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What is balanced tourism? This country in the Middle East is finding out

Reality shows flaunting Dubai's weathered stereotype of ostentatious glitz and glam suggest that sustainability and minimalism are a distant dream.

What is balanced tourism? This country in the Middle East is finding out
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

A trailer for Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Dubai sparked an intense backlash online from many UAE residents who decry such reality shows as the outdated view of their beloved home where they embrace a more authentic and evolving culture. A culture that pioneered a new era of sustainability over garish materialism.

Just ask the Vice Chairman of Dubai Sustainable Tourism, Yousuf Lootah. 

 Following his successful work retrofitting Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) area in 2010 to reduce the carbon emissions across that district, Lootah was handed the city’s sustainable tourism project in 2014. He was asked to build a progressive strategy that would translate to hotels, private companies, and the government. Dubai Sustainable Tourism (DST) was set up two years later. 

Pragmatic moves have been taken in Dubai and across the UAE, Lootah says, against global benchmarks set out by the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and targets fixed by The Paris Agreement in 2015. 

In line with the Dubai Department of Economy and Tourism, Lootah implemented 19 sustainability requirements last year, including a monthly carbon calculator submission mandate for all hotel establishments citywide. Launched in February to reduce the use of single-use plastic water bottles, Dubai Can saw more than 30 drinking stations established citywide to encourage residents to refill. The initiative has already saved over one million 500ml plastic bottles, says Lootah. All these projects align with Dubai’s 2040 Urban Masterplan, which has committed to also increasing the length of Dubai’s public beaches by 400% and boosting nature reserves by 60%.


A 45-minute drive from the perceived glamour of Dubai lies the UAE’s most northernmost emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, where a recent declaration underlines an ambitious campaign to become the regional leader in sustainable tourism by 2025. Announced at the Arabian Travel Market 2022, the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) announced its commitment to “balanced tourism” to attract more responsible travelers. 

What is balanced tourism? “Simply put, it’s time to move beyond just using less plastic to adopt an all-inclusive tourism approach,” says Raki Phillips, CEO at RAKTDA. “This ranges from ensuring new projects such as hotels are developed at an organic pace to building new attractions with sustainability at their core.” 

As the licensing authority for all new hotel developments, RAKTDA can set guidelines and protocols to regulate sustainability standards and work closely with up-and-coming projects, such as the integrated Wynn Resort, to open in 2026; Earth Hotels Altitude, an eco-based pop-up concept to open on Jebel Jais this year; and Saij Mountain Lodge, opening next year.  

“Ras Al Khaimah has already come a long way in developing its sustainability credentials,” Phillips says. “We have been working with EarthCheck, experts in the global environment, for example, to co-create and implement sustainable practices to address key sustainability issues. We have also started working on 20 sustainable tourism developments across the emirate, especially on Jebel Jais, where our projects have been designed to protect and enhance the mountain ecosystem.”

Four pillars underline what Phillips describes as “conscious” tourism growth — cultural conservation, attractions with purpose, community, and sustainability as a driver of growth. 

Last December, Ras Al Khaimah hosted the Global Citizen Forum, previously held in Monaco and Toronto, where more than 60 global leaders and heads of state were joined by international philanthropists, celebrities, artists, and athletes who pledged to work together to deliver the emirate’s sustainable tourism destination strategy.

“We raised $500,000 for the Global Gift Foundation at that event,” Phillips says. “Establishing a destination as a leader in sustainable tourism requires collaboration on a government, industry, and community level. This approach is the cornerstone of our ambition to triple our visitor numbers by 2030.” 

With oil accounting for one-third of the UAE’s total GDP, tourism represents 12% and, in 2019, supported 766,000 jobs. A full recovery from the impact of Covid-19 is expected by 2023. Welcoming 110,000 visitors in May, Ras Al Khaimah is bucking this trend, with arrivals already ahead of pre-pandemic levels. 

“We are the fastest-growing tourism destination in the Middle East,” Phillips says. “We are also the ‘nature emirate’ of the UAE, and we pride ourselves on that. We are continuously growing, but we must safeguard our natural topography and balance that growth with a diversified economy so businesses can thrive.”

The Emirates Tourism Council was formed last January to strengthen the UAE’s tourism portfolio in line with the UAE Centennial 2071 Plan. 

Are the emirates working together? “Yes, we work collectively and closely with the Ministry of Economy to make sure that protocols are in place to keep the UAE going in the right direction,” Phillips says. 


Setting the pace for the recovery of international tourism, Dubai welcomed 7.28 million visitors last year. A key focus for Lootah is addressing a misconception among hotels, stakeholders, and business owners that sustainable initiatives and long-term targets are not cost-effective. “It pays to be sustainable,” he says. 

“About 90% of the cost of water is down to the packaging. Learning and education are the core components of sustainability. We must become more thoughtful about our actions,” Lootah adds.

Research by the Centre for Sustainability for Expo 2020 showed that eco-tourism is of greater importance for travelers to Dubai: 64% said they fall into the sustainability-minded traveler category. Meanwhile, a TripAdvisor report found that more than one-third of 10,000 respondents said travelers sought “authentic local experiences.” 

“Indigenous stories must be part of our growth to strengthen the UAE identity,” says Lootah. He cites Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve, where visitors are transported 3,000 years back to show how Bedouin tribes lived. “These projects combined with sustainable experiences result in a win-win.” 

The most fortified emirate, with more than 65 forts, Ras Al Khaimah is home to four archaeological sites tentatively on the UNESCO World Heritage site list. RAKTDA has established a long-term investment plan to protect and enhance key cultural projects such as Suwaidi Pearls Farm, the only site in the UAE still cultivating local pearls, and Jazirah Al Hamra, one of the last surviving pearl diving towns of the Arabian Gulf. 

Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week welcomed 30,000 participants and 500 global delegates from 150 countries this January. Recently, the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi partnered with the Gerry Conservation Institute, an international not-for-profit research body dedicated to conserving cultural heritage sites worldwide. With the UAE capital preparing to host COP28 next November, there are no escaping sustainability commitments — UAE’s Net Zero 2050 initiative and a pledge to reach 100% clean energy the same year.  

Lootah does not see these assurances as a challenge but as an opportunity: “What I see is a strong intent from everyone and from the Dubai government to improve the environment in the UAE. We must push to change and influence behavior.” 

Phillips, too, is optimistic: “As a country, we have been smart to diversify our economy and not rely on oil, which leaves us in a good position to achieve carbon neutrality.” 

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Yvonne Kerr is a freelance journalist, based in the UAE, following stints as a full-time magazine editor in Dubai, Auckland (New Zealand) and Dublin (Ireland). She writes mostly about lifestyle, travel and sometimes, herself, and runs her own media content consultancy Typeractive. More