LONDON: Exploring Scotland’s great outdoors has become a much sought-after holiday for the Gulf’s high rollers, and for those who set out to explore its glens, mountains and stunning scenery there is a good chance they will cross paths with Yuri Janssen.
The South African, a former game ranger and now the Head of Adventure at the sprawling country estate Gleneagles, proudly claims the title of having the best job in Scotland – perhaps even the world.
His uniform is a wax jacket and boots, while his offices are 850 acres of unspoilt land — a playground boasting everything from a clay pigeon range to falconry, off-road driving and three championship golf courses.
Over the years, Gleneagles, often dubbed the Riviera of the Scottish Highlands, has played host to everyone from John Travolta to Prince William in its gorgeous suites, which gaze out over the hills.
Now Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are driving a major uptick in Middle East visits as Arab travellers seek a taste of Scotland’s famous outdoors – and cooler weather.
The number of Gulf guests coming through the hotel’s fabled front doors has doubled every year for the past five, with “traditional, authentically Scottish country pursuits” ranking highest on itineraries.
At Gleneagles, where the world’s first falconry school sprouted its wings in 1982, it is perhaps unsurprising that hunting with striking white saker falcons has resonated strongly with guests from the Gulf.
Yet, Janssen points out, it’s the enchanting allure of wrestling salmon, stalking deer in their natural habitat and picnicking with ponies on rolling hills that truly capture the hearts of Middle Eastern visitors.
“During our outdoor pursuits, guests discover what it’s like to have a country estate at their disposal,” he explains. “They can spend a day in the life of a Highland hunter, learning about and embracing traditions that are hundreds of years old.”
This being Scotland, all these activities happen under a healthy drizzle of rain — not that guests from the Middle East find it to be a problem.
Janssen recalls warning a group of ladies visiting from the Gulf about a looming weather front that threatened to pour cold water over their planned trip to one of the surrounding glens.
“They said, no – this is exactly what we want … they even asked to open the windows on the way to let the drizzle in,” he said.
Another time, after an arduous climb through lashing rain with an Arab family that had insisted on continuing despite the grim forecast, the clouds dramatically broke at the summit’s peak.
The sodden glens were suddenly “dappled in a beautiful, soft, golden light” and the group celebrated the moment by performing their first ever Highland Fling – a traditional Scottish ceilidh dance.
“It was just incredible,” says Janssen. “Had it been a summer’s day like everyone was hoping for, the experience wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable.”
Janssen’s career is as colourful as it is impressive, from leading daring expeditions through the untamed wilds of the Central African Republic and Tanzania, to navigating the Arctic Circle in pursuit of the salmon-rich rivers of Russia’s Kola Peninsula.
It’s this adventurous background that makes him a perfect fit for the grandeur of Gleneagles, infusing a touch of the wilderness into its aristocratic charm.
Under Janssen’s expert guidance, and with the help of a team of “playground planners,” excursions can be tailored to the individual, offering an array of bespoke experiences that range from the tranquil to the exhilarating.
Picture seaplane journeys to remote islands, private falconry hunts amidst the hotel’s lush grounds, or even tailor-made fishing trips where the catch of the day is transformed into a gourmet feast by a personal chef.
Janssen says: “We understand the true meaning of bespoke, and there are very few hotels in the world that offer what we do.
“Whatever your age, background or level of experience, we have something for everyone, from taster experiences to fully immersive all-day experiences in the mountains and rivers.”
Janssen adds: “We love Middle Eastern guests because they don’t spend a lot of time indoors. They’re out every day doing something, whether it’s racing gun dogs, hiking up mountains or wading through rivers.
“They truly take advantage of every moment they’re here – regardless of the weather.”
Scotland has seen a surge in visitors from the Middle East, thanks in no small part to Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, who has a sprawling estate on the Isle of Skye off the country’s northwest coast.
His Instagram feed has become a window into a series of Highland adventures, dotted with snapshots of rugged landscapes and misty glens.