Sharjah Shines Bright in the Arabian Gulf

Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021 on the road to success through focus on emerging markets

Targeting emerging Chinese and Indian tourism markets, the gulf nation of Sharjah is planning to ramp up tourism volumes in the coming years, and to make good on its promise to attract 10 million annual visitors by 2021 – the central tenant of the tourism development strategy, Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021. Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, Chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), describes a “managed approach to growth [that] holds substantial opportunity to the travel trade and the hospitality investors who are looking to play a role in the advancement of Sharjah into an internationally renowned business and leisure destination.”

SCTDA is implementing promotional strategies that focus on Sharjah as a family destination for the culturally aware, an authentic, traditional Arabic destination with outstanding natural beauty, endless sunshine, plus international and boutique hotels and stateof- the-art infrastructure and facilities. While travellers seeking to truly explore the gulf region and immerse themselves in its traditions, identity, and culture are opting for Sharjah, the emirate also offers plenty of attractions for nature lovers and environmental enthusiasts. It boasts a rich and diverse ecosystem, with Sharjah containing eight protected conservation centres – namely, Jazirat Sir Bo Naair, Alqurm Wa Lehhfaiiah, Wasit Nature Reserve, Ed Dhelaimah, Wadil Helo, Mleiha Protected Area, Elebriddi, and Lemdynah.

NEW HORIZONS

Having focused on the fast-expanding, and ideally located, Indian tourism market since 2014, Sharjah is planning for double digit growth among Indian visitors in 2017. “India to be a key source market for us – with over 62 million passport holders, India is undisputedly one of the largest key markets for the tourism and travel industry around the world,” said Midfa. The UNWTO predicts that Indian outbound travel has the potential to grow to 50 million by 2020 (up from around 16 million in 2013). Sharjah’s flag carrier, Air Arabia, already operates 112 flights a week to 13 Indian cities – Delhi, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Nagpur, Goa, Bangalore, H y d e r a b a d , C a l i c u t , Cochin, Tr ivandrum, Chennai, and Coimbatore.

Additional y, Shar jah Tourism is looking at incorporating the emirate’s tourism offerings and products in the itineraries offered by the travel trade in India. “We are in talks with wholesalers in India to list Sharjah in their itineraries for the coming two years, as our tourist offerings are diversified,” said Midfa, adding that Sharjah offers a range of products for culture, art, shopping, F&B, heritage and ecotourism, which would be of interest to family as well as leisure traveller.

Also high on the agenda is a continued effort to attract travellers from China, which has become a major international source market for tourism. According to Midfa, “Taking into account the Chinese market’s distinctive characteristics and focusing on Sharjah’s strengths and unique cultural tourism offerings, we are confident that we will continue to see the upward trend of this market in Sharjah. We are aiming to confirm 200,000 Chinese guests’ nights in 2021.”

To deal with the increased volume, Sharjah’s peak tourism body has been promoting public-private partnerships in the sector to create new tourism maps, a hotel registry, a weekly calendar of cultural events, among other vital tourism information. It is also being forced to expand Sharjah’s accommodation capacity, with hotels and hotel apartments across the emirate welcoming 19 percent more guests in the first nine months of 2016 (1,318,748 guests) than the year before. Sharjah has 105 hospitality facilities with more due to open this year. It offers an interesting mix of international brands and boutique hotels, which are spread equally between city and beaches.

As expected, the biggest growth in overnight stays in Sharjah continued to come from China; in the first nine months of 2016, Sharjah welcomed 62,936 Chinese visitors – a staggering 75% growth from the 35,928 guests welcomed during same period in 2015. The ever-ambitious SCTDA wants to again double the number of Chinese guests in 2017.

CRUISING THE EMIRATE

Meanwhile, Sharjah has recently attracted a growing number of the world’s most renowned cruise liners to make maiden stops in the e m i r a t e . U S – b a s e d luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises was in Sharjah in December for the first time. Voted Best Midsize Cruise Ship Line by Condé Nast Traveler magazine, Crystal Cruises embarked on a two-day itinerary on the emirate’s east coast, going to Kalba via Mleiha, and then to Khorfakkan, where the Oceanic Hotel Sharjah sponsored the overnight stay. Midfa said that “The cruise industry in Sharjah remains a cornerstone of our industry. The Authority is strategically working to attract more than 28 cruise trips with 72,000 tourists to Khorfakkan Port through the 2016-17 season. This makes cruise tourism an elemental part of the emirate’s tourism development strategy, Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021.”

Midfa added: “The Authority has been helping cruise lines cater to the different interests of the visitors and, at the same time, allowing them to fully experiencing the culture of Sharjah by regularly organising cultural events such as traditional dance performances at the ports and operating a heritage village during cruise calls.” Sharjah is part of the Cruise Arabia Alliance, which includes Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Oman, Doha, and Bahrain. The Alliance aims to develop the region as a destination for major cruise liners. According to estimates, GCC countries received more than a million visits from cruise passengers by the end of the 2015-2016 cruise season – globally, the cruise market has been steadily gathering steam; the industry has nearly doubled in the last decade, going from 12 million passengers in 2006 to 22.9 million in 2016 – a 90.8 per cent increase.

CULTURAL HERITAGE

In recent times, a number of government initiatives have been dedicated to the conservation of Sharjah’s architectural, cultural and literary heritage. The Heart of Sharjah cultural centre was henceforth registered on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – still under consideration, in February it was announced that Heart of Sharjah’s world heritage bid updated the title of its submission to the UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, revising the title “Heart of Sharjah” to “Sharjah – a Gateway to the Trucial States”. The Heart of Sharjah contains large and small architectural buildings and religious structures like mosques and markets that bear witness to city’s development and evolution over centuries. In what will be a boon to Sharjah’s nascent tourism industry, a place on the world heritage list would give the emirate a significant point of difference in the region. As Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, the Chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, said on the announcement of the listing, «The Heart of Sharjah has a multitude of historical and heritage sites which have outstanding historical value, as Sharjah served as a point of convergence of civilizations, a transit road for trade caravans on sea and land, and a meeting point between people and tribes. We will work to add this area of rich heritage to the list of World Heritage Sites to introduce the significant value of the UAE’s history to the world.” Midfa is confident that the bold Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021 is highly a c h i e v a b l e i n l i g h t of recent successes. “Sharjah’s travel and tourism sector has been scoring impressive results … it is spreading its risk by having a diverse portfolio of markets and this has been supported by the host of programmes and promotions organised by the SCTDA in collaboration with other stakeholders.”