Cycling across the Empty Quarter and freediving to retrieve bags of treasure are just some of the challenges presented on a new UAE-based reality series showcasing the country as a thriving destination for adventure tourism.
The Quest sees participants conquer some of the country's wildest terrains armed with nothing but brains and brawn to complete tasks and show the world there is more to the UAE than shopping malls and luxury hotels, said host Ali Alsaloom.
The Emirati culture expert and TV personality presents the twelve two-person teams with a challenge, set in a variety of areas of the country, to complete by the end of the episode.
The contestants – who represent eight countries from the Middle East and North Africa - must follow clues, answer riddles and overcome physical tasks to advance to the next stage. The winning team who outlasts is awarded Dh500,000.
The challenges are rigorous but contestant Feras Nabil says more than just strength is needed to overcome them.
“It requires a lot of thinking, one needs to pause. I usually like to analyse but when there is chaos around you, it is hard to concentrate,” said the 32-year-old Syrian.
All the contestants lead very active lifestyles but nothing could prepare them for some of the tasks they were dealt.
“I was experiencing some things for the first time, like having to climb down a mountain without any safety or security gear,” Mr Nabil, who is an events and advertising manager, said.
“I slipped between two rocks and was about to fall off the mountain. I had to use my elbows to stable myself, you can even see the marks,” he said as he rolled up his sleeves.
Khalid Ali, head of production in Dubai TV, who supervised The Quest, experienced first-hand the hardship the contestants faced when taking part in physically gruelling challenged.
They began filming the series in September.
“During one of the episodes we had to get them ambulances, it was too hot,” he said.
“But the contestants were eager for it to get tougher, in some episodes they would say ‘we did not get that tired, give us something tougher’,” he said.
Rashad Matrajji was one of those contestants, “The tougher it got, the more we enjoyed it,” the 33-year-old adventurer from Lebanon said.
Despite the difficulties, since the show began airing in October, it has gained much attention across the region.
“They are playing the show at the gym where I train in Al Maqtaa, and at some cafes in Damascus,” Mr Nabil said.
He said he and some of the other contestants have been contacted by fans of the show asking how they can take part.
“After the show I got many messages from local girls and even some from Kuwait and Bahrain asking if there will be a season two so they could join,” said Nuha Al Marri, a contestant and Emirati cross-fit coach.
Ms Al Marri said she and her compatriot partner Shahad Bu Debs made it their goal on the series to prove that Emirati women were capable of accomplishing anything.
While she admitted it was not common for Emirati women to compete on reality TV shows, she said she believes her and her partner have helped pave the way for more to follow.
“I appeared and people started getting into it. They want to try it. I got very good feedback from the people who are texting me and following me [on social media],” said Ms Al Marri, who won multiple international fitness championships but said she struggled with puzzles on the show.
“The other parts were fine: the climbing, carrying [heavy loads], riding the [wild] horse, and bikes through the desert, it was all easy, but the riddle part was hard,” she said.
The show is expected to contribute to increasing interest in sports tourism in the UAE.
Fadi Hachicho, an outdoor consultant and founder of Adventurati Outdoor Tours, said while adventure tourism is fairly new to GCC, it is growing at a fast pace.
“Local residents and tourists alike are looking for different ways to spend their time off from malls and shopping centres,” he said.
“Mountain biking, hiking, canyoning, camping and everything in between have become mainstream. Mainstream causes high demand and eventually governments and operators respond accordingly,” said Mr Hachicho.
The governments of Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah have already begun investing in developing new attractions that cater to the adventure and sports tourism market.
In 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced a Dh1.3 billion plan to turn the mountain city of Hatta into a world-class tourist destination.
"Sports tourism will be promoted through developing green areas for camps and sports venues, including a mountain bike circuit that can host international competitions among other tourist centres, accommodation and sports facilities," Mr Hachicho said, adding that there are also plans to offer mountain biking, hiking and kayaking – some of the tasks the contestants face on The Quest.
Similarly, Ras Al Khaimah’s development plans include a roadmap for tourist attractions which take they say will take advantage the emirate’s natural assets.
“It is the only emirate that has a combination of beach fronts, desert land and mountain ranges,” said Mr Hachicho.
Home to the highest peak in the country the Tourism Development Authority is planning to develop Jebel Jais into an adventure and activity tourism hub, he said.
Mr Hachicho said his company had already experienced increased interest and demand for outdoor activities over the past few years.
“People want to invest in experiences to step outside their comforts zone as it gives them a sense of accomplishment” he said, adding that customers return for such activities at least two to three times a month.
It is likely The Quest will contribute to tourism across the country with contestants facing challenges set in Jebel Jais, Hatta, Qasr Al Sarab, Zaya Nurai Island and Al Ain Oasis.
The eighth episode of The Quest airs on Dubai TV on Sunday at 10 pm. The episodes are also available online on dmi.ae/thequest/.