RAK to the future

Often overshadowed by other emirates, Ras Al Khaimah is planning to spend billions of dollars to establish itself as a premier tourism hotspot. Tamara Walid reports.

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By  Tamara Walid Published  June 25, 2006

|~|36-Julfar-Towers-200.jpg|~|Impressive: The Julfar Towers are one of several new construction projects being planned in RAK.|~|Often overshadowed by other emirates, Ras Al Khaimah is planning to spend billions of dollars to establish itself as a premier tourism hotspot. Tamara Walid reports.

For many, Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) has the potential to emerge as the next big tourism and business destination in the Middle East. Massive new commercial and residential developments in mountain areas, beaches and the desert are underway. The airport is expanding; a new airline will launch by the end of this year; a seven-star hotel is under construction; there are plans for a spaceport; huge sums are being spent on improving the emirate’s infrastructure; and it is even building the world’s longest indoor ski slope under the hot desert sun.

Driving from Dubai to RAK has never been easier than it is today, with a new section of Emirates Road allowing you to reach the emirate in about 40 minutes. Once you're there, certain things are immediately noticeable. There is a striking absence of traffic on the roads, there are no skyscrapers or construction sites everywhere you turn, life seems to be moving at a much more relaxed pace and there’s an overall sense of peace and quiet.

This said, things are starting to change. Drive a bit further into the city and you’ll spot them; developments taking shape. One of the largest of these is RAK Properties’ US$2.7 billion Mina Al Arab tourist and residential real estate development, which will occupy an area of 30 million square feet spread over a beachfront strip and a group of islands. While actual construction started in 2005, the design and the masterplan in their original forms date back to two years before then.

The current construction, which includes the marina cutting and filling works, is likely to be finished in the first half of 2007. Work on the infrastructure will start in August or September this year and will finish in 2007. The first set of buildings will be finished in the first half of 2008, and the completion of the entire development, including all the hotels, apartments and villas, is expected by 2011.

As far as prospective buyers are concerned, Mina Al Arab officials have provided reassurances that anyone who buys from RAK Properties will be able to have complete freehold. “People have been buying so far and the project has been received very well by the market,” says Alastair Burns, chief operating officer of RAK Properties. He says the project’s success is mainly due to the fact that its beachfront villas offer more than other developments. “They’re true beachfront villas. In some villas you can actually walk out of your gate and you’re on the beach. There’s no road, nothing,” he says.

The development has a three-kilometre long natural beach, an advantage over other UAE developments, Burns says. “We’re creating some extra lagoons, but it’s actually natural beach. You cannot find that in Dubai. I would definitely say it’s an advantage as most of the developments are either beach, which is very restricted in Dubai now, or mountain developments,” he says.

The company hasn’t started any projects in the mountain areas yet, but it says it is looking to very soon. A national park and an access road to it are currently under construction in a government-financed scheme to develop land in the mountains. Burns says opening new roads will pave the way for various potential developments, including a seven-star hotel upon which work has already started. The hotel will differ from the Burj Al Arab, as it will have more of a classical Arabic look that will fit in with its mountainous environment.

“Al Hamra Palace will be similar to the Burj Al Arab in the sense that it will have the same seven-star facilities, 485 rooms, conference facilities that can take 1000 people and a beach resort. Its completion is expected in 2007,” says a source at Al Hamra Fort Hotel and Beach Resort on the seven-star development.

Burns is expecting the mountain area to become more popular with tourists. “There are some tourists locally, that go to the mountain regions for wadi bashing and stuff like that, however the additional infrastructure will make it much more accessible to international tourism because the hotels here will also offer packages that include a one-day or two-day trip to the mountains,” he says.

Coral International Hotels, Resorts & Spas, part of Manafa LLC, is another company investing in the emirate and looking into projects in the beach, mountain and desert regions. “We are in talks with the government of RAK and RAK Properties about development of the mountain resort located near the borders of Oman,” says Sheikh Mohammed bin Faisal bin Sultan Al Qassimi, chief executive officer and chairman of Manafa.

“We are contemplating building three resorts in the area, and with the mountains and the beach being very close, it all gives a very different feeling. The heights of the mountains are very beautiful there and the temperature is different so it’s a nice place,” he says.

The company is working on two projects in RAK at the moment, which are in the design stage; a desert resort and a beach resort. Qasr Al Fala, the desert resort project, is going to be very different to others available on the market, promises Sheikh Mohammed. He says the period between the early 1950s and the end of the 1970s, with its Bedouin style and touch of Arabic hospitality, has been incorporated into the resort’s identity. The beach resort, under development, will have 230 rooms. Its estimated cost will be US$40 million to US$55 million. “The desert resort is a smaller project as it’s considered a boutique concept. It will have around 100 rooms and cost US$19 million to US$22 million,” says Sheikh Mohammed.

Al Hamra Fort Hotel and Beach Resort is one of the attractions in RAK that mostly appeals to European tourists. The five-star resort has been designed to resemble an Arabian Fort, with 83 guest rooms and 183 villa rooms overlooking the sea. Al Hamra visitors also have the option of a free shuttle to Dubai every day, which brings them back to the hotel for the night.

Currently, the resort is undergoing a major expansion focusing mainly on upgrading its lagoon areas, improving its marina and preparing for the opening of an 18-hole golf course and spa centre.

“We also have a new hotel, Khatt Spring Hotel and Spa, which will open first of June. It’s not a beach resort, but a mountain resort and spa,” say hotel officials. “There are many new properties starting in RAK. There is Al Hamra Village, a real estate property, and Marjan Islands. I think in the upcoming five years we will have around 15 new hotels. RAK will change totally, but I don’t think it will be crowded; it will still keep its quiet and peacefulness,” the source says.

However, RAK’s tranquility and traffic-free environment are not the only reasons that make it a special getaway. Sources claim hotel rates in RAK are cheaper and people get the same level of facilities and services of any other five-star hotels. Burns believes the reason behind “hotel rates being significantly lower than in Dubai” is that prices in “Dubai have gone up so much recently” and this will most likely continue. He predicts that, even if the rates go up in RAK, they will probably go up even more in Dubai until there’s an adequate supply.

“If you compare RAK rates with Dubai rates they will be of course cheaper because of the logistics, and not because it’s cheaper as a destination,” says Sheikh Al Qassimi. He says however, there are hotels, open at the moment, with prices equivalent to Dubai's. But he adds that developments in RAK are helping to diversify the tourism market in the UAE. RAK's hotels, he explains, are capturing the middle and upper end of the market, but not necessarily by taking customers from those in Dubai.

“In terms of the total number of rooms used in RAK, there’s a very significant number of international tourists from Europe, particularly from Germany and Italy,” adds Burns.
“That’s mainly due to the network of tour operators in Germany and Italy which are marketing RAK.”

Al Hamra Resort is very busy, especially during weekends, and it is very hard to find bookings, say officials. This makes Burns more optimistic, as he expects Mina Al Arab to see visitors not only from the UAE but other GCC countries as well. The reason, Burns says, is that “it will be a resort destination that is actually not available anywhere else in the Gulf”. He adds that although there are many impressive hotels in the Gulf, most of them tend to be single developments, whereas within Mina Al Arab there will be 10 different hotels to choose from, in addition to shopping areas, souq-type environments and ethnic and tourism-related developments.

In the view of Eng. Salem bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Chairman of RAK International Airport, what attracts people to the emirate, other than safety and security aspects, is its peaceful lifestyle. He calls it a “great getaway” for European and Asian tourists. The government of RAK, he says, is keen to invest in many projects, mainly tourism-related developments.

“We have an Investment Authority that allows for investors to have freehold of their capital and companies to be located in the UAE. All government legislations and regulations are twisted and focused on promoting the UAE as an industrial zone and a commerce and business spot for the whole world,” he says.

Mohammed Sultan Al Qadi, MD and CEO of RAK Properties, describes RAK as a “very relaxing” place to live and work. He says there have been big improvements in the provision of services, such as water and electricity, telecoms, health and education. He adds that the government has a “very aggressive plan” to improve the emirate's infrastructure, which is now being implemented. “There’s a planned committee and I believe in the coming few years the roads and sewage systems will be better,” he says.

It is Al Qadi’s belief that things have changed in the emirate, and that standards accepted in the past are no longer considered satisfactory. He argues that, whilst the UAE has always had huge potential for development, the nation has in the past failed to compete internationally.

This is no longer the case, as developments strive to match standards in Europe, the United States and the Far East. Al Qadi stresses that any previous development that does not meet those standards will have to be replaced. “We have to have high quality standards, whether they are in high-rise buildings, villas, or middle size buildings, and especially in their infrastructure. That was not taken into consideration in old developments. Now all of this has been considered especially with the young generation; they have traveled a lot. They come here and they dream to have the same sort of developments, which they have seen in America or Europe. Nowadays this is being made available in RAK,” he says.

Al Qadi is not the only one who recognises a well of potential in the northern emirate. Burns believes there’s “a lot happening”, and that the working environment in RAK is “very dynamic”. There are many resorts and hotels being developed by various companies. In terms of lifestyle, the emirate offers a much more relaxed atmosphere, away from the hustle and bustle of Dubai.

“If you want the fast lifestyle, going out and about and lots of congestion and traffic, then Dubai’s big city life is right for you. We don’t see RAK promoting big city life. It’ll be much more like what we’re trying to promote with Mina Al Arab: ‘It’s a holiday, everyday’. You live there, but you’ve also got the environment, the beaches, you’ve got 10 hotels on site, and lots of restaurants and cafés so you can feel like you’re on a holiday all the time,” Burns says.

Real-estate development is not all that is happening in RAK, however. Burns says the emirate is clearly set on developing its education and health sectors. He adds that RAK Properties plans to contribute to this through its Mina Al Arab project, which will have a wellness cosmetic surgery facility. Burns thinks that will encourage people to come to RAK for cosmetic and other rehabilitation type treatments, while having a holiday at the same time. “We want to stimulate inward tourism,” he says. “And we will go very much, once the hotels are up and running, with a very strong international marketing effort. We hope that Mina Al Arab will become a world-renowned resort destination.”

Burns says the emirate is also doing its best to make it easy for people to do business. The recent boom in development is also benefiting from the use of natural resources that are available solely in RAK, as well as the overspill from developments in Dubai. “People are looking for beach property, but you can’t get any in Dubai, you can’t get that anywhere else in fact,” Burns says.

Another spot in RAK that attracts not only European tourists, but also residents of Dubai, is the Tower Links Golf Club. Whereas most of Dubai’s golf courses are packed over weekends and waiting lists for memberships seem neverending, RAK’s golf club offers a relaxing and less crowded atmosphere at almost half the cost.

Tower Links is owned by His Highness Sheikh Faisal bin Saqr Al Qassimi, the ruler’s son, and two years ago opened the back nine holes. The front nine were opened in a few months later and the clubhouse in January 2005. The club is just finishing its first season of full operation.

Gary Constable, general manager of Tower Links, reveals that most customers are UAE residents, while the course is also attracting a hardcore of RAK golfers. This, however, is changing, “although with Dubai being very crowded and difficult to find a membership or even a tee time, we’re seeing a lot of numbers of golfers from Dubai at weekends. Now we’re also starting to get some memberships from Sharjah and Fujairah,” says Constable.

At the moment, the club offers two types of memberships: gold and silver. The gold membership is priced at US$2450. Basic adult membership at Dubai Creek Golf Club starts at US$3267.

Another golf course is being constructed at the moment by Al Hamra and is expected to open some time within the next year. Constable believes that would make RAK more “viable as a destination for the international market”.

The expansion at Al Hamra Fort Hotel and Beach Resort, as well as hotel group Hilton's plan to open another property at the end of this year, Constable thinks, will bring more tourists into the area. “We’re taking a fair amount of tourists at the moment; probably only a very small one in comparison to Dubai but it’s only going to grow over the next few years with all the new developments,” he says.

Constable, who has lived for six years in RAK, says the more time he spends in RAK the less frequently he visits Dubai. “I only go when I need to now, mainly because of the traffic. We have got quite used to driving around,” he says. Cheaper rent is another advantage for Constable, who resides in a three-bedroom house at a price impossible to find in Dubai.

Many predict that the rising cost of living will force people to shift from Dubai to RAK, especially with all the progress and development taking place. But Al Qadi says: “We are not particularly building for people shifting from Dubai, although this may happen. We welcome people from everywhere. We believe in RAK’s own development. There are many interesting developments in RAK, which will boost the economy and bring in new people.”

RAK Properties has a number of projects on the agenda. These include Julfar Towers, 43-storey commercial and residential twin towers that will start being built this month and are due for completion in two years time. Another is Mangrove Island, which is also a residential and commercial development and will boast a gated golf community with up to 36 holes. The island will also have a residential development with about 2000 villas. The project is worth US$1 billion and will see its proper launch next year, says Burns. It is currently in the master plan and design stages. Other than RAK Properties, which is RAK's biggest real estate company, with US$544.6 million capital, a new petroleum company with US$816.9 million capital called RAK Petroleum is being established, as well as an educational body under the name Idrak.

There are plans to improve the seaport and massive beachfront projects such as Saraya Islands (Costing US$500 million and being developed by Saudi Oger) and the Cove (US$60.5 million and being developed by Orascom Hotels and Development) are being executed. All of this will add value to RAK, says Al Qadi, who is keen to welcome many more people to the emirate.

Constable recalls how in 1993, Dubai was still unknown to many, whereas now it’s known worldwide. “There is an awareness that Dubai is growing enormously. That has helped the region as a whole and RAK can ride on the back of that,” he says.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Faisal Al Qasimi is also understandably optimistic. “I would be biased if I said that RAK would be the future. But honestly speaking, it will,” he smiles.||**||

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