Sharjah has set its sights on grabbing a larger share of the region’s tourism potential and developing infrastructure and facilities.
On February 4, the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) announced plans to raise the Emirate’s profile as a tourism destination, including taking part in tourism expos and increasing advertising exposure.
According to Mohamed al-Noman, the general director of the SCTDA, recent achievements such as the doubling of arrivals in the past few years have served as a spur for further expansion in the tourism sector, which is expected to have a flow-on effect for the rest of Sharjah’s economy.
“At a time when tourism has become a significant source of income for Sharjah, the Emirate is seeking to further develop projects including mega-villages and cities that will attract visitors from all over the world,” he said. “In addition to this, the marketing campaigns across local, regional and international media will further help in promoting the Emirate.”
Sharjah has worked to position itself as a niche tourism destination, not so much trying to take on big players in the region such as Dubai, but instead seeking to specialise in certain key sub-sectors of the industry.
In particular, Sharjah has promoted itself as a family, nature and cultural destination, combining a slower pace of life with sand of the ocean and desert variety, adventure tourism, and the art and history of the ancient region.
“Sharjah has made a special name in the domain of tourism, for the tourists and visitors that arrive every year,” al-Noman said. “Our success is the result of our emphasis on culture, heritage and family.”
Obviously the strategy has been successful, with foreign tourist numbers topping the 1m mark last year, well up on the 400,000 of just three years before. It also has an appeal far beyond the region, with two thirds of Sharjah’s tourists coming from countries other than those in the Gulf, with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States contributing some 150,000 visitors.
However, while focusing on family and cultural tourism, Sharjah is also moving into the fast lane, with a number of major up-market tourism resort centres. One of these, the Nujoom Islands project, has a budget of $18bn and when completed in 2010, will encompass four hotel complexes, residential areas and retail centres, along with the now almost obligatory golf course.
Another facet of modern tourism that Sharjah is increasingly looking to develop is the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE), a sub-sector that the Emirate is now well equipped to cater to with its improved international transport links and high class venues such as the Sharjah Expo Centre.
Indicative of the growth of Sharjah’s tourism industry is the success of Air Arabia, the region’s first budget airline. The Sharjah-based carrier recorded a $27.51m net profit for 2006, a 222% increase over the previous year’s result. The jump in profits was built on a 54% rise in passenger numbers, with Air Arabia carrying 1.76m travellers in 2006.
Such has been the success of the airline, which started operations in late 2003 with just two aircraft, that it has announced it will go public, offering 55% of its shares, the balance being retained by the state. Funds raised from the initial public offering will be used to finance a major expansion program, which will see 25 new aircraft added to the existing fleet of nine planes.
In 2006, Air Arabia added Istanbul, Kabul, Mumbai, Jaipur, Nagpur, Kochi, Chennai Thiruvananthapuram, Kathmandu, Latakia and Armenia to its destination list, bringing its number of routes to 32, with more planned this year.
The growth of Air Arabia has also been reflected on the increased activity at Sharjah’s international airport, which logged more than 40,000 flights and in excess of 3m arrivals and departures. With other airlines adding Sharjah to their routes, the airport has announced a further expansion, coming soon after the addition of new passenger lounges and duty free outlets.
More than $100m has been poured into new hotel developments annually over the past few years in Sharjah, much of it provided by the SCTDA but an increasing amount is coming from other investors seeking to cash in on the Emirate’s tourism boom.