How Hatta has grown into a standalone Dubai travel destination

There is a perception of Dubai that it’s flat, and just beaches and towers, but Hatta is a true oasis, says Pete Aldwinckle

JA Hatta Fort is surrounded by mountains and greenery. JA Resorts & Hotels

Hatta's mountain ranges, wadis, farms, dams and dramatic landscapes have long made it one of Dubai's hidden tourism gems. Now, a number of new nature and adventure-based activities are bringing it to the fore of the emirate's tourism pursuits – as highlighted by a recent visit by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

Once development has been completed in the coming months, visitors to Hatta will be able to take part in a range of activities, from hiking to mountain biking, kayaking to axe throwing and archery, and even a human slingshot at the new Wadi Hub attraction.

'It’s a reflection of the changing lifestyles'

Pete Aldwinckle is one of the people behind Hatta Mountain Bike Trail Centre, which has been operating for about four years, setting out a range of free routes that allow visitors to explore the terrain on two wheels, whether they are beginners or advanced riders. In September, the centre also set up bike hire and servicing facilities.

"We are seeing a lot of novices coming out to experience outdoor activities, predominantly residents, many of whom have never done this before. It's very accessible and is spreading a lot by word of mouth," Aldwinckle says. "People are looking for more affordable leisure activities and being outdoors is one of those. It's a reflection of the changing lifestyles of people here."

There are 60 kilometres of mountain tracks in Hatta, graded according to ability levels, with trail maps available around the tracks and also via the Hatta Mountain Bike Trail Centre app.

Hired bikes give people a taste of the experience without having to invest in equipment, and the centre even features a skills area for people to navigate small circuits and become used to the terrain.  

<span>People are looking for more affordable leisure activities and being outdoors is one of those. It's a reflection of the changing lifestyles of people here</span>

Dubai resident and founder of ­yApparel fitness clothing Dina Ghandour recently tackled the mountain-biking trails. "We tried mountain biking on the trails that the Cycle Hub has set up across the landscape," she says. "There are about four, with varying difficulty levels. The biking is on dirt and sand, up and down little hills, so is actually quite challenging for people with little experience like me, even on the beginner path. We also went to the dam to Hatta Kayak and opted for the shaded pedalo-style boat, which was a good idea because it gets really hot under the sun down in the wadi away from the wind."

The alluring appeal of Hatta

As someone who has lived in Dubai her whole life, Ghandour is happy to see the Hatta area being developed. "I think the tourism development and adventure activities are great in the sense that they are bringing people to Hatta that maybe would not have been here before," she says. "There's an exciting draw now for the whole family, even if you aren't an avid hiker or camper. The beautiful nature of the area is what is most special. You almost don't need all the obstacle courses and playgrounds. It loses some of that rawness and simplicity of enjoying the outdoors in its most natural form."

Hatta, United Arab Emirates - July 22, 2018: A neighbourhood story about Hatta. General views of Hatta heritage village. Sunday, July 22nd, 2018 in Hatta. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Hatta is playing a vital part in the diversification of Dubai's tourism offering, Aldwinckle says. "There is more to Dubai now than beaches and malls, and visitors are stunned that one-and-a-half hours out of Dubai, there are mountains. There is a perception of Dubai that it's flat, and just beaches and towers, but Hatta is a true oasis."

The area has long been a draw for campers – for a quieter experience, head away from the bike stalls, where it can get quite noisy and crowded, and go towards the far side of the wadi, where you will find seating and shaded areas. Pick up some sustainably sourced firewood in the bike shop.

There is a slew of new accommodation emerging in the area, from the glamping facilities at the Hatta Sedr Trailers and Hatta Damani Lodges, to new boutique hotel Riad Hatta, which is due to open towards the end of the year, and the renovation of an old favourite, the Hatta Fort Hotel. Hatta's increasing popularity is demonstrated by the fact that December was the busiest month for the Hatta Fort Hotel since it opened 38 years ago.

Guests can visit local date and honey farms, in addition to kayaking and mountain biking. The hotel has also introduced a climbing wall and small zip line.

Getting an authentic experience 

"We are seeing more Europeans, more families and more young couples," Deborah Thomson, the hotel's general manager, says. "People want something different now, more of the nature and the more authentic experiences, which is what they get here.

“Last week, we had one German cyclist with us for a week, just to cycle, without visiting Dubai. We also recently had a British family stay with us for 12 days purely in Hatta, before leaving for home. Things are changing a lot.”

Spearheading this change is Hatta Wadi Hub, an adventure centre that offers activities including mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, downhill carting, axe throwing, archery, free-fall jumps, rope courses, wall climbing, trampolines and zip lines.

The accompanying Hatta Drop-in has been dubbed Asia’s first ­water-­jump park and it houses a variety of slides and jumps, as well as doughnut rides.

There are also plans to redevelop Hatta’s old heritage village and traditional market. “The redevelopment creates a synergy with the local community,” says Gordon Rech, a South African medical services manager who has lived in Dubai for 17 years.

“It really is great for families. There is a good mix of activities. I believe it shows a side of Dubai that not many know.”