Just picked up this story about a new luxury resort in Ras Al-Khaimah, to be run by Banyan Tree. I saw it under development when I was in RAK earlier this year, on the back of a trip to Arabian Travel Market. RAK’s an odd place – but I rather liked it. It’s the most northerly of the Emirates, and so under the least influence from Dubai and Abu Dhabi; mainly industrial, lots of cement factories (and they’re very proud of their ceramics), very ordinary – but set amid extraordinary landscapes. In tourism terms, it seemed to me that its greatest asset was access to the mountains and coastline of the Musandam peninsula, an exclave of Omani territory to the north and east. Musandam is fabulous; no space to talk about it here, but if you haven’t been – go.
I was taken for a dhow ride through Musandam’s fjords…
…I stayed at the Khatt Hotel, a modest local four-star alongside hot springs in RAK’s hills, and took a 4WD trip from RAK into Wadi Bih, a rocky gorge system that cuts through the Hajar mountains, shared between Oman and the UAE.
There’s climbing, paragliding, long-distance trekking up here. The mountain culture is quite different from the coastal lowlands; you’re a million miles from Dubai and its trashy desert safaris. Khasab has got a near-monopoly on dhow rides and leisure cruises around this extraordinarily beautiful coast, but there’s no reason why RAK shouldn’t have a slice of that pie, too. The potential is huge for RAK (with or without Khasab) to become the only place offering this kind of off-the-beaten-track, nature-based independent tourism anywhere between the Mediterranean and India. In so doing, it could also pick up a substantial slice of business from visitors (not just Western) who are bored with Dubai’s high life aspirations.
Instead, RAK – like Abu Dhabi, like Qatar, like just about everybody in the Middle East – is busy chasing the top end of the market. (And not just Banyan Tree: RAK is also building Marjan Island offshore, an imitation of Dubai’s Palm/World idea.) I’m not a big fan of luxury resorts. I think they isolate tourists and are an attempt to ring-fence local culture, discouraging interaction. Perhaps in some places that’s the point. It certainly feels that way in the Gulf. But ring-fencing culture doesn’t preserve it. It corrupts it. Arguably, that’s what has got Dubai into the pickle it’s currently in, with massive misunderstanding (leading to ‘sex on the beach’, among other shenanigans), alienation, resentment, even suspicion.
RAK – and Abu Dhabi, Qatar and others – seem scared of mass tourism. They look at Dubai and Sharm El-Sheikh and shy away from midrange development, imagining it will only cause ‘problems’. Their default response is to aim squarely for the super-rich. But that’s a mistake. Independent midrange tourism could do more for RAK and the others than any amount of luxury, diverting income to the grass roots, fostering entrepreneurship, massively improving public image abroad, boosting pride, exposing locals (Asian expats, Western expats and Emiratis alike) to new ideas… but, ah. Maybe the ruling families don’t want new ideas. Maybe they think tourism will erode their culture (though British culture is still alive and kicking despite – or perhaps because of – 25 million tourists a year, as is Italian, French, Spanish, Thai, Mexican…). Maybe they think tourists only want luxury. Maybe they think nobody wants to get hot and thirsty exploring the mountains. Maybe they think the UAE hasn’t got that much to offer, and so should just play it safe by going with the tried-and-trusted formula of luxury resort developments. Maybe they think the luxury market has more economic potential – and more prestige – than the midrange.
If so, I think they’re wrong on every score.
Some cash-strapped countries have trouble seeing how the returns on independent, nature-based tourism could make it viable for them (Jordan, for instance). For the Gulf states, whose reasons for launching tourism at all have much less to do with income than image, it seems perverse to just fall back on more (and more) luxury. RAK could be the world’s next big adventure destination. It has the terrain. All that’s needed is a bit of independent thinking.