“I believe everybody has a bucket list. Everybody wants to see a new place. It’s about how we get on people’s bucket list,” says Haitham Mattar, CEO of the Tourism Development Authority of Ras Al Khaimah, the United Arab Emirates’ northernmost emirate.

Little known to tourists a generation ago, the eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula – whose name translates from Arabic as 'the top of the tent' – is working to put itself on the map as a holiday destination for those who want something a little different. It offers nature, adventure and culture, yet is just a 45-minute drive from the tourism hotspot of Dubai.

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Sights, camera, action! 

The small emirate of 430,000 people has traditionally relied predominantly on manufacturing industries, and its Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone is home to more than 8000 international companies. It is now targeting economic diversification, focusing heavily on tourism development. Registering 730,000 tourists in 2014, Ras Al Khaimah is on track to receive 800,000 visitors in 2015 and aiming for 1 million by 2018.

“Ras Al Khaimah is one of, if not the richest emirate in terms of culture and historical sites,” says Mr Mattar. “We have always been a spot for premium beaches and resorts, but we also have something different. Say you like adventure and you wanted to go zip-lining or biking in the mountains, diving in the sea or on safari in the desert. You can do that all in a weekend. And we are right where the Arabian Sea opens up. You can experience the marine life, take a canoe, and stroll through the beautiful mangroves and see the wild flamingos that live around them.”

While most visitors hail from Russia, the UK and Germany, a key tourist demographic for Ras Al Khaimah is families, according to Mr Mattar. “We have 72% growth in the families segment. That is predominantly product driven; our hotels and brands are very family oriented. We are also focusing on young couples and millennials. Millennials are after adventure but are on a conscious budget, so we are very much geared toward that – there’s a great deal of value for money in Ras Al Khaimah," he says.

"We have beautiful resorts, but a key selling point for us is that we have the four-star brands with a five-star product – and a four-star pricing,” adds Mr Mattar. And rather than trying to compete with tourism behemoth Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah uses it as a value add-on. While Ras Al Khaimah is developing its own airport, it is leveraging on Dubai's air connectivity, which provides global connectivity. “And for travellers who go to Dubai and want more to do, we package Dubai as a city experience – visitors can go from the heritage, the culture, the sea, the desert to the shopping and city life,” says Mr Mattar.

Room for growth

Al Marjan Island is one of Ras Al Khaimah’s largest projects currently under way. “It’s a four-square-kilometre island, and [engineering consultancy] Helcro has been incredibly involved to make sure we protect the surrounding marine life. We plan to not only have hotels on the island, but also parks and more green space. Our objective is to reduce the density on the island so we don’t end up with a concrete lot,” says Mr Mattar. The island is also the site of a 1500-capacity semi-permanent expo hall, aimed at boosting Ras Al Khaimah’s position as a destination for business and conferences.

Ras Al Khaimah is home to 40 hotels, among them international luxury hotel brands such as Rixos, Waldorf Astoria and Hilton. Between them, the hotels offer 5000 rooms, with another 3600 rooms in the pipeline between now and 2019. “That works well with our strategy to grow visitor numbers – the existing rooms sit at an average occupancy of 60% to 65%, so we still have plenty of headroom to fill those plus the incoming supply,” says Mr Mattar. He hopes to grow the tourism industry’s contribution to Ras Al Khaimah’s $8bn GDP from its current 2.4% to 5% by 2025.