Downturn spells increase in GCC visitors for Sharjah

Qanat al Qasba, Sharjah

THE H1N1 virus has had mixed results for Sharjah’s tourism sector, which has been both positively and negatively impacted by the epidemic.
While the number of European tourists has declined, the number of visitors from the GCC has increased – resulting in a marginal decline in hotel room occupancy figures for the first half of 2009.
Despite the general economic downturn, the emirate posted an occupancy rate of 64 per cent over the first half of 2009, according to figures released by the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA).
The numbers are a decline from the 83 per cent reported in 2008, which was one of the finest years for tourism in the region. The total number of guests in emirate’s hotels was 671,662 as compared to 761,495 guests for the first half of 2008.
A contributory factor was the explosion in hotel room units to 8,523, a 14 per cent increase from the 7,486 rooms available over the corresponding period in 2008.
Also weighing in are travellers’ general fears of contracting swine flu and the lower average price of hotel rooms in neighbouring Dubai, which, analysts say, offer better value all round. “You get a more attractive experience for your money in Dubai due to the quality of the product,” Arnaud Andrieu, the vice president at CB Richard Ellis Hotels Middle East, was quoted as saying by the UAE daily newspaper The National.
The statistics reflect just how resilient Sharjah’s tourism sector is, according to the authority’s director general Mohamed A Al Noman.
In a statement released to media last month, he said the SCTDA has a clear strategy in place to develop the emirate’s tourism sector, “by targeting international markets and organising events and activities that promote the emirate, such as tourism fairs, trade fairs and promotional tours. These statistics reflect the changes that are occurring in Sharjah’s tourism sector, and the positive outcome of our efforts throughout the year.”
Among those efforts is the annual Sharjah Summer Promotions, which boosted occupancy in the second quarter, with swine flu ironically contributing here, too. More tourists from around the GCC visited the emirate this year, put off by the idea of long-haul flights to swine flu affected countries.
While European visitors to the emirate declined from 38 per cent to 32 per cent of the total year on year, GCC tourists rose from 23 per cent last year to 28 per cent in 2009. Numbers for the other feeder markets, namely the wider Middle East, Asia and longer-haul markets remained more or less the same.
Sharjah is already a top destination of choice for GCC tourists, who rate it highly for its family and cultural attractions.
“During the first half of this year, the SCTDA made a strong and distinguished appearance for Sharjah at a number of international platforms,” says Al Noman. “We are gearing up for a new phase of tourism development that will include plans to target new markets and attract a number of family-oriented entertainment activities and festivals, as well as various projects included in the development strategy we adopted at the beginning of this year.”
The 20th edition of the annual Sharjah Ramadan Festival runs until October 3 and is expected to draw a huge audience to its social, cultural, religious, sports, environmental, and traditional activities.
More than 1.5 million tourists visited Sharjah in 2008, and the emirate announced last year that it wanted to attract 3.5 million annually by 2012. According to media reports quoting the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a further 4,000 hotel rooms are expected to be added to the emirate’s accommodation stocks by that point, about 50 per cent more than presently. 

By Clark Kelly