Ecotourism is emerging as an important segment of Sharjah’s tourism industry, with a wide range of natural attractions and protected areas in place, as well as two major ecotourism projects currently under construction in the emirate.
The development of the segment is being driven by initiatives and investment from government-backed bodies, with private sector firms being brought in as partners for the operation of amenities and accommodation facilities. The main body responsible for the development of the segment is the Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA), which is working together with the state’s investment arm, the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (known as Shurooq), to develop several major ecotourism projects.
The Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority is also encouraging the expansion of the segment, as well as sustainable development within the tourism industry as a whole – something the EPAA is also seeking to ensure within its own projects. The authority will use eco-friendly building designs for all its tourist centres in order to promote sustainable development and reduce the negative impacts of construction on the environment. For instance, the authority is planning to use locally produced cement that lasts around 30 years longer than conventional commercial varieties and is planning to launch a partnership with a factory producing the commodity by 2020, Hana Saif Al Suwaidi, chairperson of the EPAA, told OBG.
The ecotourism segment benefits from a wide range of natural attractions. The emirate has designated nine protected areas, together accounting for a combined 4.6% of its territory. Prominent areas among these include the Mleiha protected area, which is located inland about halfway between Sharjah City and the city of Kalba, and the Al Qurm and Al Hefaiyah nature reserves near Kalba on the east coast, both of which have major ecotourism developments under way.
Since the 1990s the EPAA has gradually expanded its range of flora and fauna learning centres across Sharjah. These date back to the launch of the emirate’s Desert Park in the Seih Al Masmout protected area in 1995. The park now hosts two botanical gardens, a children’s farm, a natural history and botanical museum, a breeding centre for endangered local wildlife and Arabia’s Wildlife Centre, which receives between 500 and 700 student visitors a day from schools in Dubai and Sharjah. The Sharjah Cat and Dog Shelter, launched in 2009, is also home to a learning centre. The launch of such centres picked up in the middle of the current decade, with the Kalba Bird of Prey Centre – which the EPAA describes as the first of its kind in the region – opening in 2014. The project already includes several attractions, organising shows featuring various species of endangered birds including falcons and vultures. In terms of amenities there is a small lodge with air-conditioned rooms, and further developments are in the pipeline.
The following year saw the inauguration of the Wasit Wetland Centre in the Wasit Nature Reserve, the site of a former rubbish dump that has been rehabilitated as a bird sanctuary, located between Sharjah City and Ajman. The reserve hosts more than 60 species of local and migratory birds. This was followed by the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre, which opened in March 2016. Situated at the foot of the Al Hajjar mountain range near Kalba, this wildlife reserve hosts around 30 species of animals.
Two major ecotourism projects are under development in the emirate: the Kalba Eco-Tourism Project and the Mleiha Archaeological and Eco-Tourism Project. The Kalba initiative, which is being developed by Shurooq, is the largest ecotourism project in the UAE. The Al Ghail, Al Hefaiyah and Al Qurm areas in Kalba were declared to be protected by an Emirati decree in 2012, and the EPAA and Shurooq began work to rehabilitate the zone in 2013. The protected area covers mangroves, mountainous areas and wadis (valleys), meaning the project will showcase a variety of local habitats.
The project zone had suffered from overfishing and overhunting, and as a consequence it took the authority almost five years to completely restore the environment, Al Suwaidi told OBG.
In March 2017 Shurooq announced plans to build the five-star Kalba Kingfisher Lodge at the site. The facility will consist of 20 luxury tents, each with their own private swimming pool, and will also be home to a yoga and wellness centre. Boutique hotel and ecotourism operator Mantis will manage the lodge as part of a wider deal signed with Shurooq in November 2017 for the management of the authority’s four Sharjah Collection properties. Once complete, the ecotourism project will have a visitors centre, an education facility, various organised outdoor activities, including mountain biking and mangrove kayaking, and a rehabilitation centre for green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles. The plans outline a variety of tourist amenities aside from the luxury lodging, such as traditional and modern markets.
In January 2018 Shurooq and real estate firm Eagle Hills announced plans to build a Dh160m ($43.6m) shopping mall within the project. “We need to provide amenities and infrastructure, such as food and beverages, accommodation and retail facilities, to ensure that tourists stay in Sharjah,” Al Suwaidi told OBG, noting that visitors to the site often stay in the neighbouring emirate of Fujairah.
The second major project under way in the segment is the Mleiha Archaeological and Eco-Tourism Project, which is also backed by Shurooq, with involvement from the Sharjah Archaeology Authority (SAA). Mleiha is a protected area, with plans for the reintroduction of several native wildlife species, including the Arabian Oryx and local varieties of gazelle and ostrich. In addition, the development hosts several significant archaeological sites. The first phase of the project, based around an archaeological centre with a cafe and gift shop, was inaugurated in January 2016.
Michael Kasch, general manager of the Centro Sharjah Hotel, told OBG that interest in Mleiha was beginning to take off as the project develops. “There are a number of activities available at the site already, including adventure activities, as well as those focusing on heritage and archaeology,” he said. The second phase includes the development of a 450-sq-km national park and a campsite.
When complete, the project, which the authorities anticipate will attract Dh250m ($68.1m) of investment, will have a number of accommodation options, as well as a range of food and beverage amenities. There are two accommodation facilities currently under development. An existing facility within the project area is to be redeveloped as the Fossil Rock Lodge, which will include five rooms, a restaurant and cafe, and a spa with a swimming pool. As with the Kingfisher Lodge, the development is part of Shurooq’s Sharjah Collection. A number of other locations in Mleiha are being reserved for additional tourist resorts and accommodation, which will be offered to private sector investors.
In April 2017 the EPAA also signed a memorandum of understanding with Al Wanis, a Qatari tourism operator, for the development of a Dh60m ($16.3m), five-star desert resort within the project. Construction of the resort – which will offer 45 rooms, several restaurants and cafes, a health club, and swimming pool – is set for completion by the end of 2019.
World Heritage Site
In addition to Mleiha’s protected status and the government’s plans to reintroduce indigenous wildlife to the area, the site’s archaeological treasures represent an important attraction for tourists. Sabah Abboud Jassim, director-general of the SAA, told OBG that Mleiha, which has been under excavation since 1986, appears to be the most important archaeological site in Sharjah, and the emirate is currently working to have it registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, to do so it will first of all have to remove more than 40 privately owned farms from the area to satisfy UNESCO criteria, which is at present delaying the initiative’s progress, Jassim added.
The site has monumental tombs dating from between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE, among other discoveries, and contains artefacts from a variety of cultures Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, Greek and Roman. Other significant archaeological discoveries in and around Mleiha in recent years include stone tools that date back 125,000 years, the finding of which provided evidence for the “southern road” migration route for early man, and a tomb from the Umm Al Nar culture which is thought to originate from approximately 2500 BCE.
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