Sharjah widens its offer by developing niche tourism segments

Sharjah is a key regional destination for family and cultural tourism, attracting visitors from the Gulf, Europe and Asia in particular, and the industry is also a substantial contributor to the emirate’s economy, accounting for around 8.5% of GDP in 2014, according to the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA). The Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (known as Shurooq) put the figure at 10.9% for 2012. The restaurants and hotels segment’s GDP was worth Dh2.78bn ($756.7m) alone in 2015 – up from Dh2.49bn ($677.8m) the previous year – equivalent to 3.2% of the emirate’s total GDP, according to figures from ratings agency Moody’s.

Factors such as the fall in oil prices and exchange rate developments in key source markets put downwards pressure on visitor numbers and prices in 2015. However, the emirate is working to further expand the sector through a wide range of development projects, including efforts to develop niches such as resort, heritage, nature and adventure tourism in both Sharjah city and its environs, as well as the eastern parts of the emirate and Sir Bu Nuair Island. It is also developing new tourism source markets such as China and India.

Travel Infrastructure

The number of passenger movements at Sharjah International Airport (SHJ) reached 11m in 2016, up 10% year-on-year. The airport is one of five hubs for budget airline Air Arabia, which accounts for the bulk of passenger flights at SHJ and the development of which has played an important role in boosting tourism in the emirate. Air Arabia is partly owned by Sharjah’s government through state-backed investment fund Sharjah Asset Management, which holds a 17.4% stake. The emirate’s tourism industry also benefits from the close proximity of Dubai International Airport, which is located just across the boundary with Dubai in the north of the emirate.

Sharjah is also home to a cruise terminal at Khorfakkan port on the emirate’s eastern coast. In December 2016 local media reported that the SCTDA was expecting a total of 72,000 passengers to pass through the port during the 2016-17 cruise season, during which four cruise ships with a combined capacity of more than 9000 were expected to make their maiden voyages the emirate. In 2015 the authorities announced plans to build a dedicated cruise terminal with its own Customs, immigration and police facilities at the port.

Family Destination

Family tourism has been a key focus point of the tourism sector in Sharjah. The consumption of alcohol is banned in the emirate, as is that of sheesha (tobacco via water pipes), which has boosted its family-friendly image and makes the emirate popular among visitors from other parts of the GCC region, who were the largest category of hotel guests in the emirate in the first nine months of 2016.

However, while this may limit its appeal to some other markets, the emirate is also popular with a number of European source markets, including Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany. “Many European visitors stay here due to the lower prices while spending some of their time in Dubai,” Ahmed ElGharib, hotel manager at the Hilton Sharjah, told OBG.

Visitor Numbers

According to the SCTDA, 1.7m visitors stayed at hotels in the emirate in 2015, down from 2.06m in 2014, although hotel revenues for the year appear to have grown. The fall was in large part due to a decline in visitors from Russia, one of the emirate’s key source markets. This was a result of the decline in value of the Russian rouble, related in large part to the fall in the international oil price. However, 2016 saw something of a recovery, with the number of guests staying at hotels and apartment hotels reaching 1.32m during the first nine months of the year. The number of visitor nights spent at hotels and hotel apartments in the emirate during the first nine months of 2016 was also up by 19% to 2.94m, according to SCTDA figures. This included a rise of 8.7% in the number of Russian tourists, pointing to a recovery in one of the sector’s major source markets. GCC nationals accounted for the largest category of guests by nationality, on a total of 360,000. Occupancy rates for the period were unchanged year-on-year (y-o-y) at 62%.

New Source Markets

The emirate’s fastest-growing tourism source market for the first nine months of 2016 was China, with y-o-y growth of 75%, to 62,936 visitors. The development of the Chinese tourism market has been facilitated by Air Arabia’s launch in February 2015 of direct flights to Urumqi, the largest city in Western China. ElGharib said that Chinese visitors were attracted to the emirate by price and local cultural facilities such as museums. “The Chinese market is a leisure market but is more focused on culture than the beach,” he told OBG. The authorities aim to double the 2016 arrivals figures in 2017 and to raise the annual number of Chinese visitors to 200,000 by 2021, which will be aided by the announcement in September 2016 that Chinese visitors will be able to purchase visas on arrival. A similar arrangement was reached for Russians visitors to the UAE in January 2017. Arrivals from Pakistan were also up by 12% y-o-y, thanks in part to the launch of new routes to the country – 2015 saw Air Arabia start regular flights to Pakistani cities including Quetta, Multan and Faisalabad. ElGharib said that there was also room for growth in the non-GCC Arab market such as Jordan and North Africa.

Accommodation

As of the end of 2015 the emirate was home to 105 accommodation facilities, comprising 53 hotels and 52apartment hotels. As of 2014, according to the latest available rooms data from the emirate’s Department of Statistics and Community Development (DSCD), the 51 hotels in Sharjah contained a combined total of 5790 rooms, up from 5079 two years earlier. The market is fairly evenly distributed across price categories in terms of the number of establishments, though the three and four-star segments together dominate room availability, with 64.6% of the total. In 2014 the hotel market consisted of 11 one-star hotels, with a total of 412 rooms; 10 two-star hotels (735 rooms); 11 three-star facilities (1591 rooms); 14 four-star facilities (2150 rooms); and five five-star establishments (902 rooms). As of late 2016 the number of five-star establishments had risen to six.

Accommodation is concentrated in Sharjah city, which was home to 49 hotels and 52 apartment hotels in 2014. The eastern region was home to two hotels and one apartment hotel, Khorfakkan had one hotel and one apartment hotel and Kalba just one hotel. More four and five-star facilities are under construction. “There is still a great deal of room for more high-end hotels,” said ElGharib, adding that the local hotel industry was keen to see more openings. “New hotels will help to put Sharjah on the map and bring in more tourism.”

Hotel revenues in the emirate (not including apartment hotels) stood at Dh516m ($140.5m) in 2014, according to latest available figures from the DSCD, of which Dh345.7m ($94.1m) was accounted for by lodging revenues. The total was up from Dh513.6m ($139.8m) the previous year and Dh402.3m ($109.5m) in 2011, and gave a daily total revenue per room figure of Dh244.30 ($66.50) and a guestroom revenue per room – this based on room fees only, rather than total hotel revenues, which totalled Dh163.50 ($44.50).

The market is seasonal. In 2014 hotel revenues peaked in January at Dh63.8m ($17.4m), falling to a low of Dh23.9m ($6.5m) in July. Shurooq, which is active as a developer in the hotels segment, put revenues for 2015 at $154m and forecasts this will grow to $226m by 2019.

Revenues

Revenues for the first six months of 2016 stood at Dh378m ($102.9m), up 7% y-o-y. Despite the improvement in visitor numbers, 2016 has nonetheless been a challenging year for the tourism industry in the country as a whole. Sharjah has been buffeted by issues such as oil prices, Brexit, and regional geopolitical issues such as the Yemen and Syria conflicts, which have put pressure on occupancy rates in the emirate. There is also the issue of growing hotel capacity in Dubai, which pushes down rates, with prices having fallen from £170 a night several years ago to £80 in late 2016. “The industry’s cost structures were built around higher prices, so these will have to be looked at and my team and I remain optimistic in 2017,” ElGharib told OBG.

Openings

Recent major hotel openings include that of the Sheraton Sharjah Beach Resort and Spa. The hotel contains 349 rooms, four lounges and restaurants, two ballrooms and nine meeting rooms, which Starwood says amount to the largest conference facilities in Sharjah, with combined space of 2100 sq metres. Projects in the pipeline include Shurooq’s five-star mountainside Al Jabal Chedi Khorfakkan resort being built near Khorfakkan on the emirate’s eastern coast. The Dh420m ($114.3m) facility, which will consist of villas built into the mountainside, was originally due to be completed in 2015 but has faced delays and remained under development in late 2016, according to Shurooq.

French hotel operator Accor is also developing a presence in the upper end of the Sharjah hotel market. The firm will operate the $100m, 234-room five-star Majlis Grand Resort Hotel and Spa, while another Accor-managed hotel, the 188-room Pullman Sharjah, is to be inaugurated in 2018. In the four-star segment, the firm will also operate the 200-room Novotel Sharjah Expo. Other upcoming openings in the segment include a Four Points establishment, an Aloft hotel, the Royal Tulip and the Act, increasing the five star offering even further.

Development Plan

Under the Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021, launched in April 2015, the emirate aims to attract over 10m tourists a year by 2021. The vision is based around four pillars, namely the promotion of Sharjah as a family tourism destination, improving visitors’ experiences through innovation, offering “world-class tourism facilities and capabilities”, and promoting cultural and heritage tourism. In line with the first pillar, the SCTDA in April 2016 launched a promotional campaign called “Sharjah My Family Destination” and provided a 21% subsidy for hotels over the summer. In 2017 the authority will also focus on developing ecotourism and heritage tourism (see analysis). Shurooq is investing heavily in developing the sector. In August 2015 the authority announced that it intended to invest Dh5bn ($1.4bn) in tourism projects between then and 2018. The largest project under development is Sir Bu Nuair Island, located 80 km off the emirate’s coastline. At a cost of Dh500m ($136.1m) Shurooq is planning the construction of a five-star hotel, villas, apartments, retail facilities, a harbour, an airport and a mosque. The biodiverse island is a protected area and a registered wetland, and the emirate’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority has been involved in the development of the project.

Shurooq is also extending the Al Majaz Waterfront in Sharjah city, which was inaugurated in 2012. The Dh35m ($9.5m) project, which as of November 2016 was 90% complete, will extend the 21,460-sq-metre facility by 4900 sq metres and see the opening of 12 additional restaurants and cafés. The authority is also working on a project announced in mid-2015 to develop a project known as Al Hisn Island located on reclaimed land in Sharjah. The project will include a cinema, restaurants and cafés, children’s play facilities and a canal, using architecture modelled on that of Islamic Andalusia.

Developing Mice

While Sharjah is primarily a destination for family tourism and leisure trips more generally, the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) segment is also helping to drive development in the sector. The emirate is home to a major conference centre, the Expo Centre Sharjah, which hosts a number of large-scale events including the Sharjah Book Fair. Launched in 1982, the fair has become a major international publishing event, with 2.31m visitors attending the 2016 gathering, according to figures from the DSCD. ElGharib said that other elements of MICE tourism had yet to develop to the same extent but that the industry was in discussions with the authorities regarding the development of the segment. “There is potential for the development of more outdoors events, and pricing could help to bring in incentives-based tourism that typically goes to Dubai,” he told OBG.

Arts & Culture

The emirate’s key tourist attractions include a wide range of cultural institutions and amenities. The emirate’s Museums Department oversees 16 facilities, which include prominent attractions such as the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation – which houses over 5000 artefacts – the Sharjah Art Museum, the Sharjah Science Museum and the Sharjah Aquarium. The emirate is also home to a vibrant arts scene and is arguably becoming the pre-eminent centre for the arts in the Gulf region. Significant milestones in the development of the local arts scene include the foundation of the Emirates Fine Art Society in 1980 and the launch of the greatly lauded Sharjah Biennial art exhibition in 1993. The Biennial has now grown to a three-month event, with the next one to take place in March 2017. The exhibition will be curated by Lebanese art curator and organiser Christine Tohmé, with a focus on the themes of earth, water, crops and culinary art. The Sharjah Art museum, the first such museum in the region, was established in 1995. The facility was moved to its current permanent site two years later. This was followed in 2009 by the creation of the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) to host the Biennial and an annual arts discussion, the March Meeting.

The following year the institution began to host exhibits of its own, and in 2012 it opened five dedicated display spaces. The foundation continues to seek out new spaces for renovation and conversion as well as to put pieces on display in public spaces. It currently receives support from the government and private donations, but Sheikha Nawar Ahmad Al Qasimi, development manager at the SAF, told OBG that it hopes to support itself through donations alone in the future.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation, which exhibits and lends out pieces from his personal collection, told OBG that the defining characteristic of the local arts and cultural scene was its non-commercial nature. “Unlike Dubai, where all the galleries are commercial, Sharjah has few or no for-profit art galleries.” He also said that the various emirates’ arts scenes were complementary to each other. “The UAE is the only arts scene in the region with a full ecosystem; artists tend to emerge in Sharjah and commercialise their work in Dubai, and may ultimately find their pieces being collected by the Louvre in Abu Dhabi once it opens,” he said.

Al Qasimi told OBG that the local arts scene wanted to preserve this non-commercial character. “The arts scene here was developed in a bottom-up manner and remains very organic,” noting that this helped to underpin its somewhat avant-garde status. “Although Sharjah is a conservative emirate, it is constantly pushing the boundaries, especially within arts,” she told OBG, while going on to say that the emirate’s cultural events and facilities would also benefit from greater and more comprehensive promotional efforts. “Sharjah has great content but is too modest as regards promoting itself and needs a more aggressive approach to PR.”

“There is also a need for more cooperation and coordination between local entities to better promote cultural tourism,” Al Qassemi said, giving the example of a recently-published museums map that excluded some facilities. “Visitors are much more likely to come to visit the emirate, if they’re aware of the full package of museums and galleries available. With a little more effort, the emirate could fully capitalise on what has been done here in terms of arts and cultural development, which is very impressive,” he told OBG.

Outlook

Sharjah’s well-established reputation as a family destination, its beaches, cultural attractions and proximity to Dubai will all help to continue to attract tourists to the emirate. Trends in arrivals and revenues will depend in part on economic developments in key source markets and — given the importance of GCC markets and Russia — oil price movements. However, efforts to develop new markets coupled with a loosening of visa restrictions should help to drive long-term growth under most scenarios, as should the sector’s ambitious investment and development plans.

 

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The Report: Sharjah 2017

Tourism & Culture chapter from The Report: Sharjah 2017

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