Eco-tourism is rapidly gaining popularity among tourists in the Middle East and many hotels are adopting eco-friendly practices or offering eco-tourism activities. At the same time, the UN has declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, due to the sub-sector’s contribution to sustainable development, job creation, and trade.
Eco-tourism is defined as responsible travel that preserves the environment while improving the welfare of the local community. Tourists are increasingly considering sustainability when making travel choices, and it is no surprise that this type of tourism is steadily moving from being an “alternative” to “mainstream” travel choice. In many destinations, including Ras Al Khaimah, governments and tourism authorities are realizing that preserving their natural habitats, cultural assets, and historic features are essential to boosting the industry in the long term. The UAE still has not fully developed its eco-tourism offering, and Ras Al Khaimah presents itself as the perfect candidate to become the cultural and eco-friendly center of the UAE. Market research into the quality of life of Ras Al Khaimah residents, conducted by Nielsen and commissioned by RAK’s Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA), stated that 68% of the survey respondents believe the architecture and building design in Ras Al Khaimah depicts the heritage of the Emirate.
The direct benefits that eco-tourism brings to the tourist destination are the economic development of the local communities, as well as helping to educate the traveler and fostering respect for different cultures. According to RAK TDA, Ras Al Khaimah is set to welcome 850,000 visitors in 2016. The authority’s strategy is focusing on the growth and diversification of its tourism sectors, including eco-tourism. The authority is boosting its adventure activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and the upcoming mountain zip line. The Emirate plans to take full advantage of its historic Hajar Mountains in which the 1,930m peak of Jebel Jais lays, the highest peak in the UAE. The under-developed natural asset offers plenty of opportunities for investors looking to transform the mountain into a tourist destination, not only for international visitors but also as a weekend gateway for the residents of the rest of the Emirates. Already, a five-star camp is set to be developed at Jebel Jais by RAK TDA, the first-of-its-kind in the region.
Some investors, such as Anantara, have already identified eco-tourism as a niche market in Ras Al Khaimah. The Anantara Mina Al Arab eco-resort will be the first direct competitor of Banyan Tree in Ras Al Khaimah. It will compromise of approximately 250 rooms, suites and overwater villas in front of an eco-reserve of mangroves. The development will keep the environment in mind, protecting Ras Al Khaimah’s natural beauty. However, some problems remain in the development of the Emirate as an eco-tourism destination. Waste is a major pollutant and it is estimated that the 20 hotels operating in Ras Al Khaimah produce over 50 tons of waste per week, but some have already implemented environmentally friendly practices and forms of recycling in order to minimize the problem.
The tourism sector in Rask Al Khaimah has many investment opportunities waiting to be tapped. The Emirate experienced a 6% growth in tourism numbers in 2015, higher than the 4% global growth. Ras Al Khaimah’s top source markets are Germany, Russia, the UK, India, and Finland. The number of tourists from Germany increased by 167% in January 2016 when compared to the same month in 2015; likewise, there was a 153% increase in Finish tourists and a 30% increase in Russian tourists. By showcasing the heritage, traditions, and rich Arabian culture of the Emirate to a global audience, it looks like Ras Al Khaimah is on track to reach its target of 1 million visitors by 2018 and 3 million by 2025.