Recently released government statistics show the tourism sector in the Northern Emirates enjoying healthy growth, and officials are predicting the number of visitors to the region will continue to increase in the coming years.
According to statistics released in early May by the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), the number of guests staying in the emirate during the first quarter of 2008 rose to 421,898, up from 377,306 during the same period in 2007. Average occupancy rose from 77% last year to 80% - healthy figures indicating room for further expansion in the hotel sector.
Similarly, the longer-term figures for Ras Al Khaimah also show impressive growth. In 2001, average occupancy was only 35%, whereas by 2006 average figures were 88%. Last summer, traditionally a quiet time for tourism in the emirate owing to the oppressive heat, occupancy averaged at 78%, according to RAK Tourism. Average annual figures for 2007 are expected to be in the region of 90%.
Efforts to promote the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a complete tourism destination - including the Northern Emirates - appear to be paying off. Not only has there been strong growth in occupancy and visitor numbers, but brand recognition appears to be developing. In November last year the UAE was placed among the top three countries worldwide with potential to become a major tourism destination within the next five years by the Country Brand Index (CBI).
The emirates are each pursuing their own strategies of tourism development, playing to their individual strengths to focus on particular markets. While Dubai is seen as a glamorous destination known for shopping and nightlife, Abu Dhabi is developing world-class museums in a drive to become a destination for cultural tourism in addition to its steady stream of business visitors. Sharjah, with an increasingly extensive network of direct flights though the budget airline Air Arabia, is a popular sun-and-sand choice, particularly for people from Russia and Arab countries, and is appealing to the family travel market. Ras Al Khaimah, which in Jazirat Al Hamra has perhaps the best-preserved old town in the region, as well as mountains and natural beaches, is promoted on its architectural and natural beauty and traditional atmosphere. While there is naturally some overlap between the emirates' facilities, attractions and activities, the emphasis is on complementing one another rather than competing.
Currently, Arabs and Europeans make up the bulk of visitors to the UAE as a whole and the Northern Emirates in particular. By far the largest group of tourists to Ras Al Khaimah, for example, is made up of Europeans, who spent 395,463 room nights in 2005. The next nearest group was internal tourism from within the UAE, a distant second at 30,235. Even in Sharjah, the only "dry" emirate where alcohol is prohibited in all hotels, Europeans make up a significant proportion of tourists - 39% according to the SCTDA.
Some analysts are predicting that tourism in the Northern Emirates is reaching critical mass, and preparing to take off in a major way. Visitor numbers for Ras Al Khaimah, already over half a million in 2007, are expected to grow five-fold within the next four years, as large-scale resort developments such as Saraya Islands, Al Marjan Island, La Hoya Bay and Mina Al Arab all come online.
If such success is to be experienced though, the UAE will need to step up work on major integration projects. Rapid expansion in the northern emirates' tourism sector - with new developments coming online all the time - is placing a strain on resources and infrastructure. Congested roads still bog down travel times and the emirates struggle to meet the energy demand required by rapid growth. Finding and retaining skilled staff is not easy, especially in middle management, and rising global prices for construction materials pose a challenge for the host of projects underway.
A 350-km rail network is planned to link Ras Al Khaimah in the north with Abu Dhabi in the south, taking in several of the other emirates along the way, and could be a key component in promoting regional travel. In addition, an ambitious Dh16bn ($4.3bn) of federal funds was recently allocated to the Northern Emirates for the development of infrastructure, and the Federal Electricity and Water Authority (FEWA) is expected to spend up to $15bn on improving water and power supplies in the Northern Emirates over the next decade.
With a combination of government support for infrastructure development, together with a healthy dose of foreign interest, tourism in the Northern Emirates looks set to continue its upward trend. Such is the confidence in the sector's potential that the SCTDA, for example, expects tourism to contribute 15% to Sharjah's gross domestic product in the next few years, up from the current 9%.