As Ramadan drew to a close on June 24, the Arab world prepared for summer, and perhaps nowhere else in the region have the preparations been so anticipated as in Sharjah. By mid-June 2017, the government of the Emirate of Sharjah rolled out a new initiative named Sharjah Summer, which is set to further expand the Emirate’s attractiveness to tourists of all origins. According to the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), the initiative brings together 28 participants so far, including public- and private-sector actors in the region, and will promote entertainment, arts, and cultural events and shows directed at a renewed tourism wave that is expected to hit this summer.
It will also provide appealing shopping opportunities for holidaymakers with discounts in products, trips, hotels, tours, and shopping centers and will feature nightlife attractions including cinema and theater plays. The initiative, lasting from June 27 to September 8, is just one more in an extensive and larger push for expansion in the tourism sector in Sharjah in recent years. The Emirate had already been awarded the title of Capital of Arab Tourism in 2015.
Speaking to TBY, HE Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, Chairman of SCTDA, highlighted the importance of Sharjah’s world-class events in promoting the Emirate to tourists worldwide.
“Our events are becoming world famous; for example, the Sharjah Light Festival has been compared to Sydney’s Vivid, the World Championship week has been streamed live globally, and our International Book Fair is now the third biggest in the world.”
The SCTDA is planning to promote some new 7,000 key events over the next three years.
The tourism sector has been at the center of the Emirate’s broader economic strategy in the last few years for a set of reasons. Sharjah’s industrial and manufacturing powerhouses, which contribute one-third of the UAE’s overall output in the sector, find in the new wave of tourism a demand that is pushing the economy forward. The government expects the manufacturing sector to represent 25% of the Emirate’s GDP by 2025, a growth boosted by the growing influx of money-spending visitors. According to the Emirate’s Tourism 2021 Vision, Sharjah will attract 10 million tourists per year by 2021.
The strategy seems to be yielding strong results as SCTDA announced, in April 2017, that 2016 registered a 17% increase in guest nights YoY. A little over 4 million hotel nights were recorded all together, hosting 1.8 million people and generating around AED685 million (USD186 million) in revenue. GCC country members were by far the biggest contributor to these tourism figures, representing 25% of all tourists, but emerging markets, a cornerstone of the Emirate’s tourism expansion strategy, like China, Russia and India, have been growing in numbers.
SCTDA has opened offices in these countries in recent years and organized roadshows to lure in holidaymakers from these regions with success, as statistics on tourism from Asia registered 9% growth YoY, representing 23% of all visitors. Europe came right behind with a 20% market share. While Saudi Arabia, Oman, and now India are among the biggest singular contributors in terms of visitors, Sharjah considers China a strategic investment as a source of tourism growth. While the country remains the Emirate’s sixth-biggest market, a 63% YoY increase in visitors was registered in 2016, and the understanding is that great opportunity for growth remains untapped. Air Arabia’s direct flights to China and the SCTDA’s representative office in China are expected to greatly promote that expansion.
“China is a good market as we are an ideal stopover for Chinese people because of the uniqueness of the Sharjah product. We are aiming for a 30% increase from last year and hope to see growth from this market yearly. We see Chinese tourists wanting to learn and immerse themselves in the traditions and heritage found in other countries so that they can take real experiences home with them,” Al Midfa told TBY.
Under that banner, SCTDA organized an event in June 2017, hosting 15 of the biggest outbound travel agencies based in China’s East Coast to present Sharjah as an opportunity for Chinese holiday makers, both for its heritage and cultural richness as well as fun activities and shopping opportunities. Cooperation contracts have been signed and new events in strategic Chinese cities have been arranged to further extend the impact of SCTDA’s presence in China. The September 2016 introduction of a visa on arrival policy in the UAE has greatly enhanced the opportunities to lure in Chinese visitors as well.
World Book Capital
Sharjah’s plans to attract foreign interest have granted it considerable international recognition. After being declared the Capital of Arab Tourism in 2015, the Capital of Islamic Culture in 2014, and the Capital of Arab Culture in 1998, UNESCO authorities have named Sharjah the World Book Capital of 2019 due to the Emirate’s efforts in promoting local and regional publishing industries, expanding the role of literacy and reading practices within its cultural fabric, and the openness to knowledge-based dialog as well as intercultural understanding.
This year, the honor was bestowed upon Conakry, Guinea, and 2018 will reward Athens’ literacy efforts. When the celebration reaches Sharjah in 2019, a number of events, initiatives, and cultural shows are expected to take place within the framework of the UNESCO award.
One of the main drivers in attracting this recognition for the Emirate is the Sharjah Publishing City, promoted by the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA). It will be the first free trade zone solely dedicated to publishing houses in the world. It is scheduled to open in November and will act as a one-stop shop for international publishing houses. It will operate in tandem with the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), already the biggest in MENA, and the Sharjah Reading Festival. The SBA has been actively promoting the concept of the Publishing City in fairs around the world as well as giving exposure to the many events that have been gaining traction in the Emirate. The SIBF, with visitors from over 60 countries, 1,200 book titles available for purchase in their original or translated languages, and writers and publishing companies coming from Western Europe, East Asia, and South Africa, has become a landmark for the Emirate in recent years. With the Arab book industry estimated to be worth USD1 billion a year, the opening of the Sharjah Publishing City can have a considerable impact on the expansion of the sector in the Emirate.
Talking to TBY, HE Ahmed Al Ameri, Chairman at the SBA, stated that Sharjah will “revolutionize the entire publishing industry. We will reduce the cost of books for consumers around the world, make reading all categories of books and publications more accessible, develop the circulation of books around the world, and ensure more books are available in more languages, therefore redrawing spheres of influence and the cultural limitations of geography.”
The Sharjah Publishing City will host over 450 offices already oversubscribed by 900 publishers from around the world. Authorities have already secured over USD85 million in international investment for the area. When it comes online in November, it will provide print on demand and offset printing services, a translation center, an editor’s center, and facilities for negotiating and selling rights, centralizing all associated services for the industry in a tax-free area.
The more visitors come the more beds are needed. According to SCTDA, the number of new hotels in the Emirate has doubled in comparison with 2016 with the opening of three new hotels. 2017 will see six hotels opening up and another eight are expected to open in 2018. As conventional hotels continue to pop up in the city of Sharjah, which is home to 94% of all hotels in the Emirate, a new trend in eco-tourism is strongly emerging within the tourism industry.
As the most notable example, a new brand of hotels named “Sharjah collection,” promoted by the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), featuring a luxurious lodge and B&B-style properties, was launched in March 2017 and will promote the many eco-tourism opportunities in the area, as the hotels will be developed around heritage and nature sites.
Designed under the banner of sustainability and promotion of bio-diversity and environmental preservation, projects like the Kalba Eco-Tourism Project, the UAE’s biggest eco-tourism project, are quickly changing the sector’s outlook. The project is located on the east coast of Sharjah and represents a leap forward in the Emirate’s approach to tourism as it also helps diversify the types of visitors it is prepared to receive. The area where the project is being developed was declared a protected reserve by HE Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, in 2012, and features a number of projects aimed at protecting animal and plant life in the area while promoting visitor interest.
Open since January, the Kalba Eco-Tourism Project allows visitors to get to know the rich cultural heritage of the area, known to have been home to a settlement dating back three millennia, as well as feature a turtle rehabilitation center for Kalba’s green, loggerhead, and hawksbill sea turtles, while offering state-of-the-art emergency care, research, monitoring, and long-term treatment for the local fauna. “It is a real achievement to see a multi-government approach to environmental tourism, not only Shurooq but the Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) as well as delivering a unique and exciting eco-tourism product,” Al Midfa told TBY.
The EPAA’s breeding program has seen many indigenous species being reintroduced to the wild, including the Arabian collared kingfisher, which has gone a long way to attracting wildlife spotters and eco-visitors from all corners of the planet.
“Sharjah recognizes that while eco-tourism will add diversity to our product and increase the number of visitors, it is even more important for the role that it will play in preserving our natural assets for future generations to enjoy,” Al Midfa added. It is likely that in the next few years this sector will continue to grow as long as government support remains strong.
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