In An Exclusive Interview With: Iyad Rasbey, Executive Director, Destination Tourism Development, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority


MS. You’ve been in the MICE industry for years. What’s your most favourite memory from working in this industry over these past 20 years? Please share with us your professional journey.

Iyad Rasbey. I have always been passionate about the travel and tourism sector, and built my career working with a number of leading global tour operators such as TRAVCO, Alpha Tours and Kuoni, in addition to providing consultancy services for several tourism authorities. Naturally, the MICE sector was an easy fit given its growing importance and the increased demand for meeting, events, conferences and incentive travel given what the UAE has to offer in all those areas and more recently in Ras Al Khaimah as a developing MICE destination. When I first joined Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority as the Director for MICE, my responsibility was to build on this sector, especially in terms of identifying new opportunities and adding new offerings.

This was aligned with the vision of the government and the tourism authority, which focused on both attracting foreign investment as well as positioning MICE as a driver to tourism. With Ras Al Khaimah investing considerably in new hotels, attractions and infrastructure, the MICE sector has also witnessed sustained growth. Our approach to developing the MICE sector has been even more holistic, with the integration of authentic cultural, culinary and other tourism offerings, which have added value to the unique MICE proposition of Ras Al Khaimah. Moreover, as a nature-based destination, Ras Al Khaimah offers the promise of an escape, one where you can enjoy your meetings or conference and then immerse yourself in our natural offerings, from day and overnight excursions on Jebel Jais, the highest mountain in the UAE with the longest zipline in the world, Bear Grylls Explorer Camp, the highest restaurant in the UAE, international hiking trails, camping and more.onds and meet the new conditions in the ‘new normal’.

Today as the Executive Director of Destination Tourism Development & MICE, I am responsible for the continued, balanced, and sustainable development of the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah as a fast-developing tourist destination. I also work with the team to develop the Emirate’s existing diverse portfolio of attractions and activities, and ensuring its appeal to a wider mix of audiences. We are delighted that today Ras Al Khaimah is established as a tourism and MICE destination.

MS. Ras Al Khaimah was named the Gulf Tourism Capital for 2021 at the fifth annual meeting of Tourism Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council. How does the Ras Al Khaimah contribute to government revenues and in growth of GDP and employment?

Iyad Rasbey. We are proud that Ras Al Khaimah has been named the ‘Gulf Tourism Capital’ for the second consecutive year. This is a testament to our consistent efforts not only to ensure guest safety but also to re-start sustainable tourism to the destination. Our leadership has identified tourism as one of the key drivers of the economy, and over the past years, Ras Al Khaimah has recorded an impressive growth in the number of hotels, in addition to the diversification of the tourism offering through the concerted efforts of the Authority. In addition to the revenues generated directly from hospitality, travel and leisure services, growth in tourism has a ripple effect for the economy. It contributes to retail revenues in addition to creating new jobs and supporting small and medium enterprises associated with the travel and tourism value chain.

Despite the challenges of last year, our resilient and agile approach which saw everything from financial stimulus packages for our hotel partners, certifying the destination as the first safe city worldwide (including the first safe meeting facility – Al Hamra International Exhibition & Conference Centre – in the region), to launching four domestic and international marketing campaigns, providing free return PCR testing for visitors and delivering a massive vaccination drive for all tourism and hospitality workers, have all contributed to a quicker rebound in tourism. Like all destinations, Ras Al Khaimah experienced the impact of the pandemic. Tourism dropped by 28% in Ras Al Khaimah, but globally tourism dropped almost three times as much to 74%. The measures that I have outlined above have enabled us to mitigate any severe downturns. This was to the extent that Ras Al Khaimah became the best performing market in the GCC in terms of revenue per available room (RevPar) in 2020 and continues to well into 2021.

MS. How involved and supportive is the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) for the promotion of Tourism in its region?

Iyad Rasbey. I believe that the question on being involved and supportive is an understatement. Our mission as a tourism authority is to promote tourism and bring visitors to Ras Al Khaimah in addition to transforming the industry into a sustainable driver of the economy. In this, we have several priorities. These include diversifying and enhancing the visitor experience in Ras Al Khaimah through various

attractions, world class hotel brands and experiences. We also work to position and promote Ras Al Khaimah’s tourism offering in international markets through a global network of B2B and B2C channels, including well established tourism offices in key markets, a variety of workshops and roadshows and engaging with both broad and niche tour operators as well as having a well-defined presence in major exhibitions from ITB, WTM to ATM and ILTM, to name a few.

We are continuing to build on our success, and have recently announced an AED 500 million investment plan, covering 20 sustainable tourism projects. For this, we are partnering with RAK Hospitality Holding and RAK Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The new projects span the Emirate including rooms on Jebel Jais, scallop farming in Al Hamra, and new hotels on Marjan Island, among others. It’s important to note here that our ability to scale up our tourism efforts is directly in-line with the availability of accommodation (i.e. rooms) in the destination. With the recent July 1st opening of Hampton by Hilton on Marjan island, the largest Hampton in the world with 515 rooms, our hotel inventory is currently 7,241 rooms with a 70% increase forecasted (from our current inventory) in the next few years, which is the highest increase, proportionally, when compared to other Emirates.

MS. As Ras Al Khaimah continue to see a gradual rise in the number of corporate travellers in the emirate, how are you strengthening MICE profile further on the global stage by hosting MICE events? Please share with us some of the key events hosted by Ras Al Khaimah in the recent past.

Iyad Rasbey. We have a two-pronged approach to expanding our target markets: the first is to explore opportunities with new markets, and the second is to maintain engagement with existing source markets. Globally, the Internationale Tourismus-Börse (ITB) reports that MICE travel could be the last segment to recover. However, we believe that once the travel industry restabilises, there will likely be a quick pick up in interest. We continue to build on the robust growth in the Emirate’s MICE sector, having hosted the eighth annual Arab Aviation Summit 2021. It was the first in-person event of its kind in the region following the pandemic, reinforcing the Emirate’s credentials in building back the MICE sector. The event, held at the Al Hamra International Exhibition & Conference Centre in March, was supported by global industry partners such as Airbus, CFM, Air Arabia, and Alpha Aviation Academy. Highlighting the strong links between the aviation and tourism industries, it provided a platform for industry leaders to discuss the next steps in tourism recovery.

Its success has resulted in the event confirming its return to Ras Al Khaimah in the coming years, an accomplishment that underlines our efforts to enhance safety and hygiene at the venue, leading to it being the first conference centre in the region to be certified as safe by Bureau Veritas. In recent years, we have attracted global events to the Emirate such as The Meetings Intelligence Workshop, organised in partnership with Meetings Intelligence Workshop that addressed the increasing competition stemming from the shift of the international meetings market to the Middle East. We also signed a MoU with the European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Associations to promote European outbound tourism to Ras Al Khaimah, an agreement that led to hosting two semi-annual meetings of ECTAA, including one in Ras Al Khaimah. This enabled European trade members to discover the destination while showcasing Ras Al Khaimah’s world class MICE offering.

Another milestone was hosting the World Travel & Tourism Council Middle East & North Africa Leaders Forum that brought together key industry leaders to address the core issues facing the region’s travel and tourism sector. The forum was organised for the first time in the region and held at Al Hamra International Exhibition & Conference Centre – Ras Al Khaimah. Other high-profile events that we hosted include the Belgian Travel Summit and the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference. We are also focused on strengthening business travel, with various measures put in place to support this. We have seen incentive group travel already make a comeback and are focusing on enhancing the appeal of the Emirate to this segment. We welcomed our first incentive group of over 220 guests in January from Ukraine, with a further 15 experiencing the Emirate in the first quarter of the year. This year, we will be hosting more international conferences such as the Gulf Indian Ocean Hotel Investment Summit (GIOHIS) and events held by the Tour Operation Association as well as Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Summit in 2021. We remain optimistic that MICE travel will gain traction fast.

MS. How well Ras Al Khaimah is connected with the rest of the world? What are its unique portfolio of nature-adventure assets which allows it to compete with top worldwide destinations?

Iyad Rasbey. Ras Al Khaimah is very well-connected globally, and we are continuously investing in strengthening connectivity. The Emirate and by extension, the broader UAE is located between east and west with close proximity to Europe, Asia and Africa with over 2 billion people are just a four-hour flight away. The UAE is also home to the largest number of international airports within close proximity, including Dubai International Airport – the busiest in the world, which is just a 45-minute drive away from Ras Al Khaimah, in addition to Abu Dhabi International Airport, Sharjah International Airport and of course our very own Ras Al Khaimah International Airport which is increasingly active and is currently undergoing its biggest expansion strategy since its opening in1976. The seamless connectivity has drawn in more footfall from new markets as well as driving it to Ras Al Khaimah International Airport.

A perfect example is our partnership with SCAT Airlines, which has led us to welcome multiple flights a week from eight major cities in Kazakhstan, as well as the activation of new routes to Prague from our new partnership with SmartWings established earlier this year. The Ras Al Khaimah International Airport has also welcomed expanded operations by SpiceJet, bringing in guests from six key cities in India, spanning Delhi, Mumbai, Cochin, Amritsar, Lucknow and Jaipur. Further discussion is underway with partners to open additional routes across Europe and Asia. We are also exploring new markets that include Romania, Uzbekistan, Belarus and Slovenia, to assess possibilities for further aviation partnerships, including charter flights and tour operations. This highlights that our focus lies beyond our core and secondary markets and takes in promising emerging feeder markets. In terms of natural adventure attractions, our offering is truly unparalleled. At the heart of this is Jebel Jais, situated in the Hajar Mountain range. It is the UAE’s highest peak, towering over Ras Al Khaimah at a height of 1,934 metres. Here, above the peaks and valleys of the surrounding mountains, temperatures are around 10 degrees lower than sea level and ideally suited to a refreshing escape from the summer heat. Jebel Jais offers an adrenaline fuelled getaway for those seeking an escape from city life, and looking to take on adventure, outdoor sports and survival experiences. Over the years, we have strengthened the reputation of Jebel Jais as a standalone tourism offering by unveiling a series of exciting adventure-based projects, positioning the Emirate as the adventure hub of the Middle East. Launched in 2021 the Jais Adventure Peak serves as the gateway to the iconic mountain’s various attractions. It welcomed over 70,000 thrill-seekers from the start of 2020 until April 2021, with all its attractions adapted to implement strict safety protocols.

Heading the charge of adventures to be experienced is the Jebel Jais Flight: The World’s Longest Zipline. Introduced in 2018, it is one of the destination’s highest profile attractions, loved by thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies from around the world. The length of the zipline spans an incredible 2.83km, the equivalent to over 28 soccer fields. Another attraction not to be missed is the Jais Sky Tour comprising seven ziplines flying over the grand cliffs and canyons of Jebel Jais, connected by nine platforms and a 15m-long sky bridge – the highest of its kind in the UAE. The Jais Sky Maze, suspended 10 meters above ground, challenges visitors, as they tackle a rope swings, wobbly bridges, swinging loops and more. In addition to this, Jebel Jais Viewing Deck

Park features seven viewing decks to help guests soak in the stunning 360-degree views of the spectacular Hajar Mountains. A dedicated Jais Adventure Centre ensures guests are well-informed and equipped for the exhilarating activities to follow, while they can also fuel up on delicious and energy boosting fare from the UAE’s highest restaurant – 1484 by Puro. Further down the mountain is The Bear Grylls Survival Camp, the first of its kind in the region and the first in the world to offer branded accommodation, that calls on visitors to try out exhilarating courses run by UK experts trained at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

In Ras Al Khaimah, the natural ecosystems and the cityscapes, meet the aspirations of those looking to break away from their routine. We are now further building on these with new experiences that cover Ras Al Khaimah’s mountain range, including Jebel Jais, , the pristine beaches and land-based tourism assets. We are launching more mountain-based accommodation and great F&B options. As well as introducing new adventures with Jais Wings, Balloon Base, Jais Swing, Wadi Track and the first ‘HIGHLANDER’ hiking experience.

MS. As the vaccination drive picks up pace and the season opens up to welcome back tourists, how Ras Al Khaimah is gearing up for the new normal?

Iyad Rasbey. We have built-in agility and the capability to shift strategy and respond quickly to changing market conditions. Tourist authorities in many other destinations require time to adapt. Our ability to make the most of this new model and take a lead in a new era of travel is underpinned by our resilience and a capacity to respond rapidly to changing conditions – qualities that we believe will help place Ras Al Khaimah at the forefront of the minds of people seeking something fresh and inspiring with their vacations. Following the pandemic, our timely efforts played a key role in energising the tourism sector, as we report a steady increase in the number of visitors – from the UAE and abroad).

In fact, Ras Al Khaimah the first destination globally to secure the ‘SafeGuard Label’ from Bureau Veritas and the ‘Safe Travels Stamp’ from the World Travel and Trade Council, offering our guests peace of mind when considering us as a destination to visit. We were also the first destination to offer complimentary PCR testing for international arrivals last year, in addition to running an Emirate-wide vaccination programme that will see all hospitality and tourism employees fully vaccinated by the end of this year.

MS. How do you focus on international tourism in Ras Al Khaimah? What are the major investment opportunities for the tourism sector?

Iyad Rasbey. We are constantly looking to set ourselves apart and lead the market, and create offerings that appeal to a variety of travellers, such as the ‘Live RAK Play’ campaign, which was aimed at digital nomads. We were also the first destination in the region to engage with the CIS market actively, as well as the first to return with roadshows meetings and workshops. Another differentiator is our cohesive efforts with Ras Al Khaimah International Airport and aviation partners to identify and bring to life new travel routes. We pride ourselves on the prompt airport experience which leads to quicker access to the destination. We also work closely with our aviation partners to ensure guests have well-adjusted flight slots, taking into consideration hotel check-in and check-out times, adding to the overall guest experience. In fact, today our international visitation averages three to four nights and domestic footfall, averaging one-and-a-half to two nights, placing us in the lead for ADR (Average Daily Rate) – a measurement of the average revenue earned for an occupied room per day – in the GCC.

We are now further strengthening the tourism offering – that opens new opportunities for stronger collaborations covering investments in hospitality, leisure and entertainment. We have now launched 20 new projects on Jebel Jais, the UAE’s highest peak and a stellar attraction that draws visitors from around the world. These projects cover four priorities: accommodation, mobility, infrastructure enhancements and new touristic attractions. Other upcoming developments include a mega-beachfront zone by Marjan with a marine zone, leisure trampoline, swimming pool, outdoor gym and extensive F&B offering, calling on beach lovers. Manar Mall, a retail hub in the Emirate, will create the region’s first artificial volcano synchronised with live performances and visual effects as well as a Flying Arch. To delight kids and adults alike is the upcoming Light Maze at Manar Mall, an aesthetic and playful art installation that also helps promote team activities. Al Hamra Marine is launching a scallop farm that will offer activities such as live cooking, family and kid activities, cultural activations, oyster/scallop diving and opening, while Wadi Shawka will feature a new bicycle pump track that will be a hub for bike lovers.

The mountain biking track is designed to be suitable for kids and adults. In short, across its mountain ranges, beaches and lands, there is a plethora of opportunities to partner in Ras Al Khaimah’s tourism growth for investors and operators.

MS. RAK TDA has recently announced a strategic, high-impact investment programme, SelectRAK. How would it help in consolidating core economic sectors in Emirate and in making it most preferred destinations for Tourism and investments in affordable luxury?

Iyad Rasbey. SelectRAK is endorsed by the government of Ras Al Khaimah and we are rolling it out in partnership with Arton Capital, a leading government advisory company. As a key engine of investment and tourism activity, SelectRAK will focus on providing an array of benefits to investors, including long-term residency based on criteria outlined by the government. By enhancing the appeal of Ras Al Khaimah for investment, the initiative will help build all core economic sectors, including healthcare, hospitality, education, trade, and retail, in turn, creating new jobs and supporting domestic enterprises. SelectRAK will also support investors in registering and operating international businesses from Ras Al Khaimah, and assist in finding a home of their choice in the picturesque setting of the Emirate. All investors who meet the criteria and other guidelines mandated by the government, will also be provided long-term residence visas.

We envisage this strategic platform as as a one-stop-hub for promoting the Emirate, highlighting its tourism attractions to a global audience by underscoring business and investment opportunities. The strategic objective of SelectRAK is to support RAK in becoming a strong local favourite for residency investment by developing a competing product to bring FDI to RAK real estate sector. To achieve that goal, SelectRAK is actively working with local stakeholders to create a portfolio of products that would attract qualified investors from the broad region. SelectRAK will cover the entire process – from the contact initiation, through the pre-qualification, and the guidance needed at the stage of investment transfer, until the final steps are completed and the investors obtain their permits – SelectRAK will provide reliable support to create w an unforgettable experience for applicants.

MS. No doubt, domestic tourism is a tool to eliminate local poverty, generate employment and economic growth, what role does domestic tourism play for Ras Al Khaimah?

Iyad Rasbey. Domestic tourism has served as a key enabler in driving the growth of the tourism sector following the pandemic. In fact, from a 70:30 international/local visitor split, last year, the domestic market more than doubled with a 55:65 split by the end of the year. Going beyond the value-add to the economy, the tourism sector enables us to highlight our rich cultural heritage to visitors. Ras Al Khaimah is one of the oldest human settlements in the world; we have archaeological findings that go back to the Bronze Age – from which comes the phrase, Umm Al Nar – the mother of fire. Further, the name Julfar is cited widely in historic books – and has been a thriving medieval trade city – linking Asia to Europe.

MS. On a personal note, we are curious to know what keeps you busy when you are away from work? Please tell us about your hobbies and other activities that you would love to do at home.

Iyad Rasbey. As a family man at heart, my two children (under the age of 10) keep me very busy and you’ll often find me engaged in activities ranging from taking them to water parks in the city to engaging in arts and crafts at home. Moreover, I’m French so gastronomy plays a big part in my life and making a big family meal on the weekend is certainly something I enjoy a lot. Lastly, when it comes to hobbies, of course its football – both being a participant and a spectator.

MS. If you would like to share a message and one key advise to the industry, what would be that?

Iyad Rasbey. This is certainly a challenging time for the global tourism sector and – with the pandemic situation remaining one that is dynamic and constantly evolving – it is clear that we are not out of the woods yet. My advice would be to stay agile, flexible and innovative. This is the time to further invest in strengthening your tourism infrastructure and preparing yourself as the industry returns to positive growth. At the Authority, we are confident that Ras Al Khaimah is best placed to leverage the new normal of travel – one that values outdoor and interactive experiences driven by the months of lockdown and restricted travel. Our ability to make the most of this new model and take a lead in a new era of travel is underscored by our resilience and agility to respond to changing conditions – qualities will help place Ras Al Khaimah at the forefront of travel. In sum, my main message would be that in the face of adversity, we will always come back stronger. We will learn, we will adapt, and we will do things differently. The appetite for travel will never leave.