Inside RAK’s billion-dollar bet on tourism and its ‘jewel in the crown’ gaming resort

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Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) is poised to become a luxury tourism destination, with plans for new high-end hotels, expanded airport facilities, and a multi-billion-dollar integrated gaming resort.

Tourism officials told Al Arabiya English on the sidelines of the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai this week that the emirate aims to triple visitor numbers by 2030, double the number of rooms, and cement RAK’s position in the regional hospitality market.

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At the center of those plans is the 62-hectare Wynn Resorts RAK – a mega project that will include 1,500 hotel rooms and the country’s first gaming facility – which will form a blueprint for the development of the emirate.

Wynn Resorts told Al Arabiya English that a gaming license for the mega hotel is “underway” and is currently being considered by the country’s General Commercial Gaming Regulatory Authority (GCGRA).

RAK Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) CEO Raki Phillips outlined the emirate’s tourism strategy, explaining that RAK benefits from the UAE’s strong tourism ecosystem, safety and stability, and natural assets.

“We’re blessed to be in the UAE. When you think about the UAE, 12 percent of the country’s GDP comes from tourism,” Phillips said. “And this is an oil-rich country; 750,000 people work in the [tourism] industry. And that shows you how important tourism is.”

He said part of the UAE’s – and RAK’s - “secret sauce” is safety.

“This is not something you can buy. People from all different nations around the world and all different walks of life come to the UAE because they feel safe and secure. And RAK is an extension of that.”

Phillips emphasized RAK’s proximity to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, its spectacular beaches, and mountain landscapes, saying the emirate’s vision is to build on these natural features.

Ras Al Khaimah (Shutterstock)
Ras Al Khaimah (Shutterstock)

“We are the number one destination for staycations,” he pointed out. “So, when you want to escape from the city, there is just something about being so close to the mountains.”

“Our job is to make sure we offer tourists an incredible experience,” Phillips said, highlighting the range of upcoming hotels including Sofitel this year, Rove Hotel on the beach, and a Westin.

“By the end of the decade, we will triple the number of tourist arrivals and double the number of rooms that we have in the emirate,” the RAKTDA chief said.

Major expansions in the pipeline

RAK saw international tourism grow by 28 percent in 2023 to 1.22 million visitors. This is projected to rise to 1.35 million in 2024. RAK aims to attract 3.5 million overnight tourists annually by 2030.

It makes tourism the fastest-growing contributor to RAK’s GDP. By the end of the decade, Phillip hopes tourism will make up one-third of the local economy.

“Tourism is a great driver of livability… today we have 400,000 residents in the emirate, and by the end of the decade, we want to be at 650,000 residents. So, all of that contributes to a great ecosystem to drive tourism.”

The emirate currently has around 8,000 hotel rooms but expects to grow its portfolio to 15,000-20,000 keys in the next few years.

Several luxury hotels are launching in RAK in 2023, including Nobu, W Hotels, and Nikki Beach. Sofitel Al Hamra Beach Resort will bring nearly 300 more rooms this spring.

Westin and Rove Al Marjan Island are also set to open in 2024, adding almost 700 keys. Additionally, Waldorf Astoria has also undergone a full renovation this year and an Anantara opened in the emirate earlier this year.

Phillips highlighted the massive integrated resort by Wynn Resorts as RAK’s most prized addition. The $4 billion beachfront casino development will cover over 60 hectares and feature world-class gaming, dining, entertainment, shopping, and amenities.

Wynn - potential game changer

Wynn Resorts, renowned for its flagship properties in Las Vegas and Macau, describes its new RAK beach resort as the “jewel in the crown” of the emirate’s tourism strategy.

A render of the Wynn Resort reception areas in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. (Supplied)
A render of the Wynn Resort reception areas in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. (Supplied)

The gaming giant is building the resort in partnership with Marjan and RAK Hospitality Holding. With its in-house design team creating lavish bespoke interiors and facades, Wynn has unmatched expertise in integrated casino destinations.

Micheal Weaver, Chief Communications and Brand Officer at Wynn Resorts, explained in an interview that the resort aims to harness RAK’s natural beauty.

“We are not bringing Las Vegas to the UAE. We are creating something different. The difference here is that in Macau, in Las Vegas, we had to build mountains, build manmade waterways – here in RAK it is already here. We also have almost 100 people who do nothing but design our buildings. And they do that contrary to the way most gaming resorts are built.”

Hotel developments in the resort city of Las Vegas are in “enclosed spaces, not a lot of windows,” Weaver said, differentiating the upcoming RAK property which would be built with a focus on “bringing that which is outside, inside” – air, water, greenery, and sunlight.

“You have a beautiful white sand beach. You have the Arabian Sea. You have the mountain range behind us - Jebel Jais. So, it’s like all of these things that we have had to create ourselves in other places exist in their natural beauty in Ras Al Khaimah.”

Resort takes shape

The Wynn resort will feature 1,500 hotel rooms, over 20 dining outlets, theaters, shopping, spas, pools, beaches, and meeting facilities. It is currently under construction on Al Marjan Island.

The Wynn Resort under construction in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. (Supplied)
The Wynn Resort under construction in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. (Supplied)

Currently, the structure is about 40 meters tall. The full tower height, more than 300 meters tall, is expected to be topped off in the fourth quarter of 2025. The resort will open to the public in early 2027.

Weaver said the resort will reflect the quality and scale of Wynn’s flagship properties but tailored for the UAE with new concepts. He emphasized that they are not replicating Las Vegas or their offerings elsewhere.

Wynn Resorts states the resort will “help create this destination” through its amenities, attractions, and reputation. The globally recognized Wynn brand lends credibility and signals the quality of experiences guests can expect.

“Historically, the area around Ras Al Khaimah was a beacon for navigation and important trade on the Arabian Gulf. Early travelers through the Gulf relied upon this tented settlement as a trade landmark between the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea,” said Todd Lenahan, President and Chief Creative Officer of Wynn Design and Development.

“We designed the 300-meter-tall resort tower with Ras Al Khaimah’s historic role as a great navigational sentinel in mind. We hope this becomes a new landmark, a new beacon, for travelers to Ras A Khaimah from across the globe,” he added.

Weaver indicated the resort opening in 2027 will be a major celebration befitting the scale of the project. The Wynn team is already planning festivities to match the momentous launch.

With its pristine beachfront location, marina, extensive pool area, lavish guest rooms, unique dining and entertainment, high-end retail, and signature service, the resort aims to attract visitors from around the world.

The addition of gaming would further boost RAK’s appeal as a tourism and meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) destination.

Gaming license review “underway”

While gaming remains prohibited in the other emirates, RAK has begun exploring opening the door to casinos in highly regulated integrated resorts.

Weaver confirmed Wynn Resorts’ gaming license application for its Al Marjan Island development is currently in progress. This would make the Wynn beachfront development the first sanctioned casino in the UAE.

A render of the upcoming Wynn Resorts in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. (Supplied)
A render of the upcoming Wynn Resorts in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE. (Supplied)

Airport expansion

Along with adding hotel inventory, RAK is expanding its transportation infrastructure to accommodate rising visitor numbers.

Ras Al Khaimah International Airport currently serves over 600,000 passengers annually.

As Phillips outlined, “Our goal in the next few years is to get into three million passengers by the end of the decade.”

That will be aided by expanding airport facilities and new air routes, he said.

The proximity to Dubai and Abu Dhabi international airports also boosts accessibility and routes for travelers.

Phillips emphasized RAK’s tourism growth is “a long-term vision” focused on sustainable expansion, rather than drive “overnight success.”

Tourism diversification a priority

RAK welcomed 1.25 million visitors from a diverse mix of source markets last year.

Officials want to broaden appeal while attracting new types of visitors.

“We’re very good at ensuring that that we have diversity in our client base,” Phillips said. “We don’t want to be a destination that’s too much of one thing or the other because the UAE is a melting pot. Therefore, our tourist mix has to be the same.”

The CEO mentioned reaching new markets like China as an area of focus. RAK’s upcoming hotels under renowned luxury brands also help attract different segments and demographics.

Containment to community living

RAK’s tourism push includes making the emirate an increasingly appealing place to live, not just visit. Community development is crucial to support sustainable tourism growth.

Phillips highlighted how the new resorts and other projects contribute to society and the quality of life for residents.

“All these new hotels also improve livability. It comes with a healthcare plan and comes with an education plan that comes with road connectivity. All of that creates employment and jobs,” he said.

The emirate is actively engaging in urban planning to incorporate green spaces, infrastructure, and community resources. With smart development, RAK aims to reach 650,000 residents by 2030.

This picture taken on January 26, 2022 shows a view of a tourist resort near Al Marjan island in the UAE emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. (AFP)
This picture taken on January 26, 2022 shows a view of a tourist resort near Al Marjan island in the UAE emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. (AFP)

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