Interview: Khalid Jasim Al Midfa
How do visitor numbers to the emirate for 2016 compare to those of 2015?
KHALID JASIM AL MIDFA: SCTDA’s participation in exhibitions, and its organisation of international roadshows and regional campaigns resulted in hotel revenues remaining stable, as hotel numbers remained intact with an insignificant 1% decrease between 2016 and 2015. We were affected by the slow growth of Russia’s outbound tourism in 2015, as they were a key source market. However, in 2016 we witnessed a 12% growth in Russian tourists coming to Sharjah and expect further growth with the opening of a new overseas office in Moscow in 2017. The emirate registered 1.8m hotel guests in 2015 and 2016. We are continuing to work hard to increase the number of tourists from other markets and are on track to reach 10m visitors by the year 2021.
Which source markets hold the most potential?
AL MIDFA: Russia has always been a very important market for us. Sharjah is one of the most convenient beach destinations for many Russians to reach, particularly given the amount of flights between the emirate and second-tier cities in the country, and the relative proximity of the two. We have also benefitted from a recent shift among Russian travellers away from once-popular beach destinations in Egypt and Turkey. While the economic challenges facing the country, especially the depreciation of its currency, have put a dent in arrival figures over the past few years, we are actually beginning to see a slight uptick in the numbers. In fact, Russia sent 1.8% more hotel visitors in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, accounting for 6% of total hotel visits to the emirate.
India and China are two countries that we have started to target more aggressively, as Russian numbers have begun to flag. Given their size, both offer enormous opportunities. India accounted for a sizeable 8.5% of total hotel guests in the period mentioned above. This again can be largely attributed to excellent connectivity. Air Arabia and a number of Indian carriers maintain routes to more than 13 cities in India. The most impressive increase, however, comes from the Chinese market. In the first half of 2016 visitors from China reached 53,589, or 6% of the total, which was a staggering 73.2% increase on 2015. As such, we are dedicating more resources to developing the market.
In which segments is Sharjah most competitive?
AL MIDFA: Three areas stand out. First, Sharjah is an ideal place for families. Many GCC and Arab families prefer the emirate to others because of its conservative, family-friendly culture. As part of UAE Vision 2021, Sharjah is developing a number of leisure destinations designed especially for families, such as a safari park. Tourist attractions like Al Noor Island and Al Montazah Park are already geared towards children, and there are nearly 55 local parks with child-friendly play equipment located throughout the emirate.
Cultural tourism is another key area. Sharjah has worked hard to preserve its heritage and has 17 high-quality museums, attracting more than 730,000 visitors per year. The recently-opened Heart of Sharjah development features historic architecture in the form of mosques, a market and, when complete, a boutique luxury hotel, all of which use the materials that our grandparents once did to construct their own dwellings. Such strong offerings have earned us a number of accolades, including Arab Tourism Capital for 2015 and Islamic Culture Capital in 2014. Lastly, Sharjah has several large-scale, high-quality developments in ecotourism. For instance, the 25,000-ha Mleiha Archaeological Centre gives visitors a glimpse of the wide variety of animals and vegetation that covered the area thousands of years ago. The 4.5-sq-km Wasit Nature Reserve features trees, lakes and salt flats, which attract over 150 species of birds. Once completed, Sir Bu Nuair Island, located 65 km from the emirate’s coast in the Gulf, will contain a resort and residences.
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