Each boasting its own charming personality, the five destinations that make up the Northern Emirates are flourishing, both independently and collectively. Emily Millett writes.
Often overshadowed by their limelight-stealing siblings, the five Northern Emirates of Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm al Quwain and Ajman have been coming into their own in recent years, shifting their tourism focus from the modern allures of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, towards more cultural and adventure-fuelled options.
“We believe that the Northern Emirates are worth the trip because the way of life is inevitably more authentic than Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” said general manager, Al Bait Sharjah, Patrick Moukarzel.
And this differentiation is helping to increase visitor numbers in the Northern Emirates, with Sharjah Airport’s first quarter results for 2019 reporting over 3.156 million passengers, marking a 9.56 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2018.
With new destination plans in progress, the Northern Emirates are also investing in the growth of a healthier hotel pipeline to cater for the ever-increasing demand.
Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) is currently leading the pack, with plans in place to double the available hotel rooms within the destination from 4,019 in 2017 to 9,078 in 2021. According to the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (now spearheaded by Raki Phillips, the new CEO), the plan aims to further grow this figure to over 12,000 hotel rooms by 2022. Global brands opening hotels in RAK over the next three years will include Marriott, Movenpick, Sheraton, Anantara, Rezidor, Intercontinental, Hampton by Hilton, Crowne Plaza, Radisson Blu and Conrad.
Sharjah’s room count is also on a steady upward trajectory, with plans to boost the total number of available keys in the emirate to 5,295 by 2021, as chairman, Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, HE Khalid Jasim Al Midfa explained: “Top hotel brands are setting up shop in Sharjah to take advantage of the market’s growth potentials. These include the four-star Novotel Sharjah Expo, which features a business centre with workstations, a small meeting room and large meeting and function rooms.”
Additional property openings in Sharjah include an Anantara Resort; a Pullman Hotel; a DoubleTree by Hilton Sharjah; and a Four Points by Sheraton.
Fujairah is also set to increase its portfolio by some 500 keys, bringing its hotel room stock to 2,543 rooms.
But hospitality isn’t the only area that the Northern Emirates are investing in. Transport infrastructure is also seeing a boost across the region.
According to Moukarzel, this is taking shape in Sharjah in the form of new roads.
“To improve transport infrastructure, as well as the development of new luxury resorts and attractions, the Khorfakkan road, which connects Sharjah city to the beautiful city of Khorfakkan on the Emirate’s east coast, has been unlocked, thus cutting the travel time from Sharjah by 30 to 45 minutes,” he explained.
“By the end of this year, on-going constructions on the stretch of Malihah road from the Sheikh Khalifa street are expected to be completed, further improving the accessibility between East Coast cities. The road upgrade is bound to cut the inter-city travel time by 35 per cent,” he added.
Commenting on the sea transport arena, Moukarzel said that water ferries were recently launched between Dubai and Sharjah, offering a convenient mode of transport between the emirates, which takes a mere 35 minutes.
One of the catalysts for the regional growth currently being witnessed in the Northern Emirates is each individual destination’s commitment to distancing itself from the high-end pursuits visitors to the UAE usually seek.
Instead, the Northern Emirates have pinpointed areas of unique interest – such as cultural, historical and heritage explorations, sustainable tourism offerings and adventure travel – fuelled by a new desire and shifting demands from travellers in search of more authentic, adventurous and local experiences.
Commenting on the sustainable tourism drive in Sharjah, Moukarzel said: “The latest trends are shifting to sustainability with a desire to save mother earth while preserving history. Sharjah does this well and is trying to position itself as the UAE’s capital of culture and history, with several eco-tourism projects being developed, including the Fossil Rock Lodge in Mleiha and the Kalba.”
According to Moukarzel, Al Bait Sharjah, developed in collaboration with Shurooq, has created a package to showcase these eco-tourism projects. In addition to in-house sustainability projects, such as a portable water filtration plant, the hotel is 100 per cent plastic free and operates according to a promise to protect and preserve the environment through ethical practices.
The recently launched property is also aiming to cater to the growing events, weddings, conventions and exhibitions sector in the region, with the number of inquiries reportedly increasing daily and the property constantly working to improve its events offerings and services.
“The biggest event at Al Bait is on its way, whereby we will host up to 300 guests,” said Moukarzel, adding that the Northern Emirates, especially Sharjah, are also seeing the continued blossoming of a luxury travel offering.
“In the past few decades there were only three- and four-star hotels in Sharjah, however, with the opening of Al Bait Sharjah and other key brands, Sharjah has raised the bar for luxury travel,” he told TTG.
Meanwhile in Ras Al Khaimah, a new trend for eco-tourism and camping has resulted in the introduction of the Luxury Camp project, which is expected to be completed in 2020 and will feature a tented camp style development at Jebel Jais, operated by Mantis Group. The camp is set to comprise 34 tents, 11 one-bedroom tented suites with private pools and two two-bedroom tented suites with private pools.
The Northern Emirates are taking advantage of unique individual angles to provide a diverse experience, removed from the glitz and glamour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but equally as attractive.