The UAE has, over the past few decades, carved a niche for itself in international conference tourism. Although Dubai is normally the emirate in the international spotlight, Sharjah is rapidly making a name for itself in the market.
As the emirate has long been a known location for regional events, Sharjah built on its reputation and emerged as a centre for international exhibitions.
In 1977, Sharjah opened one of the first exhibition centres in the Middle East, bringing the concept to the UAE well before its ambitious neighbour Dubai opened its World Trade Centre building.
At that time, Sharjah cultivated itself into an entertainment hub, creating an arena for circuses, performances and family-oriented activities, carving out a reputation throughout the Middle East.
"People used to fly into Sharjah, people knew the Expo Centre," said Saif Mohammed al-Midfa, director general of Expo Centre Sharjah. "At that time it was the only entertainment centre in the region."
These days, the philosophy of the Expo has changed, moving to a joint business-to-customer and business-to-business formula. This has allowed the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI), the operators of the Expo since 1991, to actively target international exhibitors, enabling the centre to swell to over 20 major shows a year.
With four halls, offering a capacity of 4000 sq metres, and an outdoor area of 6000 sq metres, its promoters insist it can handle the needs of even the most spacious events.
For the past three years, the Expo has been home to the Italian Lifestyle exhibition, the largest Italian products and services show in the Middle East. Since 1982 it has hosted the Sharjah World Book Fair, also the region's largest.
The MidEast Watch and Jewellery Show, held twice a year, is the Expo's most-visited annual event, attracting over 38,000 visitors and 300 exhibitors in April 2006.
Arrivals continue to swell, as evidenced by strong 2005 figures, which saw the Expo put on 18 shows visited by 600,000 visitors. This year it expects results to be higher as it is putting on 22 shows with 700,000 visitors. By 2007, the organisers plan on 25 shows and host between 800,000 and 1m visitors.
Indeed Sharjah is successful, however in the recent past, it has lived in the shadow of Dubai. Just a few kilometres down the road, Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), formed in 1979, has been bursting at the seams with global conferences in the past years, becoming one of the world's most well-known places for conference tourism.
In 2006, Dubai is poised to host a record-breaking 92 exhibitions, and has outlined ambitions to have a total of 120,000 sq metres of gross exhibition space by 2009, making it by far the largest venue in the region.
What DWTC has in quantity, however, Expo Sharjah claims it makes up in quality. Sharjah organises and puts on every exhibition itself - unlike Dubai, which rents out the space to clients for most of the events - meaning that the Expo chooses each conference very carefully.
Each potential exhibitor must meet certain criteria for quality of companies, number of visitors and target audience, because, as al-Midfa points out it is "on our reputation".
In fact, Dubai's influence is generally seen as a positive, since its extremely successful marketing campaign has put the whole UAE on the map for almost any type of international business.
Some concerns still persist, though. Despite being the "first mover" in the region, Sharjah's exhibition industry is facing infrastructural difficulties, mainly due to traffic congestion and a lack of hotel space. The room shortage problem, industry experts point out, is not that hotels are not interested in coming to Sharjah, it is that the emirate restricts the sale of alcohol, a stipulation that most hotels require to be classified as five-star.
Regardless, there are a number of three- and four-star hotels in the pipeline that are expected to be completed over the next few years, which will be able to lighten the load.
Also on plan is the new Dh150m ($40.85m) Sharjah Expo City, being built alongside the existing exhibition facility and featuring mainly a collection of permanent country-specific entities. China has already built ChinaMex, an exhibition exclusively dedicated to Chinese machinery and electronic products. On the way are full-time Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Egyptian trade centres.
Sharjah anticipates more countries will invest in the available 1000-sq-metre plots, which require about Dh10-15m ($2.72-4.08m) to develop.
The SCCI will invest Dh35m ($9.53m) in roads, basic infrastructure for the Expo City and a new SCCI building, both expected to be finished by 2007. They are also adding 10,000 sq metres to the existing Expo centre, set to be complete after 2009.
The events do not only bring in revenue from exhibitors and visitors, but also do the important job of promoting Sharjah as a destination. "We support the tourism industry a lot, as we go out to countries," said al-Midfa.
As far as what lays ahead, al-Midfa is confident about the future of conference tourism in Sharjah. "We are still in the growth phase, and will continue for the next five to 10 years," he said. "We should see continuous growth over the short term."