Sharjah’s tourism sector is looking to the East as it seeks to build on a doubling of visitor numbers over the past year.
While the emirate is still somewhat in the shadow of Dubai, promotion drives and increasing numbers of visitors from countries such as China should see tourism continue to grow. The success of local budget airline Air Arabia has also helped increase Sharjah’s profile and accessibility.
Last year, 1.3 million tourists visited Sharjah, compared to 600,000 in 2001. Tourists from the Gulf make up 30 per cent of the total; the emirate has courted tourists from its neighbours for some time. Increasingly it is a popular destination for Eastern Europeans, in particular Russians, 170,000 of whom visited last year.
However, many of those staying use Sharjah as a cheap base for visiting Dubai. The authorities have been promoting Sharjah as a destination in its own right; its beaches, museums, attractive nineteenth and twentieth century architecture and fortresses are seen as particular draws and attractions that set it apart from other emirates and countries in the region. These cultural assets have given Sharjah a stronger tourism profile than the other Northern Emirates, but it still lacks the pull of Dubai.
While there are several impressive tourism developments in Sharjah, none are as ground-breaking and iconic as Dubai’s Burj al-Arab or Jumeirah Palm. Also, while Muslim tourists have been attracted by the alcohol-free emirate, the liquor ban has put off Western visitors.
The Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) sees opportunities in the growing tourism markets of the Far East, where the organisation’s director-general, Mohammed A Al Noman, has been promoting the country in recent months. At the Beijing International Tourism Expo in June, Al Noman said that 10,000 Chinese tourists visited Sharjah in 2006, an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year. China currently exports 10 million tourists a year, a figure expected to rise to 100 million by 2020.
This year sees the rapid growth of hotel accommodation in Sharjah; the first quarter alone, 15 new hotel properties were opened, taking the total to 89. By the end of the year, there will be more than 7000 hotel rooms in the emirate, and the authorities target 10,000 within five years. Hotel and hotel apartment occupancy last year averaged 82 per cent, and rates so far this year have averaged around 90 per cent.
One of the emirate’s biggest successes has been Air Arabia, the Gulf’s first low-cost airline. The airline transports more than two million passengers to over 30 destinations annually, with Sharjah as a base.
While many use it as a business airline, or pass through Sharjah as a hub, the airline has played an important role in increasing the accessibility of the emirate for tourists. It is partly responsible for the rapid growth of the international airport, which will increase its capacity from 3 million passengers a year to 8.5 million over the next 15 years. Last year alone saw a 37 per cent rise in passenger numbers.
While Sharjah may never be able to compete directly with Dubai in terms of visitor numbers, it has succeeded to an extent in carving out a niche as a cultural tourism destination, and has been further boosted by Air Arabia. The emirate has a chance to benefit from the growth in tourism from developing markets, as the authorities realise.
(Jason J Nash is head of research at the Oxford Business Group)
By Jason J Nash
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