Nature Emirate promotes balanced tourism

Raki Phillips, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, assumes the role of a panellist at the recently concluded WTM London

Enshrining sustainability at the core of national tourism policy is no longer a matter of choice but a necessity, says Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) CEO Raki Phillips.

“Adopting a strategy that prioritises the benefits to society and the protection of the environment has become a necessity, and both for the sake of our planet and the moral justification of our industry, we could not afford to wait any longer.”

Phillips showcased Ras Al Khaimah’s Balanced Tourism policy: a new and holistic approach that puts environment, culture, conservation, and liveability at the core of the Emirate’s central investment and development strategy.

Balanced Tourism, says Phillips, takes sustainability policy beyond a ban on single use plastics to drive growth while protecting biodiversity, communities, culture, and environment – and it’s a model that will work anywhere.

Known as the Nature Emirate, Ras Al Khaimah is located 45 minutes from Dubai International airport, boasting soaring mountains, dense mangroves and 64km of pristine beach. These natural assets - overlooked by Jebel Jais, the highest peak in the UAE - both underpin and epitomise the Emirate’s tourism principles: promoted but protected, enjoyed but respected.

Destination certification and tourism business accreditation are key to the integrity of Ras Al Khaimah’s Balanced Tourism strategy. Both government and private enterprise in the Emirate are undergoing the workshops and training required to achieve the EarthCheck Destination Standard by the end of 2023 and to become the regional leader in sustainable tourism by 2025.

The EarthCheck Standard provides a rigorous framework within which to benchmark, and continuously improve, responsible and sustainable environmental, cultural, social, and economic outcomes for Ras Al Khaimah’s fast growing tourism industry.

Commitment to sustainability doesn’t mean compromising visitor experience. The Nature Emirate, listed in Time Magazine’s World Greatest Places for 2022, is globally renowned for high-adrenaline attractions including the Jais Flight - the world’s longest zipline; the Jais Sledder – a 40kmh, 1.8km toboggan ride; the first Bear Grylls Explorer Camp accommodation outside of the UK and the extraordinary hiking and canyoning at Wadi Shawka.

Empty beaches of white sand, breath-taking mountain scenery and shimmering desert offer an attractive proposition for growing numbers of nature-loving, sustainability-minded visitors. By June of 2022, Ras Al Khaimah had matched its pre-pandemic arrivals, reporting a staggering 232% increase in UK visitor arrivals against the same period in 2021. The footfall puts the Emirate on course to reach its target of 3m annual visitors by 2030.

As the licensing authority for all new hotel developments, RAKTDA is empowered to enforce sustainability standards using the Emirate’s own Barjeel Green Building Regulations. New properties subject to these uncompromising regulations include Earth Hotels Altitude, an eco-based pop-up hotel concept set to open on Jebel Jais in Q3 2023; and Saij Mountain Lodge, built by eco-lodge pioneers Mantis and opening on Jebel Jais in Q1 2024.

Similar standards apply to new attractions. Under the Balanced Tourism model, more than 20 new sustainable tourism projects – also known as Attractions with Purpose – are being built across the Emirate. The Scallop Ranch at Al Hamra Marina is one such example, combining recreation with education by offering families the opportunity to dive for, collect, cook, and eat their own seafood while at the same time learning of the history, culture and environmental importance of aquaculture in Ras Al Khaimah.

With a rich history dating back to the Bronze Age, Ras Al Khaimah is one of the few places in the world which has been continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years. Ras Al Khaimah boasts a vast array of historical sites with over 1,000 archaeological sites and antiquities including ruins and forts. It is also the only Emirate in the UAE to have four historical locations – Julfar, Shimal, Al Jazeera Al Hamra and Dhayah – to be included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s tentative list of Global Heritage Sites, an inventory of sites considered to hold outstanding value from a cultural and/or natural heritage standpoint.

Alongside the visitor experience RAKTDA is focusing on the opportunities, livelihoods, and quality of life of those who work in the Emirate’s tourism industry. The Authority was named one of the Best Workplaces for Women and in the Top 10 Great Place to Work in 2021 and 2022 - the only government organisation to be awarded this certification in the Middle East. It was also recognized as the ‘Government Entity with the Happiest Work Environment’ in the Emirate and ‘Happiest Employees in Ras Al Khaimah’ by the Sheikh Saqr Program for Government Excellence (SSPGE). Initiatives to enhance liveability include expanded public and inter-city transport across the Emirate, a thorough review of employment regulations and policies, community engagement programmes, employee recognition schemes, a RAK FAM community card, providing travel and tourism employees with special discounts across retail, leisure and activities in the Emirate, and certification for travel and hospitality partners.

“Our world is changing faster than we thought possible and, if it is to survive, the tourism industry not only needs to adapt, but also thrive,” said Phillips. “Behaviours and attractions once seen as acceptable, even desirable, no longer fit into the new world order. Our industry needs to evolve to offer travellers a redefined concept of travel, and that redefinition must start at ground level to cover all aspects of our operations.”