BUS 210619 RAKI PHILIPS RAKTDA ARAMZAN 6-1687448486954
“We are one of the fastest recovering destinations, and there is no looking back; there’s only looking forward,” said Phillips. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: Raki Phillips knows a thing or two about hotels and destination creation – and he can even do sandwich design if it comes to that.

As CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, these disparate skills can always come in handy in a job profile that sees Phillips add more substance to the emirate’s status as a destination for all. There is the $3.9 billion deal with Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts for a 1,500-plus-key resort on Al Marjan Island. And by the end of this decade, Ras Al Khaimah should welcome 3 million tourists and increase the number of hotel rooms to over 16,000 from its current 8,000.

Video: Ahmed Ramzan | Reporting: Dhanusha Gokulan

Unknown to many, Phillips started his career as a sandwich designer with the Subway in Orlando, Florida, while college. “It was a great (experience). I learned responsibility. I learned everything from floor sweeping to opening to cleaning to prep. I worked all through college, and then I wanted to get into the hotel business.”

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So how does one go from sandwich designer to CEO of RAK’s tourism department?

Born in Lebanon, the American national with Argentinian roots spent some of his high school days in Kuwait. Phillips, however, was drawn to the UAE in the most unusual way. “In the late 90s to early 2000s, I saw a giant Emirates (airlines) billboard advertisement on the Manhattan Flatiron Building in New York. The ad was promoting the Burj Al Arab.

“I knew then and there that the UAE is where I wanted to be. I even had pictures of Dubai as my desktop wallpaper.

“I don’t think there’s a more aspirational place in the world right now.”

A leap of faith

Phillips didn’t always know he wanted a career in hospitality. “When I was a freshman in college, my father suggested I pursue a trade like becoming a mechanic. A close friend of mine, now a doctor, encouraged me to tell my father that I wanted to be in the hotel business. She said my personality seemed well-suited for it,” said Phillips.

“When I told my father about it, he presented me with two options: Orlando or Las Vegas, as they were considered the best locations for the industry at that time. Taking a leap of faith, I flipped a coin, and it landed in Orlando. From there, my journey began.”

Through a University programme, Phillips was awarded an internship at Universal Studios in Florida. Of the 20 students who took on the internship, Phillips was one among two who landed a permanent job at the Studios.

“I ended up with a seven-year career with Universal Studios. My boss then asked me how I would like to grow in the company. And I said I wanted to move to the UAE, and he said we have nothing in the UAE, but we have something in Osaka, Japan.

“I said ‘No’, joined Ritz Carlton in Orlando, and they gave me my first international post in Doha.”

Phillips eventually landed a job as the area director of sales and marketing at the FRHI Hotels and Resorts (Fairmont, Raffles, Swissotel).

Ras Al Khaimah is in the midst of a major hotel and resort development spree. The initiative has attracted new investors, one of them being Abu Dhabi's Aldar.

Entrepreneurial ventures

After these roles, Phillips developed the itch to become an entrepreneur. He launched the online dessert concept – SugarMoo - in the Middle East and led the design-centric eco-friendly hotel brand Earth Hotels.

“We launched SugarMoo at a time before online food delivery was a thing, and I did not have a background in culinary. I believe the company employs over 100 employees, and it’s in four countries.”

Ambitious plans for RAK

When the call to take over as the CEO of RAKTDA came in 2019, Phillips dropped everything and focused all his attention on transforming the emirate as the ‘destination of the future’. With plans to boost tourism’s contribution to the economy from 5 per cent to a whopping one-third, he’s not just thinking big.

“This to me was a dream job. The emirate is blessed with natural scenery and topography. They took an element that they were blessed with, and we’re able to build tourism, especially adventure tourism.”

RAK Jebel Jais Flight_World Longest Zipline_1-1565355646101
Last year, the Emirate saw a 15.6 per cent increase in tourist arrivals compared to the previous year, bringing total arrivals to over 1.13 million.

“Our 2022 tourist numbers superseded the pre-pandemic numbers by 6 per cent. And now, we are almost at the first-half of the year, and our numbers are double-digit growth compared to 2019.

“We are one of the fastest recovering destinations, and there is no looking back; there’s only looking forward.”

Island building

The focus is on building new attractions on Marjan Island, Mina Al Arab and Al Hamra – the emirate’s ‘tourism corridor’. Developments are on the horizon include the brands like Marriott, Anantara, Sofitel, Le Meridian, Westin, and Nobu.

“At the moment, we have 8,000 keys in the market and by the end of the decade, we will easily more than double those numbers,” Phillips said.

Ras Al Khaimah re-opened its doors to tourists three months after the global lockdown during the pandemic.

“We welcomed our first international guests in June 2020. We could pivot smartly and pragmatically,” he added.

“The pandemic helped us realise that we cannot rely on one type of customer base. We did a full rebranding of the destination with a new logo and brand identity that represented our vision from now on. We launched the Work and Play program during that time, an initiative that attracted 5,000 bookings.”

Last year, the visitor mix comprised 60 per cent domestic and 40 per cent international tourists. “Currently, the ratio has shifted to 55 per cent international and 45 per cent domestic, which is a positive trend. While the goal is to achieve a 70- 30 mix, the emphasis remains on attracting international visitors.”

Adventure tourism
Ras Al Khaimah has made great efforts to ensure tourists seeking adventure activities consider the emirate as a must-visit destination. The city is home to the UAE’s highest peak, Jebel Jais, which crowns the rugged Hajar Mountains with its 1,934 metre-high summit.

“We have enhanced our hiking trails, launched the longest zip line in the world at Jebel Jais (2.83 km), we have ‘Jais Sledder’, the 1,840-metre-long toboggan track,” said Raki Phillips.