UAE desert resorts aim to stay busy as temperatures soar

Cheaper rooms, early Eid and World Cup expect to keep visitors coming to desert resorts this summer.
The Al Maha Resort is named after the endangered Arabian animal. Years ago they populated this country but due to overhunting they can only be found on the natural reserve that is also home to this luxurious desert resort, which features private villas, a spa, a restaurant, and a unique ambience, among other things. Seen here is the suite’s private swimming pool. Lee Hoagland / The National
The Al Maha Resort is named after the endangered Arabian animal. Years ago they populated this country but due to overhunting they can only be found on the natural reserve that is also home to this luxurious desert resort, which features private villas, a spa, a restaurant, and a unique ambience, among other things. Seen here is the suite’s private swimming pool. Lee Hoagland / The National

Desert resorts across the Emirates bank on the silence of the landscape as well as the views they offer to sell their rooms.

Set up mostly along the lines of Arabian architecture the experience can be enjoyed in luxurious surroundings, with blue pools and secluded villas.

But summer time is a hard sell for such resorts when heat and humidity keep many travellers away. So many are turning their attentions indoors.

“This summer, we are taking advantage of the fact that outdoor activities do not take place too often due to the heat and we are expanding our campsite facilities to be able to cater to 300 guests for corporate and leisure events,” says Arne Silvis, the general manager of the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa.

Al Maha is one of at least half a dozen resorts that dot the desert in the Emirates. While some of them are located in remote areas, others recreate the sense of exclusivity right outside bustling Dubai.

Although deserts would seem to be the natural place to avoid during summer – a traditionally low season for hotels in the region – resortscan boost business in the Emirates with cheaper rooms, package deals on rooms and food and the promise of experiencing the desert away from the crowds. This year, as summer months coincide with Ramadan and Eid falling at the end of July, earlier than last year and shortening the low season this might well be one of the busiest for the desert resorts.

“The hotel industry is incredibly diverse and fast paced, with each season catering to different markets that visit the UAE and the summer is no different,” says Wael Soueid, the area general manager for Abu Dhabi Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas.

The mid-summer months of June, July and August have recently included Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr. Occupancy rates hover in the bottom range and average room rates go down as the properties compete to attract guests. This year, with Eid occurring around late July, hotels expect the low season to be until the end of that month, instead of the end August like last year.

“Desert resorts generally experience a softening in demand during the summer months as the temperatures become too high for the majority of visitors,” says Chris Hewett, a senior consultant at Tri Hospitality Consulting.

Last year, during the low period, Dubai hotels experienced an average occupancy of 55 per cent while in Abu Dhabi hotels touched 49 per cent.

“The hotel market in the UAE historically experiences the lowest occupancy levels during Ramadan as demand from within the [Arabian] Gulf and other international markets subsides,” he says.

“Demand generally recovers directly after the Eid Al Fitr holidays as was experienced last year, when occupancies in Dubai jumped to 72 per cent in August.”

But lower occupancy rates do have some benefit for the hoteliers.

“The summer months have proven to be challenging months for all UAE hotels,” says Anders Dimblad, the area general manager for Banyan Tree Al Wadi resort in Ras Al Khaimah. “This time does allow us to refocus on our training efforts and maintenance programmes.”

Banyan Tree occupancies drop by an average of 20 per cent over its peak season during this time.

Most of its guests come from the neighbouring emirates and the Gulf.

“We find that families that have not travelled overseas tend to take a mini break at the resort due the proximity,” Mr Dimblad says.

“From our European markets, [guests from] Germany and the UK tend to combine their stays with a city hotel and shopping experience in Dubai.”

The 32 tented villas at the resort, which opened in 2010, was originally set within a 100-hectare nature reserve with a small number of reintroduced oryx and gazelle. As the wildlife proliferated, the reserve spread out and now covers more than 500 hectares.

At Al Maha, the occupancy rates on average for May remain close to 65 per cent, dropping off in June to 55 per cent and 45 per cent in July. Day visitors, however, keep coming along for spa activities or meal packages.

Safely ensconced in air-conditioned Land Cruisers away from the heat and humidity, wildlife safaris carry on. Camel rides and early-morning falconry displays continue, too.

For hotel workers, it is the best time to take a holiday.

“As summer months are the quietest in the year, members of staff try and take their vacations during that time,” Mr Silvis says. “However, most of the engineering team remains on the property during the summers to carry out maintenance and various refurbishment tasks.”

One of the major driving factors for business during this time is the reduced room rates on offer.

“This appeals to visitors who wish to experience the desert resorts and who are unlikely to afford the high rates the properties charge during the peak periods of demand,” Mr Hewett says.

The Emirates Group-owned Al Maha, 65km outside Dubai and managed by the Starwood group, has 42 rooms that start at Dh4,000 and can go up to Dh21,210. In October, rates start at Dh6,100 and cas rise as high as Dh31,815.

At the 113-room Bab Al Shams Desert Resort and Spa, guests can explore the desert by jeep, horse or camel, or try out archery, falconry and even croquet and room rates to enjoy all this start at Dh823 for weekends in June. Four months later, these start at Dh1,588.

The prices are similar at Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara with 206 rooms where, besides the usual desert activities, guests can choose from desert walks and mountain biking.

Anantara manages four desert resorts: the Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Al Yamm Villa Resort; the Al Sahel Villa Resort; Desert Islands Resort and Spa; and Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara in Liwa.

At the 101-villa Banyan Tree Al Wadi Hotel in Ras Al Khaimah rates start at Dh1,589 in June, compared with Dh2,000 in October.

The three-star Tital Liwa Hotel on the edge of Rub Al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, in Al Gharbia is the only mid-market property for the discerning tourist. Rates at its 66 rooms start at Dh599.

The usual target audience for desert resorts during this time are domestic visitors, who look for “staycations” closer to home.

“[But] we continue to target guests from Europe such as the United Kingdom or Germany, as well as the domestic UAE market and the wider Gulf market,” says Mr Soueid.

Mr Silvis says his property targets mainly expatriates living and working within the Gulf countries as well as the Gulf nationals.

“Many of these guests are looking for a nice weekend break away from the cities and the desert resort provides an ideal escape from everyday routine; the climate is also much more favourable in the desert with less humidity,” he says.

“International guests are less inclined to travel to the warmer parts of the world in summer, so we have to focus our attention on the local market.”

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Published: June 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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