, Fujairah’s ruler, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Mohamed Al Sharqi will not allow mass development to happen.

Even if the authorities manage to maintain the traditional look of Fujairah, the dangers of over development are still omnipresent. New infrastructure brings with it mass tourism and many are worried that Fujairah’s heritage and social values will suffer for the sake of a booming economy. Ahmed Ibrahim Mohammed, managing director of Fujairah International Marine Club, voices his concerns: “This is the tax you pay, it’s always the way for any country that has a virgin market. When you don’t touch it, it remains natural, but once you touch it things change. If you look at the mountains now, it’s natural, but I bet in five years there will be buildings. The problem is who comes here: then we may have problems.”

If, as many suggest, Fujairah were to become a smaller version of Dubai, with an overall hotel capacity of 3-4000, shopping centres, restaurants, spas, golf courses, and of course, an extra one million visitors a year, the make-up of its society would undoubtedly change. Although it is perhaps the conservative and traditional nature of the emirate that currently attracts visitors from the GCC, these tourists are more likely to fill hotel apartments rather than entire resorts. If Fujairah aims to bring holidaymakers from further afar, it may have to make a series of cultural compromises in order to adopt a more cosmopolitan feel.
The desire, at present, to maintain Fujairah’s heart and soul may appear a little naive in the great scheme of things. But, as Patrick Antaki, hotel manager, Al Aqah Beach Resort explains, it is hoped that the smaller project approach planned by the government will minimise tourism’s impact on local culture and values. “The dynamics of a place are affected badly, if you go for cheap tourism and over development, but we’re talking 5-6 hotels in the area,” he says. “ It’s not a major amount, just enough to bring some wealth to the local inhabitants to allow them to develop; it’s going to bring more money for them to develop infrastructure.”

Dubai’s relationship with its neighbour will be significant in shaping the future of tourism development in the region. The mere fact that the Dubai-based Emirates Airline was involved in the Al Aqah project, that a new road between Dubai and Fujairah is currently under construction and that a host of silent investors from the wealthier emirate are preparing to invest in Fujairah’s development, highlights the significance that Dubai holds for the east coast.

At the same time, with Dubai welcoming 16 million visitors in 2002, there’s plenty of scope for travellers to use Fujairah as the second stop on their holiday. Where Dubai delivers is in its beaches and infrastructures, Fujairah provides a cultural backdrop and the scenic glories of the Indian Ocean coast.

“We hope that they will develop their tourism projects. It will not bring the size of Dubai, but it will bring offshoots for us and it will help us. They can benefit from numbers that come out of here,” says Khaled bin Sulayem, director general of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.

Fujairah is also gearing up to attract more passenger services in its own right by recently signing an agreement to expand the airport terminal. As a possible charter route, tour operators are seeing this as a possible market in the Sharm Al Sheikh vein.

Clearly, the emirate has much to offer, but promoting it to the outside world is proving a little more complicated. Due to a lack of investment both at home and abroad, Fujairah has no defined marketing strategy for promoting itself as a holiday destination. It relies to a great extent on word of mouth, rather than targeted campaigns like Dubai. The traditional stalwarts of any promotional campaign such as brochures, ads, web sites and attending trade fairs have only recently started to appear on the Fujairah marketing map.

“Fujairah is not an unknown, but we need to work with the ruler to promote the destination together. We’re trying to go on international shows; we go on the destination stand rather than the Meridien stand. It’s important to link the brand name with the destination,” explains Le Meridian’s Antaki.
For Fujairah, one way of actively getting its name out in the open has been to use its appeal as a water sports hub. Over the last few years, the relatively unknown sport of power boating has become an essential part of the UAE’s annual sporting calendar. Nowhere is this more so than in Fujairah, which hosts international events that bring a great deal of global exposure.

“In other Gulf States they have regional tournaments, but here we have the world championships, which brings us global coverage. In fact, we have held talks with Eurosport and other TV channels like Fox Sports to cover the event,” says the Marine Club’s Mohammed.

But for these grandiose plans to succeed, there must be a concerted effort from all strands of society to change their outlook on how things work. According to Antaki, the most vital part of any change in Fujairah is the people. “We need to bring them forward, we need to tell them that what has always been will not necessarily be the winning solution for the future. We need to tell them that an average level of cleanliness is not going to work if we want to bring the five star tourists, average road safety is not going to be enough and accepting oil in the sea is a no-no,” he says.

At present it seems that many are quick to accept that something needs to be done. It will definitely take some time for local authorities to reach a general consensus on how tourism should be perceived and handled, but in-roads are being made. Whether Fujariah is successful in planting itself firmly on the tourism map, remains to be seen.

“I’m worried, I’d like to keep places natural, as we want things to continue to be different from other places. The tourists like to see the old life, if you make things modern then people will not come. We have to be different, we have to offer them something else,” says Sheikh Saeed.

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