Penguins bring the WOW factor

Aimed at tapping tourism potential of northern emirate

Ras al Khaimah is banking on a Dh850 million (US$231.4m) theme park development to boost international interest in the sleepy northern emirate as a tourist destination. A huge coastal water park, easily accessible from the main road to Ras al Khaimah (RAK) from Dubai, will open to visitors in September. It is the first part of the wider development, called WOW RAK, which is spread over 48.5 hectares and represents a push towards modernisation and economic growth in an emirate with a reputation for lagging the richer and glitzier emirates to the south.

The developers hope the Ice Land Water Park will help attract thousands more tourists to RAK, which, unlike Dubai, does not benefit from an airport that is a major international transit centre. The penguin-themed water park is based on a story of a group of penguins losing their home in the Arctic because of global warming and drifting to Al Jazeera Al Hamra in Ras al Khaimah, imagined as a picturesque ghost town famed as one of the oldest settlements on the Gulf coast and the only remaining traditional town in the UAE.

The new park will not seek to capitalise on Al Jazeera Al Hamra's antiquity. Instead it will feature "every kind of water slide in the market" and a 36-metre tall 450,000-litre waterfall, billed as the world's largest man-made waterfall. The venue has capacity for 10,000 guests a day. "We wanted to bring something extraordinary to Ras al Khaimah," said Balwant Singh, the managing director and chief executive of Polo RAK Amusements, a joint venture between Polo Amusement Park, based in India, RAK Investment Authority (RAKIA) and its RAK Properties unit.

"It will bring a lot of tourists to Ras al Khaimah. A theme park is a key project to any tourism destination." There are two further phases to the development after the water park opens on the first day of Eid. The second phase, expected to be completed by autumn of next year, is designed to include a shopping mall and a 180-room chalet-style resort. In the final phase,the Planet Earth Theme Park is planned to open by autumn 2013. Meanwhile, other steps are being taken to develop the emirate's tourism sector. Last year, a new luxury Hilton resort opened in RAK and the Banyan Tree Al Wadi desert resort was launched earlier this year. A new road being built is also designed to facilitate access to the emirate.

Several hotels are under construction in RAK, including Al Hamra Palace, a luxury hotel in the 500ha Al Hamra Village development on the coast, which will also have a 200-berth marina, shops and restaurants. Other important tourism developments include Mina Al Arab, a beachfront resort destination, and the $1 billion man-made island, Al Marjan, which will feature hotels and residential properties.

On Tuesday, the emirate's government investment body RAKIA and Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, the Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, outlined the growth plans for the emirate to journalists. "We're trying to make Ras al Khaimah a success," said Sheikh Saud. The investment authority said it was trying to attract businesses and foreign money into the emirate as it focused on economic growth at home. To this end, it said it had no plans for further foreign investments.

"His Highness has given us instruction not to invest overseas anymore and to concentrate on Ras al Khaimah," said Khater Massaad, the chief executive of RAKIA. "Actually, there's no future investments for overseas. The projects which have started, they are to be completed." He added the decision had been made because "His Highness wants to consolidate and develop his emirate". RAK's GDP is expected to grow 12 per cent this year, said Mr Massaad. Last year, the emirate's GDP increased 9 per cent, having grown 14 per cent a year between 2004 and 2008, the investment authority said.

RAKIA said it had generated almost $3bn in foreign investment and attracted 6,500 businesses since its launch less than five years ago. The investment authority manages the three investment zones in the emirate as well as overseeing development initiatives across many sectors. One of those sectors is industrial manufacturing. Another big economic initiative afoot in RAK is to turn the emirate into a regional manufacturing and distribution centre for cars and vehicle parts.

In January, RAKIA sent a delegation to Pakistan to publicise RAKIA Auto Industrial Park, a project to develop "a fully integrated, themed industry zone dedicated to auto and vehicle-related industries". "The GCC with [its] high GDP and eminent consumption vehicle market presents an enormous untapped potential for the manufacture of vehicles and it components," said Raed Mustafa, the general manager of RAKIA's industrial parks division.

Mr Massaad said negotiations were under way with companies in countries including the US, Turkey, India, Germany, Egypt, Pakistan and Kuwait to set up business activities and investment ventures in RAK. "We have discovered that some of the companies that have invested here are doing better than anywhere else," said Sheikh Saud. He said services and tourism were the two most important sectors in the emirate's growth plans.

RAK attracted 400,000 tourists last year, he said, with a similar number expected this year. RAK also wants to offer an attractive lifestyle to expatriate residents. Sheikh Saud stressed the emirate was open to foreigners of different religions. "This is one of the policies that makes us probably have a competitive advantage." Previously, RAKIA and RAK Minerals and Metals Investments, another government-owned investment vehicle, targeted overseas development as the emirate's route to international prominence.

Now, the Government is going slow on overseas spending as it rethinks that strategy. RAKIA plans to dilute its holding in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti and a related free zone development with a share offering next year. Major investment in the emirate's second big overseas project, a coal mining, aluminium smelting, rail and port facilities complex in Indonesia, will be deferred. * with additional reporting by Tamsin Carlisle and Chris Stanton