Interview: Khalid Jasim Al Midfa
How can Sharjah leverage its comparative advantages to open new markets for inbound tourism?
KHALID JASIM AL MIDFA: Although challenging economic conditions are affecting tourist movements globally, tourism continues to play an important role in the emirate, contributing approximately 9% of GDP. The UAE is unique in that the seven emirates provide different destinations with complimentary products. Sharjah provides a combination of cultural heritage and recreational facilities which appeal to different target markets. Our objective is to welcome 10m tourists annually by 2021, and the emirate can build on its existing air connectivity and airport expansion programme to launch additional routes to key growth markets including Russia and China. Although the GCC remains our primary source market, destinations must now employ innovative strategies to expand in new and existing markets.
How will developments in tourist infrastructure strengthen the emirate’s hospitality sector?
AL MIDFA: In order to improve visitor numbers and meet the increasing expectations of travellers, it will be necessary to invest in the upgrade of attractions, infrastructure and accommodation. In 2017 we recorded approximately 1.78m hotel guests with a total stay of 4.2m nights. Furthermore, the average length of a stay increased from 2.1 nights in 2016 to 2.3 in 2017. Attracting major international hotel chains to Sharjah has been part of our long-term strategy, as they contribute to market reputation, brand recognition, bookings processes and improved standards. By 2021 we expect 5000 hotel rooms to be added to the emirate’s portfolio, representing a 50% increase from our current inventory, with contributions from international chains such as the Accor Group and Hilton.
Destinations must improve visitor experiences through enhanced customer care, including more amenities, personalised services and guaranteed standards. For example, we have launched a number of training programmes for the hospitality sector to improve services and standards within the industry. We have also started a programme to ensure that local hotels welcoming a high number of visitors provide the language services, tour guides and amenities that guests expect. In terms of physical infrastructure, the airport expansion programme will boost passenger capacity and allow us to increase connectivity, while new road and tunnel networks will link the east coast to Sharjah’s central regions and improve accessibility to areas including Kalba and Khorfakkan.
What potential does Sharjah offer for investment in niche tourism segments?
AL MIDFA: Sharjah has a strong advantage in that its portfolio includes a range of established historical and environmental sites. Nevertheless, we are also investing in the development of new attractions. Inbound historical and educational tourism will be further strengthened by the registration of the Heart of Sharjah heritage area as a UNESCO World Heritage site. As four- and five-star hotel accommodation represented 70% of total hotel revenues in 2016, Sharjah is investing in a new heritage hospitality brand, “The Collection”, in locations including the Al Bait hotel, the Kalba Kingfisher Lodge and the Fossil Rock Lodge.
We are also working with the Environment and Protected Areas Authority to develop the Kalba Eco-Tourism Project to provide accommodation and attractions in conservation areas. Furthermore, we have recently opened a new tourism office and information centre in Khorfakkan as part of our development strategy to promote the cruise tourism segment.
In addition, the Middle East is an increasingly popular location for events, with the number of international association meetings in the region tripling since 2007. The emirate can leverage its existing infrastructure in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions segment in order to increase inbound visitor numbers.
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