Sharjah’s got more than you know

The Sharjah Central Souq

SHARJAH is the eighth most important business city in the Arabian Gulf according to the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2005; It has over 50 per cent of the UAE’s manufacturing business and no less than 40 per cent of all industrial facilities.

But the development of its tourism industry has been attracting worldwide attention – mostly because the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) is investing more than Dh400 million ($109) in the tourism sector. Last year, Sharjah International Airport, connected by 30 airlines to over 200 destinations, received 1.63 million travellers in the first nine months; 31 per cent up on the same period in 2004. But the emirate wants more: Sharjah airport is currently undergoing a $61.8 million expansion plan that will enable it to handle eight million passengers a year.
Mohamed Al Noman, director of the SCTDA talks to TTN about the various ways in which the authority promotes Sharjah; its attractions and its future plans.

Who are you attracting to Sharjah and how is the tourism sector developing?
We promote Sharjah as a cultural destination in the region and a family destination. Last year we had in excess of a million guests in Sharjah hotels and 85 per cent room occupancy year-round; during peak seasons, the beach resorts had 100 per cent occupancy. We have six to eight major hotels in the pipeline this year. Major investment is coming into the tourism sector because of the returns. We were designated the Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 1998 and we have than 16 world-class and well-maintained museums in the country. All world-class and well maintained.

Are the majority of your visitors from the GCC or wider afield?
Well, according to the figures, more than 30 per cent are from the GCC; the next largest [single] group is Germans – last year we had almost 70,000 German tourists; we had more than 120,000 from Russia and the CIS; and tens of thousands from other German-speaking countries such as Switzerland and Austria, then it breaks down to smaller numbers from across the world. The GCC market is very important to us but we don’t just depend on it.

What about Sharjah’s major development plans?
A year ago, Sharjah launched the $18-billion Al Nuojoom (‘Stars’) Islands project, made up of four hotel resorts, a golf course, and so on; it’s a city-within-a-city and there will also be  shopping complexes and residential areas. It will be completed in five phases and the second is almost done. It will all be up and running between 2008 and 2010. It attracted investment from Saudi Arabia and there’s more external investment coming, apart from the Sharjah government spend.

What else are you promoting besides the museums?
Sharjah has the Arabian Wildlife Centre; a lot of endangered species are being bred there and we have the Arabian Leopard, which is something very unique in the region. We are also promoting Al Qasba Canal, which is one of the newest products of our tourism industry. You can call it the ‘Downtown of Sharjah’ with a 60m-tall observatory wheel, and also a lot of cultural activities and events for the family conducted on a daily basis. There are restaurants and cafés; and a small theatre that hosts weekly film festivals.
Although we emphasise culture, we don’t overlook other aspects such as shopping and entertainment; they’re all within the product we offer. We have many shopping malls of international standard; there are a lot of designer shops and in the Central Souq there are shops selling artefacts, Persian carpets and gold.

What about developing the MICE market in Sharjah?
We’ve recently started developing the MICE and exhibition tourism and there’s a lot of collaboration with Sharjah Expo Centre. A lot of shows and seminars are being prepared for apart from the ones we hold at the moment. We’ve seen different destinations, whether from the Far East or even locally, where the number of visitors statistically is almost 40 per cent plus from the MICE market. It’s a very vital, very important market.
by Gina Coleman