RAK Tourism Development Authority CEO Haitham Mattar speaks to Sport Industry Insider about the role of the emirate’s successful adventure sport strategy in stimulating tourism. 

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have for many years robbed the UAE’s other emirates of the limelight. Synonymous with glitz and glamour, they have welcomed tourists from across the world, desperate to sample iconic landmarks and five-star hospitality.

But that dual domination is now being eroded; other emirates are stepping out of the shadows.

Sharjah has quietly emerged as a hub for Islamic tourism, emphasising its arts and culture offering, while Ras Al Khaimah has experienced a seismic shift in visitor numbers over the past year after focusing marketing efforts on its varied terrain and opportunities to experience the outdoors.

The decision to focus on adventure sports came on the back of the emirate’s first ever independent consumer research study in 2015. It was a key moment for RAK Tourism Development Authority, according to the man who has been leading the new approach, CEO Haitham Mattar.

“We wanted to understand the key motivators for travel today in different markets,” Mattar explains to Sport Industry Insider. “Number one from European markets in particular was to seek sun and the beach. But we found that number two most of the time was adventure.

“On the back of this we did a full market study with McKinsey that enabled us to understand what was going on around us and what other emirates were focusing on. We wanted to complement what Abu Dhabi and Dubai have to offer, rather than compete.

“It seems obvious that Ras Al Khaimah could be associated with adventure sports as it is perfectly set up for it in terms of the landscape. Yes we have great beaches but we also have beautiful deserts and the highest mountains in the UAE. Jebel Jais was an obvious starting point.”

In 2016, the Jebel Jais Via Ferrata hiking and climbing experience was opened and quickly gained popularity. But it was when the world’s longest zip-line opened in January 2018 that things really began to take flight for RAK.

“We had zip-lines as part of the Via Ferrata and our visitors were telling us that it was their favourite bit of the experience,” Mattar says. “So we went to Puerto Rico – where the longest zip-line was at the time – and worked out how we would create a longer one.

“Now we have our main 2.8km zip-line, as well as a series of others from 400m to 1km. We are building new zip-lines and platforms all the time; one we will open soon involves you landing in a nest in the mountain, and we want night zip-lining too with LED cables.”

When the zip-line launched earlier this year it was to much fanfare and Mattar had to take a difficult decision in rejecting interest from sponsors for the project. However, it proved an inspired move with RAK hitting global headlines like never before.

“We had interest from sponsors, but we wanted to make sure that the name Ras Al Khaimah was out there. It was effective and for the first time ever we were appearing in media all over the world is when we launched the zip-line. If we’d had a sponsor’s name, it would have likely had more attention that Ras Al Khaimah.

“Now of course we are more open to sponsorship. We have reached out to some of those companies who connected with us earlier, especially some of the key airlines. It certainly seems to makes sense to name elements of the Jebel Jais flight after an airline!”

The impact of the new approach to adventure sports has been keenly felt. Having previously focused on attracting tourist from the captive ‘sun and sand’ markets of Germany, UK and Russia, RAK has now enjoyed success in markets as diverse as Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic.

That rise in popularity has had a knock-on effect for domestic tourists, who are now increasingly finding it difficult to book last-minute weekend trips to some of the resorts in the emirate during peak months.

Of course we want to service local tourists but they now realise that they need to book in advance or some of the hotels won’t have as much availability,” Mattar explains. “Domestic visitors used to represent 70% of our total tourists, but now we are 66% international, 34% local.

The Ras Al Khaimah Via Ferrata has also proven a popular opening.

“It’s more beneficial for us because average length of stay for international tourists is four nights while UAE residents would tend to book single-night stays on a Friday.”

Those international tourists have helped deliver some impressive 2018 numbers for Ras Al Khaimah. Calculated on hotel nights stayed – thanks to an emirate-wide system installed in 2016 to collect the data – the figures don’t even take into consideration the thousands of day-tripping visitors from elsewhere in the UAE.

“We are very proud of what we’ve achieved this year. We have seen an 11.2% growth in overall visitor numbers – above the UN World Tourism Organisation average of 6%. In 2015 we received around 470,000 tourists and this year we will have more than one million visitors. In 2025 we want that figure to be three million.

“We’ve seen growth in all of our traditional markets of Germany (+4%), Russia (+36%) and UK (+10%), while India (+16%) is now out fourth largest market. Kazakhstan is up 26%, Norway is up 45%, Sweden and Denmark is 37.7% – there really is a lot for us to be positive about.”

Beyond its outdoor pursuits, RAK has a number of other sporting offerings, with Mattar also determined to increase the emirate’s profile as a golf tourism destination. A tie-up with the European Challenge Tour was the first step to making that happen.

“I realised shortly after arriving in Ras Al Khaimah that there are two understated golf courses here in Al Hamra and Tower Links. I wanted the international market to be aware of them and to consider us a genuine alternative golf destination.

“The European Tour connection was a no-brainer – we signed up first as the penultimate event of the Challenge Tour in 2017 and then became the end-of-season tournament for 2018. Every event they played throughout this year was part of the ‘Road to Ras Al Khaimah’ and we had 120 players from across Europe to play in a fantastic finale in November.”

After years of Dubai and Abu Dhabi admirably demonstrating the power of sport to attract worldwide attention, Ras Al Khaimah is now successfully harnessing it too.

“The adventure sports and golf are an important part of the portfolio but we also have cycling. Ras Al Khaimah was part of the Dubai Tour two years ago and will be part of the new UAE Tour in 2019; we’ve attracted a lot of other cycling races up Jebel Jais because it is a challenging, and spectacular, location.

“Tough Mudder is another event coming here soon. The destination and the lay of the land really helps us. People who are looking for adventure can do zip-lining in the mountains, diving in the sea, and horse riding or hiking in the desert. All on the same day. It’s a fantastic proposition.”