Sun, Sea & Sharjah

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With many places in the Middle East selling to potential tourists the same concoction of sun, sand and sea, the emirate of Sharjah has decided to try and market itself as something different.



Admittedly, it is building some massive resorts - like most of the other emirates. Yet the main thrust of Sharjah's tourism programme is towards promoting a long cultural heritage, a factor which some of the other emirates have been less careful to preserve.



Sharjah also has some history behind its airline industry, which laid its first runway in 1932 to service transiting flights. Aviation will be an important ingredient in the growth of tourism in the emirate, and on this score, Sharjah has once again gone by the route less travelled.



When it became clear that the emirate would benefit from the formation of its own airline, it looked not to the formula of Dubai's Emirates, Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways or Qatar Airways, which focus on long-haul segments and exclusive services. Instead, it charted its own course, creating Air Arabia as the Middle East's first low-cost airline.



Since its launch more than two years ago, the airline has continued to post admirable results. In March, Air Arabia announced that it had served 2m passengers since its first flight in October 2003.



It was another solid accomplishment for an airline that many thought would struggle in its first years of existence. Countries in the Middle East have established reputations for protecting national airlines, which often are not profitable, meaning that foreign carriers, and especially ones with low overheads, find it difficult to secure landing rights.



Saudi Arabia and India are the largest regional markets, but they are also the most restricted, while other airports, like Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan, have only reluctantly granted limited access after years of wrangling. There is also a significant lack of secondary airports, the lifeblood of European low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet, around the region.



Add that to the fact that the region is saturated with airlines - the UAE alone now has three carriers to serve a population of around 4.5m - and there was compelling evidence that Air Arabia might be in for a tough few years.



But the airline has consistently beaten expectations, breaking even in 2004, just the second year of operation, and turning profits in 2005. During that time it has seen its route network flourish to 25 locations in more than 15 countries.



It success has been stimulating previously non-travelling populations too, which Air Arabia claims make up 70% of their business.



Another engine of Air Arabia's growth has been among the hundreds of thousands of resident workers from India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Due to the expense, they had previously been relegated to trips to see their families back home only every few years, but now this population is able to fly home, or bring their relatives to the UAE, at affordable prices.



Confirming this, Adel Ali, CEO of Air Arabia, estimated that 50% of travellers to Indian destinations are workers returning home and the other 50% are Indian tourists coming to the UAE.



As the airline has grown, so too has the airport. Sharjah International opened in 1977 as one of the Gulf's largest passenger facilities. The airport saw the arrival of 2.2m passengers in 2005, up from 1.6m in 2004. By 2007, tourism officials predict that they will be welcoming 7m passengers a year.



Sharjah officials hope that by getting more people on an airplane and into the airport, they will also end up staying in Sharjah - instead of running off to Dubai.



The plan for retaining more visitors involves the emirate building on its reputation for being a family-oriented destination with traditional Arab values.



Its close relationship with Saudi Arabia has a lot to do with the conservative stance, and consequently, many Saudi nationals and more traditional travellers choose Sharjah over the more liberal and hectic Dubai.



But officials admit that the proximity to Dubai has had its advantages, with Sharjah offering something different and contrasting.



"The aggressiveness of Dubai has been paying off," said Mohammed Ali al-Noman, director of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. "People stay in Dubai but come to the exhibitions in Sharjah."



Like a low-cost airline, Sharjah is providing features that other emirates do not offer. While Dubai builds financial, media and healthcare free zones, Sharjah is marketing concepts like the City of Heritage, punctuated by extensive renovations of the old city. Then there is the City of Arts, which attracts world-class artists and over 140 galleries a year, and the City of Culture, which emphasises theatre and the largest Arabic book fair in the region. In addition, there is University City, boasting some of the UAE's top institutions for higher education.



One challenge in all this, however, is a chronic shortage of hotels. At the moment Sharjah only has around 5000 rooms available, and no official classification system, meaning that many people are drawn to Dubai's hotels given their enormous variety and established levels of service.



Meanwhile, prices, which have been spiralling out of control in Dubai, are also on the rise in Sharjah. Once thought to be a haven of lower costs, Sharjah is now suffering from increasing rents, hotel rates and even higher priced goods and services.



Sharjah will also have to increase its level of services for tourists. This will include getting meters in its taxis and continuing to improve its road networks, which are inadequate for even the moderate amounts of traffic they carry.



Another barrier to more tourists is the emirate's steadfast policy of banning alcohol, which undoubtedly keeps many non-Muslims away from its hotels and restaurants.



While striving to become a bigger player on the tourism circuit, Sharjah is committed to a delicate balancing act. It will try to encourage more visitors to feed the economy, but will not throw its doors wide open to the more subversive elements that sometimes come with mass tourism. It remains to be seen if Sharjah will be able to have it both ways - despite the tourism juggernaut of Dubai being on its doorstep and consistently raising the bar.


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