Tourism Frenzy

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While seeking a specific identity to brand themselves and match the interest generated by Dubai's growth, the Northern Emirates are looking to attract visitors with luxury accommodation and direct flights.

Ras-al-Khaimah (RAK) has a high number of large-scale hotel, resort and spa projects in the pipeline. Among those is a project to be opened in 2008 by RAK-based firm Al-Hamra, which already operates three hotels and resorts in the region. Another is by Egyptian group Orascom Hotels and Developments, which is constructing The Cove, a cluster of individual villas. Orascom guarantees investors a 7% return on their investment for the first three years. Dozens of hotels are slated for construction in the longer run, including RAK Properties' Mina Al Arab development, which will have no less than eleven hotels, due for completion in 2011. It is hoped the recently established Ras-al-Khaimah Airways, which is scheduled to begin flying in April, will be instrumental in bringing tourists to the emirate.

The eastern emirate of Fujairah is counting on its unspoiled Indian Ocean beachfront and mountainous surroundings as well as the opportunities for assorted outdoor activities to attract its fair share of visitors. It is also seeing a jump in development with three new resort hotels opening this year and another two slated to open in 2009.

Sharjah is already a popular destination for package tours and Eastern European tourists - it has attracted over 170,000 Russians alone in the last 12 months. Six new hotels should be inaugurated this year, and the popular budget airline Air Arabia is already proving to be a major asset to the local tourism industry. The alcohol ban enforced by the authorities, however, has deterred many Western tourists from visiting, and the city is still predominantly used as a cheaper sleeping spot to check out Dubai.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding the announcement of these glitzy resorts and hotels, it remains to be seen whether any of the Northern Emirates will be actually able to attract a significant number of tourists. While all point to Dubai's success, stealing some of that city's thunder will prove tricky. Dubai has enough landmarks and "world's most..." items to amaze even the most jaded traveller, something the Northern Emirates still lack. Similarly, several first-of-their-kind, iconic developments - such as the Burj al-Arab or the Jumeirah Palm - allowed Dubai to repeatedly make international headlines and, quite literally, appear on the world map. The Northern Emirates' copycat projects, however impressive they may be in their own right, are unlikely to garner the same level of interest and coverage. In fact, most of those emirates are still seeking to create a brand image of their own. While Sharjah's effort to showcase its cultural assets is relatively convincing, the other Northern Emirates have yet to find, and market, their own tourism appeal.

It is also noteworthy that backpackers and budget travellers seem excluded as virtually all the planned hotels and resorts fall into the five-star category. While the luxury bracket of the tourism market is admittedly a money-maker, catering to a single sector of the market has its risks, and excessive competition in this segment could bring prices down to dangerous levels.

Finally, with so many developments going on simultaneously, protecting the Northern Emirates' most precious natural asset, unspoiled beachfront and landscapes, will also be crucial. The recent drama surrounding Dubai's Jumeirah beach, which was suddenly fenced and marked for construction, only to be saved at the last minute by an order from the emir, might serve as a cautionary tale. Unchecked development resulting in a reinforced-concrete coastline, with every available inch of beachfront developed, is sure to turn tourists off, killing the golden goose in the process.

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