SHARAF Travel is on a major expansion around the region, with new travel retail outlets, an internet booking engine and a few new GSA deals in the pipeline, says its chairman.
“As Dubai expands and new community hubs develop, we want to be able to cater to the travel needs of these areas,” Salah Sharaf told TTN. “With such new developments as Business Bay and the Palm Jumeirah, there are lots more opportunities, so we’re on a steady expansion drive.” The agency has just opened two new outlets in Dubai, at the Dubai International Financial City and at the new Al Ghazal mall, which are only the latest in a UAE-wide network.
Plans are also in place to head to Muscat next year, followed by Doha and Iran.
“Before we do that, however, we want to increase our internet bookings business – the Gulf has a potential which has yet to be tapped,” he says. The company will start talking up its sharaftravel.com bookings website as of January, he says, adding that taxes on the purchases will be guaranteed.
While internet penetration across the GCC is high enough to support healthy online travel distribution, Sharaf says the business is hampered by the lack of a mail delivery system. “Whether you buy a T-shirt or make a reservation, you’ve got to go to a post box or an office to collect it. So you might as well go straight to a shop. Also, with booking engines based out of the US, much internet business out of the emirates is wrongly reflected.”
The new website – created in collaboration with Sabre – will only accept credit cards issued in the UAE, and will expand across the Gulf in phases. Already, he says, it gets one or two bookings a day – without any marketing.
Sharaf Travel is also chasing a few new general sales agencies, but he will not confirm more details, even when quizzed on a possible announcement about Virgin Galactic.
Sharaf, who is also the GSA for MSC Cruises, says his agency has seen a fair growth in the cruise business. “We started with zero two years ago, but we’re now selling 500 cabins annually. That’s a small number, and it’s a difficult concept to sell, but once the traveller is convinced, the repeat business is high,” he says, adding that he himself was unconvinced until he went on one – and he has now been on four cruises in the last two years.
Sharaf Travel is a member of the Sharaf Group, a highly diversified group of companies with interests in shipping, schools, real estate and retail, and an annual turnover of $1 billion. Among the group’s other plans are the Times Square Mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, set to open in March, and two liquor-free hotels in Dubai, one of which will open at the Jumeirah Beach Residence in the second quarter of 2007, with another slated for 2008.
“After 9-11, we learned one lesson: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. So if one business goes down, the others will do well, so we’re seeking diversification.
by Keith J Fernandez