UAE sheikhdom hopes Bear Grylls camp draws pandemic tourists

JEBEL JAIS MOUNTAIN, United Arab Emirates (AP) - The northernmost sheikh in the United Arab Emirates hopes a new adventure camp that shows off its vast expanses, fresh air and socially distant mountain peaks can help revitalize its tourism industry amid the coronavirus pandemic.
And if that doesn't work, there's the beetle eater - a trademark of the British adventurer whose name graces the course.
Ras al-Khaimah has teamed up with survival teacher Bear Grylls to offer a new outdoor adventure camp on Jebel Jais, a mountain with the highest point in the oil-rich UAE.
The former Special Air Service soldier offers a can-do stance on his televised walks into the unknown with a camera team in tow. His outdoor jokes pepper the course on offer in Ras al-Khaimah, which can last several hours or include a full overnight experience with courses in knife-making, knot-tying, and food that go way beyond the norms of room service on a beach vacation.
"People want to be released from their comfort zone now, and that's what we're trying to do," Bear Grylls Survival Academy's senior instructor Martin Norton told The Associated Press. "We're trying to push everyone to their limits." where they feel uncomfortable and we can push them. And then after the course people believe that they can do a lot more than they think. "
On Thursday, the participants of Jebel Jais roped over the sheer face of a mountain slope, a herd of goats moaned over them. Several grimaced at the dried worms that tasted like bulgur wheat to an AP journalist, until an instructor helpfully noted that they left a lingering aftertaste.
Grylls' adventure camps have already been set up in his home country of Great Britain and at 10 locations in China. Ras al-Khaimah camp is its first in the Middle East, on a mountain that also houses a palace of the emirate's hereditary ruler, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi.
It's okay if you need to check a map to find Ras al-Khaimah - or "Top of the Tent" in Arabic. The emirate is often overshadowed by skyscraper-strewn Dubai or oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the emirates' powerhouse in this federation of seven sheikhs.
Also known for a pottery factory with the initials RAK, the emirate has worked to boost tourism, offering itself as a secondary destination in the UAE or as a getaway for the country's millions of expatriate workers. Russia, Kazakhstan, and other nations that were once part of the former Soviet Union represent most of the foreign tourists.
Ras al-Khaimah reported reaching 1.12 million visitors in 2019.
But then came the coronavirus pandemic, which stalled global aviation and robbed the entire UAE of its crucial tourism market. The Sheikh Empire sought out the “Staycation” market in order to find the target of British tabloids over the crowded pools and cheek lines of a hotel for the bar in May during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
The fresh air, the space when climbing over rocks in a wadi or valley and the strict style of the Bear Grylls camp seem to offer the opposite for the time being. It is planned to build sleeping cabins from shipping containers for guests overnight. A model cabin was open Thursday, with plywood-style bunk beds and a small electric generator chugging near the rising mountain.
Alison Grinnell, the executive director of RAK Hospitality Holding, a state hotel operator, told the AP that travelers want "escapes" like the new adventure camp offers.
"We'll never go 100% back to our state," Grinnell said of how the pandemic has changed tourism. "I think people got used to more space."
Ras al-Khaimah is also now offering free coronavirus nasal swab tests for international travelers, said Raki Phillips, CEO of Ras al-Khaimah's Tourism Development Authority.
"It's something that the Ras al-Khaimah government subsidizes to make sure we welcome tourists. They know they are safe and we can take care of that burden," Phillips said.
He added, "There is no easier way to social distance than being on a mountain."
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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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