You’ve probably heard of Dubai and Abu Dhabi – two states in the United Arab Emirates that have transformed themselves into international holiday destinations over the last decade. Now another of the Emirates wants to get in on the action. Ras al-Khaimah has the year-round sunshine and beaches of its neighbours, but its development is much more low-key.
Tourism CEO Haitham Mattar says Ras al-Khaimah’s rulers want to conserve the landscape and its heritage. It has steered away from the massive developments seen in Dubai, just 45-minutes drive away. Haitham says it’s one of the few places in Middle East that has preserved its Arabian heritage and culture. “You will not find high-rise towers, you will not find large shopping malls and you will not find huge theme parks,” he explained.
A sense of heritage defines their tourism brand. Their tourism logo, for instance, features an outline of the 16th century Dhaya Fort, the only one in the UAE that is built on a hill. And they intend putting their natural assets at the centre of tourism. A viewing deck is being created in the sand-coloured ‘Stone’ Mountains to enable visitors to take in the incredible views. “It will be like a European beer garden with a picnic area and food trucks and the backdrop is the sea and port. Its one of the most stunning sunsets in the region,” says Haitham.
“We have the highest mountains in the UAE. We have a stunning desert with terracotta coloured sand and we have azure blue sea. You could drive up to the top of the mountains, at 1900m, and then in one hour’s time you can be at the beach.”
And there are plenty to choose from. Ras al-Khaimah has 64km of pristine beaches. Popular activities include going on a desert safari or having a Bedouin meal with traditional entertainment. There’s also plenty of wildlife in the area. “You’ll see oryx, deer, camels, foxes and rabbits all in their natural habitat,” says Haitham.
Ras al-Khaimah is one of the most populous of the Emirates with 35% of the total population. “They are humble people and they love tourists,” says Haitham. “They’re always happy to show visitors around and recommend places to go. And if you go hiking in the mountains, you’ll probably get invited to tea with the tribes who live there in traditional stone houses.”
For history buffs, a visit to the abandoned 14th century pearl-fishing village of Jazirat Al Hamra should be on your itinerary. The name means ‘the Red Island,’ named because of the coloured sand it’s built on. The buildings were constructed from coral stones and you’ll see historic houses with traditional windtowers and souks.
Ras al-Khaimah is also trying to offer something for the more adventurous travellers and the newly built via ferrata will offer walkers an alternative way to appreciate the mountains. Haitham explained: “It’s an Italian term meaning ‘iron path’ and will be familiar to people who have climbed in the Alps. It takes about two and half hours to complete and has easy, moderate and extreme climbing areas. There are also three zip lines to allow you to transfer from one side of the mountain to the other.”
It seems that the strong sense of competition between Arab states is alive here. Guinness World Records lists Puerto Rico as the territory with the longest zip line at 2.5km. But Ras al-Khaimah is in the process of breaking that record. They’re constructing a longer run and it will be faster than the current record-holder. “We will build this in the mountains at over 1,300m high so this will be a great experience, with very dramatic views of the mountains. There’ll be zip lining at night too and we will light up the mountain, which will be an even more dramatic experience.” If zip lining isn’t your thing, then there’s also mountain biking, extreme hiking and diving off the coast.
Interestingly Ras al-Khaimah is offering affordable malls and accommodation for middle range incomes – four-star rather than five-star. Haitham says that’s another way to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. “The luxury brands are available about a 45-minute drive away in Dubai. We are very much focusing on the middle-market.”
Ras al-Khaimah is considered a liberal Emirate and non-Muslim visitors can buy alcoholic drinks. To find out more visit the Ras al-Khaimah Toursim website.