The UAE’s Next Big Luxury Travel Destination

Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, talks about the hospitality boom in the Middle East—and the evolution of Ras Al Khaimah into a luxury travel destination.

The Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Beach Resort has a large pool with a fountain and is dotted with palm trees.

The Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Beach Resort

Courtesy of Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Beach Resort

Without a doubt, the Middle East is one of the world’s fastest-evolving regions for hospitality development, with $1.9 trillion pouring into such destinations as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Few people have a front-row seat to the future of tourism in the region like Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) in the UAE’s Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), the fourth largest emirate.

During more than two decades of working with hotel brands including Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont Raffles Hotels International, Phillips has seen tremendous change in the Middle East’s hospitality scene. His role as CEO of RAKTDA, which he’s held since 2019, includes destination marketing with a focus on holistic growth strategies that prioritize sustainability, community engagement, and cultural authenticity.

Under Phillips’ guidance, Ras Al Khaimah, a 45-minute drive from Dubai, has grown from a small fishing village to a premier tourist destination in its own right, thanks in large part to such notable new resorts as Anantara Mina Al Arab and the refurbishment of the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah. Future projects set to further elevate the destination’s profile include a Wynn resort, a Nobu hotel and restaurant, and Marriott’s design-driven W hotel brand, which is in the middle of a renaissance.

AFAR caught up with Phillips to talk about redefining Ras Al Khaimah’s hospitality landscape, wider plans for the Middle East and Africa, and the challenges and opportunities in travel that lie ahead.

This interview was edited for clarity and space.

Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, stands in front of mountains.

Raki Phillips is the CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority.

Courtesy of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority

Describe your role with Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority.

Together with my team, we orchestrate the growth of Ras Al Khaimah’s tourism infrastructure and sustainability investments. Our overarching vision is to transform the emirate into a destination of the future, aiming to elevate its tourism contribution from 5 percent to one-third of its economy by 2030, attracting over 3.5 million visitors.

My responsibilities include a range of activities, from overseeing infrastructure and project development to negotiating international partnerships aimed at boosting inbound passenger traffic. I am particularly proud of our achievements in securing significant investments, such as the $3.9 billion (USD) deal with Wynn Resorts to develop a 1,500-plus-room integrated resort on Al Marjan Island.

Can you tell us about the new hotel openings in RAK?

Ras Al Khaimah is the fastest-growing tourism destination in the region. Our emirate has luxurious beachfront resorts, charming glamping options, and serene desert and mountain retreats. Currently, we have an impressive portfolio of 50 properties, with more than 8,000 rooms available for guests, and an additional 7,000 plus hotel rooms in development.

Our hospitality offering includes globally recognized brands such as Waldorf Astoria, Hilton, InterContinental, Ritz-Carlton, and Mövenpick. Recent openings like the Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah Resort, offering ultra-luxurious Maldivian-style overwater villas, have been met with enthusiasm, and we have several exciting new projects in the pipeline, including Sofitel, Westin, Rove, Nobu, JW Marriott, W Hotels, and Nikki Beach. One of our most anticipated developments is the Wynn Al Marjan Island, set to debut in 2027 with more than 1,500 guest rooms, suites, and villas.

What sets us apart is not just our accommodation options, but also the diverse dining scene across our hotel portfolio, which ranges from traditional to contemporary cuisine. These include Umi, a theatrical showcase of Japanese food at the Waldorf Astoria, and Farmhouse, a farm-to-table concept located in a natural oasis on the grounds of the Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert.

The Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah is surrounded by a beach and golf course.

The Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah

Courtesy of Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah

What are your thoughts on the future of hotels and hospitality in the Middle East?

The year 2024 will be a transformative one for the Middle East hospitality sector as it adapts to new trends and shifts in consumer behavior—a year marked by technology, sustainability commitments, personalization, authenticity, and wellness.

From contactless check-ins to AI-powered room service and personalized digital concierge services, hotels are leveraging technology to enhance customer service and operational efficiency. Virtual reality tours and mobile apps for room control are becoming popular, offering guests a seamless and personalized experience.

Sustainability is another critical aspect influencing the future of hospitality in this region. As consumers become more environmentally conscious, hotels are implementing green initiatives such as waste-reduction programs, renewable energy usage, and sourcing local produce. The emphasis on sustainability is also reflected in the design and construction of new hotels, with eco-friendly materials and technologies being increasingly adopted. Aligning with global standards, we are proud to be the first EarthCheck-certified destination in the Middle East.

We are seeing a rise in momentum in Mideast hospitality—why do you think the region is breaking ground these days?

In the past few years, there has been a concerted effort by Middle East countries to promote tourism on a global scale via a mix of strategies, including creative marketing campaigns and hosting international events. As we have seen from Dubai Expo 2020 and 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, such global events have become catalysts for driving tourism and hospitality growth in the region.

The Middle East is seeing a growing number of high-net-worth visitors and luxury travelers from all over the world. There is a strong demand for premium hospitality experiences, including luxury resorts, high-end dining, and exclusive entertainment.

Moreover, the region’s strategic location between Europe, Asia, and Africa makes it a geographically convenient hub for international travel and transit. Countries like the UAE have positioned themselves as global aviation and transportation hubs, attracting travelers from around the world and therefore increasing the demand for hospitality services. With a growing network powered by partnerships with leading airlines, and an extensive array of hospitality and hotel offerings, Ras Al Khaimah’s unconventional experiences help position it as one of the fastest-growing destinations in the region.

A boat on the waters of Suwaidi Pearl Farm, in the fishing village of Al Rams, set before mountains

Suwaidi Pearl Farm is located in the fishing village of Al Rams.

Courtesy of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority

How would you define Arabian hospitality?

Arabian hospitality is a cherished cultural tradition deeply rooted in valuing the well-being and comfort of guests, ensuring they feel welcomed, respected, and cherished. It epitomizes the generosity and kindness inherent in Arab societies, fostering tightly knit communities and shaping meaningful interactions. In Ras Al Khaimah, we prioritize creating enriching cultural exchanges for guests by offering diverse experiences deeply intertwined with local traditions and heritage.

Ras Al Khaimah’s rich history spanning 7,000 years reflects the authentic Arabian identity and hospitality of the destination. For instance, visitors can experience an immersive journey to Suwaidi Pearls, the only pearl farm in the UAE, where they discover the fascinating history of pearl diving and witness live oyster-opening demonstrations.

Could you share an anecdote or career highlight?

Reflecting on some of my career highlights, the journey of achieving a record-breaking annual visitor count of 1.22 million in 2023 in Ras Al Khaimah stands out. This milestone symbolized the collective dedication, resilience, and hard work of our entire team and the broader Ras Al Khaimah tourism community, showcasing our agility and collective resolve to enhance our destination offering in ways that deeply resonate with our visitors.

Leading a diverse and talented multicultural workforce of 80 employees from 24 countries, I am proud that RAKTDA was honored as one of the top places to work in the Middle East for the third consecutive year, and we ranked fourth in Best Workplaces in the Public Sector in 2023. Being recognized affirmed our commitment not just to our external stakeholders and visitors but equally to our internal team, whose well-being and satisfaction are paramount to our success.

Equally significant was securing the $3.9 billion deal with Wynn Resorts—the largest-of-its-kind foreign direct investment in the region. This collaborative achievement was not just a win for RAKTDA but for the entire Emirate, marking a significant milestone in our journey toward economic diversification and sustainable tourism development. It exemplified our ability to work synergistically toward a common vision, attracting world-class investments that contribute to the emirate’s growth and global standing.

Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah Resort is surrounded by mangroves with thatch-roofed villas featuring large private verandas.

Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah Resort is surrounded by mangroves.

Courtesy of Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah Resort

It’s National Arab American Heritage Month in the United States. How has your Arab American identity influenced your career?

Growing up as an Arab American, with a Lebanese Argentinian mother and an American father, I was immersed in a rich tapestry of cultural experiences from an early age. Be it through food culture, celebrating both Thanksgiving and Eid, or by traveling a lot with my family, my upbringing was a vibrant blend of traditions that spanned continents. This multinational background, coupled with the privilege of growing up in Orlando and attending high school in Kuwait, exposed me to the world’s diversity and the universal values of hospitality and connection. It was this exposure to different cultures and traditions that honed my appreciation for hospitality and travel, which has been instrumental in my career.

My journey to Ras Al Khaimah was not just a professional decision, but also a personal calling. Drawing on my diverse heritage, I saw in Ras Al Khaimah a reflection of the values I hold dear: a deep respect for heritage and a forward-looking vision for innovation and growth. The UAE, known globally as a beacon for exceptional hospitality, felt like the perfect place to continue my journey, offering a unique blend of tradition and modernity that resonated with my own multicultural identity.

My decision to lead RAKTDA was inspired by my lifelong exposure to different cultures and the desire to bring to light the emirate’s rich culture, breathtaking landscapes, and warm hospitality. It was here, in Ras Al Khaimah, that I found a destination that echoes my personal journey of bridging worlds, celebrating diversity, and creating connections. This journey, from the multicultural celebrations of my childhood to the strategic vision for RAKTDA, has been fueled by the belief in the power of travel to unite us across cultures and borders.

Tell us what you love about travel and hospitality—and what you would like to improve?

What I love most about travel and hospitality is the power it has to connect people, bridge cultural divides, and foster understanding and appreciation for the diversity of our world. Travel opens our minds to new ideas, challenges our perceptions, and enriches our lives in countless ways. In the realm of hospitality, the opportunity to create moments of joy and comfort for others is deeply rewarding.

However, one area I believe the industry can improve is in sustainability. As we move forward, it’s imperative that we adopt more sustainable practices to protect the destinations we cherish for future generations. This means minimizing our environmental impact and ensuring that tourism benefits local communities and preserves cultural heritage.

Sara Hamdan
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