How do you assess 2015 in terms of overall tourism activity?
Tourism figures have mainly been positive, although we have had to balance gains in guests against an unprecedented drop in hotel guests from Russia due to reasons beyond our control. The depreciation of the ruble against the dollar drove outbound tourism down from Russia and the CIS, one of our key source markets. We did not, however, neglect the Russian market and still participated in exhibitions and roadshows there. Nonetheless, we focused our investments on our most promising new source markets of India, China, and continued strong investment in the existing markets of the GCC. The Chinese market has great potential as Chinese tourists again topped the list of global outbound travelers internationally. In 2015, we saw a 45% increase in the number of Chinese hotel guests in comparison to 2014. However, in 2014, we saw a 140% increase in the number of Chinese hotel guests to Sharjah compared to the previous year. Sharjah International Airport has had an amazing year, and Air Arabia flies to Urumqi, which is the closest Chinese city to the Emirates. The Madrid-based World Tourism Organization's latest report says the travel trend now is different—it is experiential. The Sharjah tourist products fit this well as travelers want to experience something of the culture and traditions of the UAE, and want to know about our heritage. Travelers have had their fill of shopping malls and modern life; they want culture and Sharjah is all about an authentic cultural experience.
SCTDA also aims to attract more than 28 cruise ships with 72,000 tourists to Khor Fakkan Port in the current season. What strategy are you following to achieve it?
We are part of the Cruise Arabia Alliance, which includes Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Oman, Doha, and Bahrain, and we regularly receive cruise line businesses. To maximize cruise visits, it is important to develop the whole region as a destination and not only one port, as cruise ships will not come for one port; they will come for seven, eight, or 10 cities. We have seen positive gains working with the alliance. We also participate in many international events. We also have great relations with companies like Costa and MSC, and I have been to Genoa to their headquarters to facilitate and create programs for them on the east coast. The cruise industry continues to offer good potential; however, in order to grow, we need to invest more in the east coast in terms of ensuring economic opportunities for engagement. We look forward to the new Chedi hotel opening, which, like the one in Muscat, will offer 100 villas on a mountain with its own private beach.
How would you evaluate Sharjah's progress toward reaching its Vision 2021 target of 10 million tourists?
Sharjah continues to develop new accommodation stock and the opening of the new five-star Sheraton at the end of 2015 is recognition of this. With room numbers increasing to match demand and the quality of the offering being upgraded through our rigorous inspections and grading criteria along with a newly developed initiative called Marhabtain and ongoing investment in the tourism product, we are confident of meeting our target. Marhabtain, which is a welcoming expression that we use in Arabic, has three levels of hospitality training for hotels. It is challenging here in Sharjah as there are many hotels that are family-owned. We monitor an index through a company in the Netherlands specialized in guest experiences. We review online comments from 220 websites around the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that any negative comment can be noted for immediate action with the hotel to ensure that the services improve. I have been in the government now for almost 15 years, and the last two years—especially last year—have been unbelievable. The number of events and things happening in Sharjah on a daily basis is incredible.