RAK unveils its drive for 1.2m tourists each year

Ras Al Khaima tourism authority has plans to train local Emiratis to represent the emirate. The nation's most northern emirate's ambitious policy is to focus on its rich heritage as the emirate rebrands as the 'affordable luxury destination'.

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RAS AL KHAIMAH // Emiratis will have work opportunities closer to home as Ras Al Khaimah aims to attract 1.2 million tourists a year by the end of 2013.

The first step to increasing the number of Emiratis in the tourism industry starts on Sunday, when the first official tour guides will start training. Once the course is complete, they will work part-time.

"The challenge is first that we need to talk to Ras Al Khaimah people about what is the influence of tourism on the economy," said Victor Louis, the director of RAK Tourism Development Authority.

"People need to realise that it is not just an opening for visitors, it is an opening for investment, for infrastructure. When you start talking the language of tourism it opens up this chain reaction. We need to tell people that it is not only hotels."

Tourism forms 3 per cent of RAK's gross domestic product, with a target of 10 to 15 per cent in four years.

The authority "needs to be visible to people and the people will start building on that and giving them ideas", said Khadija Al Tenaiji, the work placement co-ordinator at the RAK Women's College.

"Definitely, they will have a good number of students and graduates interested in that field because they are already working in heritage."

The industrial sector, including mining, quarrying and manufacturing, makes up to 35 per cent of the GDP, followed by trade at 11 per cent.

Emirati men often leave home for days or weeks at a time to work in government offices in Abu Dhabi, with the police or the military. Tourism can provide an alternative that gives nationals the chance to live and work in their own emirate.

"The army can't take everyone. You need to have alternatives," Mr Louis said. "You can graduate in tourism and have a job here."

For Thurayya Al Hajri, tourism might be her first work since she graduated with a bachelor's degree in education last year.

"In my class, more than three quarters of us are still not working and we're only about 21 students," said Ms Al Hajri, 24. "I don't know anything about tourism at all but when they told me about the programme I was very interested in it."

She continues to seek full-time work as a teacher but is equally excited at the chance to show off her country.

"It's an extra goal for me to achieve. It helps me to support me at my own life," she said. "I need to support my mother here at home. It is a good thing that tourism interests me."

Mr Louis readily admits that the hospitality industry is not to everyone's liking. But he said there would be other opportunities through spin-off industries.

"It doesn't have to be that they work directly in hotels, but at the end of the day they feel that there is a door open," he said.

The Emirati tour guide idea was proposed by the RAK Economic Development Department in 2010 but put on hold until after the launch of the Tourism Authority last May.

The authority is branding the emirate as a destination for its heritage, scenery and beachside resorts.

RAK has billed itself as an "affordable luxury destination".

There were more than 800,000 visitors from January to September this year, generating revenue of more than Dh413 million.

Most visitors came from Germany, the UAE and Russia.

In 2010, there were only 600,000 visitors. By the end of next year, officials hope to draw 1.2 million visitors a year. Long-term plans include work with RAK's myriad folklore societies and the development of museums where visitors can meet people who live the emirate's heritage first-hand.

As a nod to its maritime past, the new face of the emirate will be the 15th century mariner and scholar, Ahmed bin Majid.

"We try to showcase the culture, the heritage, the desert, how people live," Mr Louis said.