Sharjah: Widening the tourism net

Sharjah’s push to increase the role its tourism sector plays appears to be paying dividends, with hotels reporting higher occupancy rates and airlines adding the emirate as a destination.

According to the latest data from the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) – the agency heading up the push to promote the emirate’s tourism sector – there was solid growth in hotel occupancy rates for the third quarter of 2011, with 75% of rooms in use nightly. This represents a 4% increase on the same three-month term in 2010, a sound result in what is not Sharjah’s peak tourism period.

The report, issued in November, also showed that tourists were staying longer, with a total of 1.3m occupancy nights recorded by hotels and hotel apartments. This compares to 1.1m nights during the same period in 2010, a 15% increase.

While it will be some time before the SCTDA will be able to release the final 2011 figures, it is likely that the tourism industry will post a healthy improvement on 2010, when over 1.55m foreign visitors arrived in the emirate, up 8% on 2009.

However, in 2012 the country may see an easing in arrivals from some of its traditional markets as political and economic woes grip some regions. With much of Europe – which traditionally supplied more than 40% of Sharjah’s overseas visitors – slipping towards recession, and political and economic uncertainty affecting a number of Arab states beyond the GCC, the flow of tourists could be impacted.

While the short-term prognosis may not be good for some of Sharjah’s leading markets, a strategy of widening the focus of promotional activities beyond a single region could help bridge any shortfall created by stay-at-home eurozone citizens.

The SCTDA and other agencies have been increasingly active in promoting Sharjah as a tourism destination, both in established markets and further afield. In recent months, Sharjah has been represented at travel trade fairs in London, Moscow and Singapore. The latter fair, held in late October, was significant as SCTDA data shows there was an 18% rise in the number of Asian tourists to the emirate in the first half of 2011.

Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al Qassimi, the chairman of the SCTDA, believes that it is vital for Sharjah to exploit all opportunities that could serve to broaden the client base of the tourism industry.

“Focusing on the international travel market has become a necessity to keep abreast of new developments and trends in international markets,” Al Qassimi said at the World Travel Market in London in early November.

One market the emirate is focusing on is Russia, which is seen as having good potential for growth. In 2010, some 200,000 Russian tourists visited the emirate, a figure likely to have been matched or exceeded in 2011, with more than 157,000 Russian passport holders passing through customs in the first nine months of the year.

These figures could well take off after Air Arabia launched services to Moscow in late November. Initially, the Sharjah-based carrier operated three flights a week to the Russian capital, increasing frequency to five flights a week at the end of December. Air Arabia already flies to the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg, the country’s fourth largest city.

According to the SCTDA chairman, the new Air Arabia service will greatly contribute to tourism and economic growth of the emirate.

“The possibilities for growth in this area are endless,” Al Qassimi told a ceremony in Moscow on November 23.

Air Arabia is not alone in adding further routes out of Sharjah, with Indian private carrier Jet Airways starting daily flights from the emirate to Thiruvananthapuram on October 30. The airline already flies from Sharjah to Kochi daily, with the Thiruvananthapuram route being the second destination in south-western India to be linked to the Gulf state by the carrier. Jet Airway’s expansion also takes the number of daily flights from Sharjah to India to around 25, making the emirate a leading entry point for visitors from the sub-continent to the Gulf.

By diversifying its tourism markets. Sharjah should be able to smooth out any bumps in the road caused by regional disturbances or various economies falling by the wayside. Though it may be a challenge to sustain the strong growth rates of the past few years in 2012, the emirate’s tourism industry should remain on track for another good performance in the new year.

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