UAE. JAL Hotels (the Nikko and Hotel JAL City brand in Japan) has a new 30-storey, 450-room hotel under construction in Dubai. When this opens in 2009 it will represent a big transformation for the Japanese tourist market in the UAE. In this interview, BI-ME talks to Frank Gueuning, General Manager of Hotel JAL Fujairah Resort and Spa, and Sheikh Sultan Abdullah Al Sharqi, Public Relations Manager for UAE about the hotel scene in Fujairah and the UAE.
The attractions for visitors and the challenges of operating in the quieter parts of the Emirates are certainly different from the beach and business hotels of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, which is the normal lens through which we view tourism in the UAE. JAL Hotels recently made its entry to the market and as a mid-sized international chain - with 63 properties spanning from San Francisco to Bali to Beijing, and 20,402 guest rooms - it is an interesting case of how to make an entry into the Middle East market.
The Hotel JAL Fujairah Resort and Spa is a jewel of a hotel on the tranquil Eastern coast of the Emirates. Although the 257-room property had its soft opening of parts of the hotel in May 2007, it saw its formal ribbon-cutting in January by HH Sheikh Hamed Bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Member of Supreme Council and Ruler of Fujairah.
This is the first time that Sheikh Al Sharqi has supported such an investment with a public appearance for the opening of a hotel. Now with the Fujairah hotel market suddenly expanded with three major five-star hotels opened in the last 12 months, it signifies that the Emirate has arrived with a critical mass of options for hotels and attractions, that should see it increasing its share of UAE visitors. The hotel division of the Japanese airline JAL also plans that will grow significantly the number of Japanese visitors to the UAE, that reached 100,000 to Dubai in 2006.
Fujairah has a lot of good reasons to favour hotels and resorts over unrelenting development and the plunge into international property markets that we see elsewhere in the UAE. For one thing, the beaches are beautiful as it hasn’t suffered at the hands of too much development like Dubai, and it also has a number of close offshore islands with coral reefs, making it a big attraction for both local and visiting divers. Last but by no means least, as Fujairah is less commercial than Dubai, it is so much cheaper and hasn’t fallen victim to property-induced inflation.
To sum up Fujairah, it’s got great beaches with quality resorts and it’s cheap. When we visited the Hotel JAL Fujairah Resort and Spa it had recently been battered by the recent storms with some of the beach facilities packed away, but it was no less beautiful for the experience.
BI-ME: Could you give us an update on the plans for JAL in the UAE market?
FG: JAL has expressed a firm intention to fly here. But the Japanese tourism market is complicated and it is still emerging in the Middle East. To put this in context, most travel is traditionally North to South and for the Japanese this means travel to the Pacific resorts, to Guam, Hong Kong or Korean resorts for example.
The new Hotel JAL Dubai is under construction on Sheikh Zayed Road, opposite the Emirates Towers, and this will be opening in approximately one year. The history is that the JAL Fujairah Resort and the Dubai property were on the table at the same time, and they have the same owner. But it has been much easier, and faster, to put up the hotel here in Fujairah.
The plan will attract a lot more international travellers and it will enable us to offer twin-centre holidays in Dubai and Fujairah. For now the traveller coming to Fujairah is a different market. In the future we will look at Fujairah as the resort destination of Dubai.
BI-ME: Isn't the Japanese tourist market quite under-represented in the UAE as a source market? What do you think are the challenges and requirements for attracting more Japanese visitors?
FG: When the Japanese travel, they are strongly attached to the Jumeirah Beach properties and to the Burj Al Arab as the symbol of Dubai, which is how they learn about Dubai in the media. In the next two, three or four years there will certainly be a lot more Japanese coming to this area. Modern Japan is different. There are the babyboomers who are just entering their retirement years with money and time on their hands, so the Japanese market will grow for everyone in the next few years.
Also Japanese visitors are very loyal to 'brand Japan'. For Fujairah, our attraction is that we don't have construction and cranes or the hustle and bustle of Dubai. And looking ahead to 2008 our position in the market is good and we have a successful brand that is becoming known amongst UAE nationals and all groups of resident expats.
BI-ME: The hotel scene in Fujairah has been expanding fast and presumably it is becoming price competitive. From your perspective what are the trends and how does JAL differentiate itself from the other beach resorts and international hotel brands?
FG: Firstly Fujairah as a market is booming. With all the new [hotel] entries there is more choice for the visitor and there are still many other projects in the pipeline. For example we can mention the Angsana Fujairah Resort and Spa opening in 2009 and there is another project by Iberotels & Resorts and a Fairmont. So Fujairah is already attracting the top operators.
We all want to build Fujairah as the premium destination of the UAE. The authorities here are more cautious about the rate of development, but similar to the other Emirates there is a major effort to diversify business and grow the service industries. So the economic trends in the background are also very positive.
Looking back, when the Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort was the first to enter the area, the development was slow. But now the Ruler of Fujairah and the Deputy Ruler are taking a keen interest in the developments and they want to see what is being done and to follow up. They showed this by graciously performing the ribbon-cutting for the Hotel JAL Fujairah Resort and Spa, which took place last week.
The future of tourism in Fujairah is very bright. It is being marked as an area for quality and a quiet destination without oversupply. If you are aiming for the luxury market, the guests are not the kind of people who will take the coach into Dubai to go shopping, so we tailor our services accordingly.
All the three hotels that have opened this year are different in terms of the food, sports or facilities, so there is a choice, which is healthy for the market. We offer all suites and one, two and three bedroom options, so we are suitable for large families and for Arab guests. This gives them a different freedom from just having interconnecting rooms.
We have several types of playroom facilities with an educational element for older and younger children. We are a family-friendly hotel which is very attractive to the whole GCC market. We don't believe in just providing a baby-sitter and putting the children down in front of the TV.
Also our property has the distinction of being close to the shoreline, so that unlike most of the other resorts, our guests can actually hear the lapping of the waves just 20 metres or so from their rooms.
BI-ME: Given that Fujairah as an area is very much still emerging its identity internationally, what profile of guests are you receiving?
FG: The international holiday traffic is slowly building up and we are receiving residents of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in huge numbers. It is natural that the UAE market is big when you start the operation. Since the UAE market is made up of many different nationalities and expat groups, as we all know, this makes it difficult for us to plan for this diversity.
We have to remember that Fujairah has gone from 218 five-star rooms to a total capacity of over 1,000 rooms in a few months. The demand is increasing and all the feedback we are receiving is that all the hotels are holding and they are not slipping on their occupancy or their room rates.
BI-ME: Are there seasonal or other trends that you are seeing in Fujairah?
FG: In the first two weeks of January, up to the end of the Russian new year holidays, which are the last of the holiday dates that we see, the market is very strong. Here it is purely relaxing or 'chill' tourism so we are also governed by the weather. After February we will see the market picking up again, and with the changes in the weather we can always feel the last-minute bookings increasing. In the Summer we also have a quiet season, when we see more European visitors in proportion to the others.
We have a good product so we can compete in all the main areas. Being a Japanese product also determines some of the areas where we have to be strong. We need to shine in technology and we have in the Marco Polo, what is widely recognised as the best sushi restaurant in the UAE and an excellent teppan restaurant called Icho. Having an authentic sushi restaurant, with our Japanese chef means that this is a must for the Japanese experience in the Emirates. We do not corners like some other sushi restaurants. For our chef, I can say it is almost a love story with the fish, even if sushi does not necessarily yield the same profitability as another restaurant might do. Overall we know that we have a good food product with the Grand Bleu beach restaurant, the Al Nokhada Arabic restaurant and other facilities.
BI-ME: Some of the issues that we are hearing constantly in the UAE are about the human resource challenges, about shortages of staff and issues of training and how to maintain a high level of service. In your personal experience, would you say that that the UAE is a demanding market? Are you seeing this type of HR issues?
FG: Having worked in Switzerland in the area of hospitality training and in independent hotels in the UK I can say that these kinds of comments and issues apply to everywhere I have worked around the world. Our staff receive training and they are prepared to serve all the different nationalities of guests that we receive, all with their own needs and customs. I can say that some of these customs, from the Europeans, the German guests that we receive, the UAE nationals and Japanese, all need quite a different treatment. From time to time during the year, the mix, and the mood of our hotel changes accordingly.
The way we work with our staff is that I like it when they do something from the heart, not just service by the book. I look for that warmth to come out in the service, and I look for them to do things right, not just to do the right thing all the time. I encourage our staff to be a little bit spontaneous.
For booking and further information on the resort, log on to www.jalfujairahresort.ae