‘Protection of culture is one of the top priorities for Sharjah’
ALMOST every reporter who walks into director of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) Mohammed Ali Al Noman’s office fields this familiar question: where does Sharjah stand vis-à-vis Dubai? But, to his credit, Noman replies to the oft-repeated query with the same flourish each time.
First, he dismisses the fact that Sharjah is trying to imitate Dubai. Then, he patiently explains that, given the way the UAE is structured, each emirate has its own distinct character and complements each other instead of posing as competitors. And, finally, he elaborates on the inherent strengths of Sharjah (cultural capital, heritage centre, etc).
In the Arab world, Sharjah is well known as a centre for art and culture but international recognition followed when the emirate was awarded the status of cultural capital of the Arab world in 1998 by Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Sharjah’s 22 state-of-the-art museums play a major role in attracting visitors to the emirates, with more than 400,000 people passing through their doors in 2002 alone.
“The protection of the heritage and culture is one of the top priorities and Sharjah is very proud of its museums,” says Noman. “It is these cultural facilities that really set us apart.”
However, Noman admits that Sharjah is, to a certain degree, still untapped in terms of its tourism potential. “This is because the government believed it was essential to develop the infrastructure and the development of commerce and industry before pushing tourism, but we believe the time is right for people to discover Sharjah,” he explains.
Not surprising then that the government of Sharjah has identified 2003 as a year for tourism growth. “We have set the target of achieving a five per cent growth in tourism from last year,” Noman says. “In the light of the current world economic climate, this may seem like a tall order, but we believe it is achievable.”
He goes to add: “Right now, we are trying to creating more awareness about the emirate both within the GCC countries and abroad and are planning to have more familiarization trips. As such, instead of us going abroad to promote Sharjah, we want to bring leading tour operators and the media to the emirate. Soon we’ll have our own airline (Air Arabia), a public transport system and hotel classification which help us to attract more tourists.”
For many, the emirate represents an ideal getaway, combining beach, shopping and culture – all in a family-friendly environment. According to Noman, Sharjah’s appeal lies in its unique mix of the old and the new. “The old part comes through the heritage and culture of 6,000 years of settlement; and the new is from the architecture and technology of an oil-producing nation,” he explains.
“Shopping is one of the most popular pastimes here in the Gulf… In the last couple of years, we have seen a boom in terms of shopping malls, with three new ones opening up in the last two years,” Noman adds. “However, the traditional souqs are as popular as ever - the Blue Souq, for example, has become a tourist attraction in its own right, thanks to its distinctive architecture as well as its traditional market feel inside.”
When asked about promotions in Sharjah running parallel to Dubai (ie Sharjah Summer Promotion runs at the same time as Dubai Summer Surprises), Noman says its nothing but coincidence because the best time to hold them is during peak seasons ie winter and summer. “Here, I must add, we do not have festivals as such because we don’t have opening and closing ceremonies. All we do, as a government body, is create an environment for malls and retail outlets to run their own promotions,” he says. “And if this inadvertently creates a little competition, it is a good thing for the consumers.”
Clearly, among the main attractions for visitors – both from overseas and the GCC – is that the Sharjah is perceived as a safe, friendly, family destination. “It is a misconception that the appeal of Sharjah is limited to GCC residents,” Noman adds quickly.
“The inbound numbers from Europe, both East and West, last year were almost 20 per cent higher than from the UAE and GCC, which proves the international appeal of Sharjah’s intrinsic product.”
Noman couldn’t be more right. And the emirate promises to become a bigger tourist attraction. Like Noman puts it, “We a have a vision for Sharjah. And we will realise that sooner than later.”
By Shafquat Ali