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A casino in the UAE? ‘We’ve got 4 years to figure that out’

Land, Nature, Outdoors Wynn Resorts
Casino developer Wynn is planning a resort on Al Marjan Island, off Ras Al Khaimah

Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE, wants to triple the number of tourists it attracts to 3 million a year by the end of the decade. To hit this target, it is opening offices from India to Latin America, planning to double the number of hotel rooms on offer by 2025 and redeveloping its nearby airport. It has also attracted massive investment from global hospitality brands.

This is how the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) set out its stall at the annual Arabian Travel Market exhibition, held last month in Dubai. The data sounded impressive, but there was a gap in the information – the news announced in January that Las Vegas developer Wynn Resorts is planning a multibillion-dollar integrated resort development on the manmade Al Marjan Island off Ras Al Khaimah.

Wynn’s press release said the project was scheduled for completion in 2026 and promised a “1,000+ room hotel, high-end shopping mall, a state-of-the-art meeting and convention facility, an exclusive spa, more than 10 restaurants and lounges, a wide array of entertainment choices” – and “a gaming area”.

Naturally, the final item on that list drew all the headlines, with news outlets all over the world speculating whether this was the first step towards introducing gambling and casinos in the UAE.

RAKTDA told Reuters that it had created a new Department of Entertainment and Gaming Regulation to monitor “integrated resorts” – but after that things fell silent. Dubai’s tourism authority later confirmed that it has no current plans to allow gaming.

At the Arabian Travel Market in May, one senior tourism expert told AGBI that it seemed likely a casino would be opened at the Wynn property in Ras Al Khaimah.

Rival casino operators are paying close attention too. A spokesperson from Caesars Palace has told Reuters that “like anybody, if a licence is able to be bid for, any global gaming company is going to want to be actively involved in the conversation”.

Speaking to AGBI during the Arabian Travel Market, Raki Phillips, CEO of RAKTDA, said: “At this point, the project is four years down the road. The focus is to make sure that whatever happens or whatever [we] end up doing, regardless of what it is, is world class and gold standard.

“At the end of the day, if we are to do anything, we do it right.”

Asked whether a “gaming area” meant a casino in the traditional sense, Phillips was non-committal.

“We’ve got four years to figure out what that is. So, I think, rather than rush into something that might change, or we might not be sure what it is, we need to study things to make sure we do things the right way,” he said.

AGBI pointed out that this seemed like a vague approach for a vitally important project.

“I don’t think that’s what we’re saying,” he replied. “What we’re saying is if there is an announcement to be made it has to be done right and we’ve got four years to develop the hotel. But the attractive thing about Wynn is this is the largest foreign direct investment into the emirate of RAK, a multi-billion-dollar deal.”

Not long after AGBI’s conversation with Phillips, the same question was raised during a conference session about the Wynn. Again, officials from the emirate were non-committal. Off stage, AGBI asked Alison Grinnell, CEO of RAK Hospitality Holding, which we understand is overseeing the project, whether the Wynn resort would include a casino. She declined to answer.

In the period since Arabian Travel Market, AGBI has asked RAKTDA’s press relations agency to clarify the issue. After a number of weeks, it responded that it was unable to comment any further.

Though Phillips would not be drawn on the Wynn project, he was keen to point out how well the emirate is recovering from the pandemic. “We are one of the best-performing markets during Covid and, coming out of it, our recovery is significantly good,” he said.

“When you look at global trends during Covid, you saw declines of 75 percent. RAK had a decline of about 12 percent. But coming out of the pandemic in Q4 2021 to Q1 2022 we are about 8 percent ahead of 2019, so we’re seeing good growth and we hope by the end of the year this will only get better.”

Marketed as “the nature emirate”, Ras Al Khaimah kept its tourism numbers strong by providing as much support to visitors as possible, even offering to pay for any PRC tests they needed to enter the country.

Phillips added that his agency is looking to attract a truly global audience. “The Far East is a big market for us, that we haven’t really explored that much, but we have to be ready for the Chinese customers and others. Recently, we opened a new office in India. India is a big market for us in one of the fastest-growing markets. We opened an office in Latin America,” he said.

Person, Human, Clothing
Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority, has pointed to the emirate’s strong performance post-lockdown. Picture: World Travel & Tourism Council

“I’ll give you an example of how we’re very forward thinking. Kazakhstan was a market that used to generate 5,000 tourists a year, a couple of years ago. Last year we had over 50,000 tourists from Kazakhstan coming to the destination and it continues to grow exponentially.”

With all these new tourists being attracted to Ras Al Khaimah, the emirate needs to invest in more hotels. At present, it has 7,865 rooms, having added around 1,200 in the past year.

“I would say our goal is to double the number of rooms that we offer in the next five years. And these are all projects that are either broken ground or in specific phases – where they’re not just pie-in-the-sky,” Phillips said.

While observers are in no doubt that the development of Ras Al Khaimah’s tourism sector is “not just pie-in-the-sky”, the exact nature of the Wynn project is still very much up in the air.