Out of the shadows

Big brother Dubai has basked in tourism glory for long enough, now the other emirates want a share of the treasure and they are working hard to create a diverse tourism experience that encompasses the entire UAE

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By  Sarah Campbell Published  September 6, 2005

Tourism in the UAE|~||~||~|Think tourism in the UAE and you automatically think Dubai. The emirate has awed the world with the way it has marketed its tourism offering through a number of world class hotels, an award-winning airline and some fairly ambitious tourism plans. However, the other emirates of Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah have not been sat idle while Dubai has grown. Instead, they have been carefully watching the fast-paced developments and slowly formulated plans of their own. “The whole of the UAE is benefiting from the market strategy Dubai is following and it helps the other emirates in developing its own strategies to fit and complement Dubai’s aggressive marketing policy,” comments Moine Kandil, general manager, Millennium Hotel Abu Dhabi. ||**||Abu Dhabi|~|EP-web.jpg|~|Emirates Palace celebrated its soft opening on February 5.|~|Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and for a long time the business hub of the emirates, was often seen as a corporate destination, frequented only by business travellers. However, the formation of the Abu Dhabi tourism authority and the launch of Etihad Airways in November 2003 have helped establish the emirate as a tourism destination with European travellers. Jean-Pierre Trabut, general manager at Le Meridien Abu Dhabi, admits that Abu Dhabi tourism has been ‘surfing on the wave of Etihad’. “Having an airline going to 17 destinations has helped a lot in the development of the destination itself,” he says. The hotel is currently under renovation and is repositioning itself to cater more to the leisure market, as a result of a shift in business in the emirate. Refurbishment started on May 7. The hotel has closed its west wing, taking 144 rooms out of inventory, while it carried out essential MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) renovations. The new rooms have been designed by Dubai-based Wrenn Associates (WA) and are set to open later this month. “We have incorporate the balconies on the city side, this has increased the rooms by 6m². The decoration is quite contemporary, with some oriental touches, fabrics and colours. We are adding internet facilities and interactive TVs,” Trabut explains. Once the west wing is complete, the hotel will begin work on its east wing, closing 85 rooms. The entire project is scheduled for completion by the end of the year. “It has been easy to handle the situation and we have had no complaints. We have run at 86% occupancy on 85 rooms. For the whole year the whole hotel should record 91%, compared to 80% in 2004. Competition is very healthy all over Abu Dhabi at the moment and my colleagues are doing very well,” Trabut adds. Certainly, hotels across the emirate are recording consistent year on year growth. The Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi has recorded a 15% increase in occupancy, as has the Millennium Hotel Abu Dhabi. Further shifts towards a more leisure-orientated product are evident in development plans across the emirate. Abu Dhabi has been expanding its Corniche Road and has spent US $190 million on transforming it into a major tourism and recreational centre. A further US $600 million is being spent on extending Abu Dhabi International Airport, which recently opened a second terminal. A new airport is also planned. Meanwhile work has begun on a new 280-metre tunnel that will link the airport with Mussafah. Much like its neighbouring emirate, Abu Dhabi also has plans for an island resort, although the Lulu Island project is more traditional that the Dubai Palm Islands. The project will include hotels, restaurants, gardens, an aquarium, fun parks and a wildlife reserve. Abu Dhabi’s National Corporation for Tourism & Hotels (NCT&H) has been busy opening new resorts. First came the Danat Resort Jebel Dhanna, which opened at the beginning of the year. “We are still in the development stage going through growth in terms of leisure activities and facilities,” admits Manoj Kanwal, general manager, Danat Resort Jebel Dhanna. “We have recently introduced snorkelling trips, expeditions to Sir Bani Yas Island, ceramic painting in our lobby café, and massage huts on the beach where guests can relax and listen to the sounds of nature during their massage. In the coming season, starting mid-September, we will be introducing fishing trips for our guests and a much-awaited kids’ club. “Since our recent opening, we’ve had a strong response from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy for the leisure business. We are also focusing on the local expatriate market to promote our weekend packages, and specifically the GCC market for the holiday periods,” Kanwal says. Al Raha Beach Hotel, also part of Danat Hotels & Resorts, a division of the NCT&H, opened for business in January. The resort has 110 deluxe rooms and suites plus 24 chalets. Meanwhile, the Emirates Palace celebrated its soft opening on February 5. Government owned and managed by Kempinski, the Palace boasts 114 domes, all covered in mosaic glass tiles, and comprises of 302 rooms and 92 suites. Each room is equipped with a large plasma television, a wireless internet network, interactive television system and an electronic programming guide that enables guests to rewind and pause television programmes. The property is located on a 1.3km stretch of beach, and offers two landscaped swimming pools, two spas, and, when fully operational, will include 20 food & beverage outlets. The Emirates Palace International Conference Centre offers technologically advanced meeting facilities, including a 1,200-seat auditorium, a main ballroom that can accommodate up to 2,000 guests, 40 meeting rooms, a media centre and a business centre.||**||Al Ain|~|Bruno-DeBray-pic.jpg|~|“Al Ain is easy to promote as a tourist destination, because tourists come to experience the ‘oriental’,” says Debray.|~|Often mistaken for an emirate in its own right, Al Ain, part of Abu Dhabi, is also making moves to promote its tourism attractions. This oasis town, located inland from Abu Dhabi city, has often been a favourite destination with locals and offers a true Arabian experience. “Al Ain is an oasis. It is quite difference from Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It is easy to promote as a tourist destination, because tourists come to experience the ‘oriental’. Al Ain has been preserved, and the structure of the oasis has been preserved,” says Bruno Debray, general manager of the Mercure Jebel Hafeet Hotel, Al Ain. “The city has rules, so that you can’t build higher than four storeys. It caters for a niche market. Because they have protected the city, it represents what people imagine of Arabia. It also has archaeological sites, and is rich in history,” he adds. The hotel receives most of its business from the local market, with GCC guests making up 70% of total occupancy. Therefore, weekend business is booming, with the hotel recording high occupancies, while mid-week the hotel is slow. “The weekend is our core market. What is exciting and challenging is to bring business out of the weekend. The challenge is weekdays and this is where international tourism plays a part, as European tourists are not bothered by the weekends,” says Debray. “The MICE market is also good for weekdays. We cater to meetings and incentives and have tied up with two companies to develop team-building packages, with activities related to the mountain, such as abseiling. We will offer what is in our environment, and are trying to push this. On a mountain you need to be more creative and innovative. You must remain focused to do things professionally,” Debray adds. Al Ain is on the border of Oman and hotels also get a lot of transit business, with tour operators conducting tours combining the UAE and Oman. This provides a constant stream of business, and Debray is confident that more could be achieved, if only Al Ain had more hotels. “There is room for more hotels. For example, we have 124 rooms. If we had more, we could sell more at weekends. It is a matter of promotion. Dubai is so active but at the same time so stressful. For people looking to relax, Al Ain has the advantage,” Debray says. Pierre Zayoun, general manager of the Al Ain Rotana, gives the same message. The hotel is adding ten additional chalets and room for 60 additional cars, to keep ahead of demand. “There has been a good increase on the occupancy even though it was high last year,” he admits.||**||Sharjah|~|Air-Arabia---Aircraft-Takin.jpg|~|Hotels are riding on the wave of success of new airlines in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.|~|Abu Dhabi’s hotels are riding the wave of Etihad, and the same can be said for Sharjah with regards to its fledgling airline, Air Arabia. Launched two years ago, the low cost service has proved something of a revolution to tourism both into and out of the emirate. “Our main focus has been on providing a transparent, simple service at an affordable cost. Our customer proposition, “Be Smart. Pay less. Fly more.” enables customers to make the smart travel choice; those who have been unable to afford air travel in the past to start travelling throughout the region and those who do travel to do so more frequently, benefiting both business and leisure travellers,” says Duncan Osborne, Air Arabia’s head of marketing. “In our first 20 months of operations, Air Arabia has quite a few laurels; we have achieved financial break even results; been voted best MENA airline by our customers; carried over one million passengers; grown our fleet to five aircraft and increased destinations from 5 to 18,” Osborne adds. Sharjah has been busy refining its product, and the emirate has undergone something of a facelift to make the most of its historic buildings and Arabic culture. This appears to be paying off, as the emirate recorded a 15% increase in tourists for the first half of 2005, with hotel guests reaching 634,281, compared to 550,731 for the corresponding period last year. According to the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), hotels showed a 21% increase in room-nights to 718,679 compared to 592,105 nights during the first half of 2004. Sharjah has 61 hotels, and they experienced a 2% increase in occupancy, bringing it to 88% “Reading through the numbers, we can feel the great impact of the GCC tourism markets on Sharjah,” says Mohammad Al No’man, director of SCTDA. “Three years ago, our initial plan was to attract 10% of the outbound GCC tourism sector. By organising spring and summer promotions, and promoting special holiday packages as part of our tourism-focused road shows, Sharjah is now high on the list of the GCC tourists,” he adds.||**||Ras Al Khaimah|~|Khatt.jpg|~|Khatt Springs Hotel & Spa is a retreat resort scheduled to open later this year.|~|At the top of the Arabian penninsula and Ras Al Khaimah is also making moves on creating a tourism product, with a focus on improving infrastructure and room capacity. The opening of the Emirates Highway has cut travelling time down to 45 minutes to Dubai and this is expected to provide a vital boost to arrival numbers “The product of ‘sun and sea’ is being leveraged with beach front property resorts and hotels catering to the European markets,” says Vinod Natesan, in charge of marketing, Ras Al Khaimah tourism office, Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority. The emirate is developing its marinas, water sports and golf courses, all with a view to attracting the European traveller. “The low green fees and the absence of crowds are expected to bring in a segment of the European outbound tourist market. The mountains are a USP for Ras Al Khaimah and mountain climbing activities with various tour operators bringing in tourists and giving them added reason for a lengthier stay. “Heritage tourism is expected to draw in another segment. A comprehensive plan to promote and preserve the heritage of Ras Al Khaimah is planned,” Natesan adds. Around 77% of tourists to Ras Al Khaimah are from Europe, with the rest being largely GCC travellers. Hotels have seen a slow but steady rise in occupancy, with the emirate receiving 116,000 hotel guests in 2004, an increase of 10% over 2003 figures. The latest hotel developments include the upcoming opening of the Khatt Springs Hotel & Spa, a retreat resort scheduled to open later this year. The Khatt Springs will offer a spa and beauty centre, focusing on health remedies utilising the natural springs. ||**||Fujairah|~|LMAA-Aerial-L.jpg|~|Le Meridien Al Aqah in Fujairah has achieved an average occupancy rate of 86% in 2005.|~|Fujairah is taking a similar route to that of Ras Al Khaimah, by focusing on its natural attractions. The Indian Ocean resort offers some of the best diving sites in the world, and attracts a large number of European dive enthusiasts each year. The emirate’s first five-star resort hotel, Le Meridien Al Aqah, located on Al Aqah beach, has seen constant year-on-year growth since opening two years ago. The property has achieved an average occupancy rate of 86% in 2005 year to date, an 8% increase as compared to the same period last year. Furthermore, in the first quarter of 2005, the hotel registered a double-digit growth rate with occupancy levels over 90%. “For Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach, the summer looks bright with an expected growth of 15% in the occupancy levels by the end of September,” boasts Patrick Antaki, general manager from Le Meridein Al Aqah. “The resort has seen continuous improvement in all areas to reach that extra mile in customer satisfaction and delight. Baywatch, the hotel’s seafood speciality restaurant, recently reopened with a new menu offering a wider variety. The hotel’s bar, Astros, now dons a big screen featuring all major sport events for guests to enjoy. “With the hotel becoming a popular destination for offsite training, team building and conferences, Le Meridien Al Aqah has recently introduced daylight conference rooms. Meanwhile, an in-house radio station plays the latest music and an in-house DJ constantly updates guests on the day-to-day activities and special offers at the food and beverage outlets,” Antaki explains. Next door to Le Meridien Al Aqah, Rotana Hotel, Resorts & suites is busy constructing its first Fujairah property. Scheduled to open in 2006, the hotel will offer 200 rooms and chalets in a low-level resort setting. In Fujairah town and the Al Diar Siji hotel has been upgrading business facilities following its ISO certification in May. The five-star business hotel has added wireless broadband internet connections in the lobby, café, business centre, rooms and suites. “Being centrally located in the city and being the only five-star property in the business hub of Fujairah, our hotel provides discerning business travellers with all their corporate needs in terms of modern meeting and conferencing facilities,” says Fouad Melhem, general manager of the hotel. “However, we also do get a lot of bookings from tour operators who bring bus loads of tourists to the city. That is because Fujairah is a successful tourist destination by itself,” he adds. Fujairah Airport is also preparing to expand, in order to meet the predicted increase in inbound travellers. As Dubai hurtles towards receiving 15 million tourists a year, the other emirates are focusing on a quieter, more traditional offering, and it looks set to pay off. “Dubai is currently the anchor brand in the “Middle East tourist mall” and is bringing saliency and footfall into this region. RAK stands to benefit from this footfall since it can add on mountains, quieter and less crowded beaches, heritage tourism and a relaxed and luxurious pace of life to complement the Dubai offering. The tourist then has reasons to extend his vacation in the UAE. The other emirates will not “get lost” if they know what their objectives are and how to get there,” concludes Ras Al Khaimah’s Natesan. ||**||

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