Sharjah tourism rebounds as source markets strengthen

 

Sharjah’s tourism sector benefits from a range of attractions, including its year-round warm weather, beaches, museums, proximity to Dubai’s shopping facilities and status as a regional cultural hub. The sector faced something of an oil price-related downturn in 2015, but has been showing signs of resurgent growth and is attracting substantial investment in the form of a range of internationally branded hotel projects in the pipeline.

The sector’s development is being guided by the Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021, launched in 2015, which aims to attract 10m visitors annually by 2021. The vision is based around four pillars, namely promoting Sharjah as a family destination, improving the tourist experience through innovation, providing high-quality tourism facilities and capabilities via partnerships and collaborative action, and promoting cultural and heritage tourism.

Travel Infrastructure

The emirate is well served by air transport infrastructure, including its own airport, Sharjah International Airport (SIA). The facility, one of the main hubs of budget airline Air Arabia and partly owned by the Sharjah government, is becoming increasingly busy: it saw 11.37m passenger movements in 2017, up from 11.05m in 2016. Prior to this, passenger traffic was at 10.04m in 2015 and 9.52m the previous year, according to figures from the SIA. In April 2017 Sharjah Airport Authority announced a Dh1.5bn ($408.3m) expansion programme at SIA in order to raise the facility’s capacity to 25m passengers a year by 2025.

Sharjah City is also just a 15-minute drive from Dubai International Airport, the third-busiest airport in the world in 2016. In addition, the sector benefits from a cruise terminal at Khorfakkan port on the emirate’s eastern coast, which registered over 72,000 visitors during the 2015/16 cruise season.

Economic Contribution

The overall tourism sector accounts for more than 9% of the emirate’s GDP, according to the 2016 annual report of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), which is responsible for promoting the sector. Detailed historical information about overall sector GDP is not available; however, accommodation and food services GDP stood at Dh3.2bn ($859.3m) in 2017, according to figures from the Department of Statistics and Community Development (DSCD). The sector’s value added in current prices has increased every year since at least 2010, while the segment’s economic contribution has hovered at between 3.4% and 3.6% of GDP.

Performance

Tourist arrivals to Sharjah are difficult to calculate given the lack of borders between it and other emirates in the UAE. Furthermore, arrivals at Sharjah ports of entry, such as SIA, may be headed straight to other emirates, and vice-versa. However, figures for tourism accommodation are available and provide a useful proxy.

Guest numbers rose in the years prior to 2014, according to DSCD figures, when they peaked at 2.06m, but fell sharply in 2015 to 1.79m, in large part as a consequence of the decline in international oil prices and the knock-on effect on major oil-dependent source markets, such as the GCC and Russia.

According to the 2017 annual report of the SCTDA, the number of visitors grew by 3% on 2016 figures to reach 1.78m in 2017, of which 1.14m stayed at hotels while 630,000 were hotel apartment guests. Sector activity by other metrics was up on previous years. The average length of stay was 2.36 days, up 4% from 2.23 days in 2016. This generated revenues of Dh694m ($188.9m) for 2017, an increase of 3.8% compared to the previous year.

The overall occupancy rate was 70%, compared to 62% in 2016, with the rate for hotel apartments, which stood at 74%, higher than that for hotels, which was 68%. “As of mid-April 2018 things are looking quite positive – more so than this time last year,” Ian Phillips, CEO of Sharjah National Hotels, told OBG, adding that the broader market was seeing a small improvement in occupancy rates.

Despite this, Phillips said that the sector continued to witness falling room rates, in particular bookings from within the UAE through online travel agencies. “Disposable revenues are down, although the economy is doing well overall,” he added.

Major Source Markets

UAE nationals accounted for 10% of tourism accommodation guests in 2017, or around 177,000. Russian tourists made up the majority of the market, with a 15% share, followed by Omanis at 11%, Emiratis at 10%, and Indians and Saudi Arabians at 8% apiece. By region, the emirate’s largest foreign source market was Europe, which grew by 36% from 2016 to account for a 26% share in 2017, according to SCTDA figures. This was followed by Asia in second place, up 8% to claim a share of 24%, and the GCC in third, with a 22% share having decreased by 12% from 2016.

Russian Arrivals

One of the principle reasons for the drop in guest nights in 2015 was a fall in the number of arrivals from Russia, previously one of Sharjah’s major source markets, following the depreciation of the rouble against the backdrop of the 2014-15 oil price slide. Russian hotel guest numbers fell from 400,000 in 2014 to 54,000 the following year. However, 2016 saw something of a recovery in visits from the country, up 12% on the previous year, and this gathered pace in the first half of 2017, which saw a near doubling – an increase of 94% year-on-year – in the number of Russian guests staying in tourism accommodation in the emirate, Michael Kasch, general manager of the Centro Sharjah Hotel, told OBG that there had been an even greater recovery in the Russian market in the final quarter of the year. By the end of 2017, Sharjah welcomed around 266,000 tourists from Russia, according to the SCTDA.

Chinese Growth

A newly important and still rapidly growing source market for the industry is China. Visitor numbers from the Asian nation have been boosted by recent promotional efforts as well as a decision by the UAE federal government in September 2016 to grant Chinese tourists visas on arrival. In February 2015 Air Arabia also launched direct flights to Urumqi, the largest city in Western China.

This all helped to bring about a 63% rise in the number of Chinese guests staying in tourist accommodation in the emirate in 2016, making China the sixth-largest tourist source market. “Chinese tourists tend to visit Sharjah for a mixture of heritage, shopping and using the emirate as a base for travelling to Dubai,” Kasch told OBG. In 2017 approximately 120,000 Chinese tourists visited the emirate.

Islamic Tourism

The main focus of current promotional efforts by the SCTDA are the traditional leading source markets of the GCC, China, India and Russia; however, the authority is also stepping up efforts to promote Sharjah as a destination in South-east Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, with a focus on persuading pilgrims already travelling to the GCC for Hajj or Umrah to holiday in Sharjah during their trip.

This focus on Islamic South-east Asia underscores the emirate’s popularity as a family destination for religious Muslim travellers due to factors such as the local ban on serving alcohol. “Non-Muslims often want to stay across the border in Dubai, but many Muslim travellers from areas such as the GCC and Asia prefer to stay in Sharjah,” said Kasch, explaining that while the dry nature of the emirate used to be widely seen as having a negative impact on tourism, this was no longer the case.

Accomodation

Sharjah was home to 99 hotels and hotel apartments in 2017, according to the SCTDA, compared to 106 the previous year. The vast majority of properties, some 94%, are located in Sharjah City, with the rest in Khorfakkan and Kalba on the east coast. The market is dominated by mid- to high-end properties. At the end of 2017 the emirate’s hotels contained a combined 6290 rooms, with the four-star category by far the largest segment, on 2483 rooms; followed by three-star properties, with 1566 rooms; five-star hotels, with 1166 rooms; two-star hotels, with 716 rooms; and one-star hotels, with 359 rooms. The balance is tilted in the opposite direction for hotel apartments: of its 2966 rooms, 1398 belonged to basic properties, compared to 752 deluxe rooms and 816 standard.

Openings & Investment

Many new hotel developments are also in the pipeline, with several new openings in 2017, including the 180-room Royal Tulip the Act Hotel in the Al Majaz area, operated by the Louvre Hotels Group, and the 110-room Sharjah International Airport Transit Hotel, managed by Dubai-based Flora Hospitality.

In total, around 500 new rooms in four- and fivestar properties were due to come on-stream during the year, according to estimates from the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (known as Shurooq). Facilities set to open in 2018 include a 220-room Four Points by Sheraton, due to launch in September. The luxury, 54-room Al Bait hotel, built at a cost of Dh100m ($27.2m) in the newly developed heritage area, Heart of Sharjah, is also due to open later in the year, and will be managed by Singapore’s GHM Group.

Other properties in the development pipeline include a 200-room Novotel built at a cost of Dh127m ($34.6m) and a 270-room Aloft, both being built near the Expo Centre Sharjah; a 188-room Pullman hotel; the 233-room Anantara Sharjah Resort, to open in 2020; and a 254-suite and serviced apartment DoubleTree by Hilton to open in Al Majaz in 2020, at a development cost of Dh158m ($43m). As of February 2018 local hotel group Sharjah National Hotels was also planning to break ground on a new 500-room, mixed-use residential and hotel facility on the east coast by August, Phillips told OBG.

The government is acting as one of the major investors in the sector, through its investment arm Shurooq, often in conjunction with partners from the tourism and real estate sectors. For example, in January 2018 Shurooq and real estate developer Eagle Hills announced three new real estate, leisure and tourism developments in the emirate, worth a combined Dh2.7bn ($734.9m).

By far the largest of these is the 460,000-sq-metre mixed-use Maryam Island project, located in downtown Sharjah City, which will provide both residential and tourist accommodation, and which is due for completion in late 2019.

The two entities will also build an 87-room hotel, the Palace Al Khan, at a cost of Dh120m ($32.7m), to be managed by Address Hotels + Resorts, a unit of Dubai-based Emaar Hospitality. Work on the project started in the first quarter of 2018 and is due to be completed by mid-2020. The third of the projects is a Dh160m ($43.6m) mall, the Kalba Waterfront, to be built within the Kalba Eco-Tourism Project.

Growing competition as a result of new openings is seen by some as positive for the sector’s development. “There are high-quality new properties entering the market, which can only lift Sharjah’s reputation and raise awareness of the emirate,” Phillips told OBG. However, Kasch said that some players could struggle. “It is primarily non-branded hotels that are likely to suffer, as seasoned travellers and tourists increasingly like to know what they are getting when they make a reservation.”

Government Support

In addition to Shurooq’s investment projects, the authorities are working to support the industry’s development in a number of ways, including improvements to infrastructure and the development of the emirate’s events calendar. “Each year there is a gradual increase in the number of events, with new ones added and consolidated before another is brought in,” Phillips added. Plans for infrastructure improvements include the development of a new managed public beach with facilities including showers, and a running track in close proximity to the Sheraton hotel.

Developing Niches

Promising tourism niches in the emirate include the meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) segment.

The SCTDA has developed a MICE strategy and is currently working on a plan to implement it, with a particular focus on developing domestic and GCC-derived MICE business, as well as building up a MICE ecosystem around some of the major events that take place in the emirate. One such well-established international event is the Sharjah Book Fair, which attracted 2.38m visitors in 2017, up from 2.31m in 2016 and 1.2m the previous year.

“There are big opportunities for MICE in Sharjah,” Phillips told OBG. “The segment faces some challenges, such as road congestion between here and Dubai, and competition from properties in other emirates. However, the potential is high given the availability of high-quality hotels and the close proximity to Dubai airport, for example.” Kasch said that the shortage of large meeting venues posed something of a challenge for the segment, but that the arrival of new internationally branded hotels in the emirate would likely help to address this.

Tourism based around local events, and sport meets in particular, is also growing rapidly. “Sharjah has always hosted sporting events, but in the past these were mainly aimed at domestic audiences,” Kasch told OBG. “However, nowadays there is a focus on larger events aimed at international attendees as well as improving the quality of existing events.”

Heritage & Culture

Heritage and culture are also important draws for tourists coming to the emirate. “Dubai has the glitz and glamour, but people interested in heritage come to Sharjah,” said Kasch. Key attractions in the heritage domain include the Mleiha Archaeological and Eco-Tourism Project, developed by Shurooq and launched in January 2016. The Heart of Sharjah project, an initiative to renovate parts of the city, will also boost the emirate’s appeal to heritage tourists.

In addition, Sharjah is home to 16 museums managed by the Sharjah Museums Authority, not including two under renovation, including a museum of Islamic civilisation. These attracted 774,106 visitors in 2016, up from 737,950 in 2015. “Sharjah’s cultural initiatives, including events and continued investment in improving and developing new attractions, are helping provide a lot of international publicity for the emirate and consequently interest in its heritage,” Abdulaziz Al Musallam, chairman of the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, told OBG.

Among the cultural events and festivals that take place throughout the year are the Sharjah Light Festival, Sharjah Heritage Days, Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival and the Sharjah Ramadan Festival.

Art Scene

The arts represent another important attraction and are also highly valued in their own right by the local authorities. A key event in not only the local, but also the national and regional arts calendars is the Sharjah Biennial art exhibition. The event first took place in 1993 and now lasts for three months. The exhibit’s most recent iteration – the 13th Biennial – took place in spring 2017, when it was run by Lebanese art curator and organiser Christine Tohmé , and attracted around 120,000 visitors, according to the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). The next edition will take place in March 2019 and will have three curators, namely artists Omar Kholeif, Zoe Butt and Claire Tancons.

Since 2009 the event has been managed by the SAF, which was created that year for that purpose, as well as to organise an annual arts discussion, the March Meeting. The SAF puts on around 12 shows a year and operates a range of exhibition spaces, with its headquarters located in the Heart of Sharjah. In 2017 the site received 185,000 visitors, and is continually seeking out new spaces throughout the emirate, primarily in the form of disused iconic buildings, according to Sheikha Nawar Al Qassimi, development manager at the SAF. Recent additions to its roster of spaces include the Kalba Ice Factory, a former fish feed mill that was subsequently used by local fisherman to store ice.

A major new project undertaken by the foundation was the collaboration with London-based art collective Random International to install one of their famous Rain Rooms – installations in which rain pours from the ceiling but never where visitors are standing – at Al Majarrah Park near the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation. The exhibition opened on April 29, 2018. “The Rain Room will be a driver of tourism in Sharjah as it is the only installation of its kind in the region and the first permanent Rain Room in the world,” Sheikha Nawar told OBG.

Efforts by other emirates to develop their arts and culture offering could also provide a significant boost for Sharjah. “The various arts across the country are complementary to each other rather than in competition, as no emirate is doing exactly the same thing, and there is lots of coordination between them,” Sheikha Nawar said. “For example, the Biennial helps to boost sales at commercial galleries in Dubai, and the opening of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi will bring more people interested in the arts to the UAE generally,” she added, describing the opening as having “completed the circle” in terms of the development of the arts scene in the country’s three largest emirates.

Outlook

After something of a downturn, the tourism sector is showing strong signs of recovery, with both traditional source markets improving performance, and new markets such as China opening up. Together with the development and expansion of key tourist infrastructure, such as new hotel investment and the expansion of SIA, the sector appears set to continue performing strongly in the coming years, bolstered by Sharjah’s ongoing status as one of the region’s pre-eminent arts and culture centres.

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