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Sharjah 2015 | TOURISM & CULTURE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, Director-General of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), on the Emirate's unique attractions and niche segments of the market.

 HE Khalid Jasim Al Midfa
BIOGRAPHY
HE Khalid Jasim Al Midfa took over as the Director-General of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority in October 2012. Besides playing a crucial role in the policy planning and management of the Authority, he has represented the SCTDA and Sharjah in numerous national, regional, and international travel and tourism industry events. Al Midfa has served in senior administrative positions including at the Sharjah International Airport and Sharjah Airport Free Zone. An alumnus of the International School of Choueifat and Al Ma’arifa Private School, he graduated from the Higher Colleges of Technology (HD, Financial Services and Information Technology) in Sharjah. He went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the Higher Colleges of Technology, Dubai.

The SCTDA is tasked with showcasing Sharjah's value proposition as a destination for tourism and business. What makes Sharjah such an excellent destination for both, and how do you work towards showcasing that?

The SCTDA invests considerable effort in promoting Sharjah as a destination. We work closely with our stakeholders to take this destination to the next level, and we participate in a multitude of exhibitions worldwide. We are also collaborating with the United Nations World Tourism Organization towards this end. The diversity of offerings is what makes Sharjah a really special destination for visitors. We have always focused on culture and the authentic Arabian experience which is the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi. Next to our wide variety of cultural and educational events, we have leisure and entertainment events, which always have an educational or cultural side to them. For example, the world-renowned Sharjah Water Festival, which in essence is an entertainment event for families, raises awareness of water conservation and safety. The Sharjah Light Festival is another festival that receives significant global attention and highlights the architectural splendour of Sharjah through light effects. The Sharjah International Book Fair, which is the biggest book fair in the Middle East and the fourth biggest in the world, is an annual highlight of the Sharjah events calendar. It has been organized in Sharjah for 33 years and generated one million visitors in 2014. Another factor that makes Sharjah a great destination for business in particular is Sharjah's University City, which was established by His Highness in 1997, and is the largest campus in the Middle East. Sharjah's government has also tried to adhere to our cultural traditions with architectural design, so that it is more Arab than other destinations in the region. Another advantage of Sharjah is its beautiful East and West coasts, with desert and sand dunes in the middle that offer a rich mix of landscapes. Sharjah was named the Islamic Culture Capital of 2014 and has recently been awarded with the distinction of 2015 Arab Tourism Capital by the Arab Tourism Organisation. As a result of all of these factors, we have seen double-digit growth in terms of guests for our 106 hotels. Occupancy rates are between 70% and 80% on average, and at peak times reach 100%.

How integral are cultural institutions such as museums to Sharjah's tourism sector?

More than 50% of the UAE's museums are in Sharjah. Sharjah has 20 award winning museums, each of which is unique in its own way. The first airport in the UAE, which was built in Sharjah in 1932, has been transformed into Al Mahatta Museum and houses original aircraft alongside the history of aviation. The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization is perhaps the most well known museum due to its beautiful iconic building which used to be a souq. Sharjah also has a very interesting art scene, which is host to the Sharjah Biennial. It is organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation, which is headed by His Highness's daughter Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi.

One of the advantages of Sharjah is that it has ports on the Sea of Oman, which are easier to reach for cruise ships. How are you capitalizing on that?

We have put a lot of effort into bringing in cruise liners. Last week was the first visit for the Queen Mary II, which called at port Khor Fakkan on the East Coast. Khor Fakkan transitions into a destination for cruises, because cruises come for the entire region and Sharjah is an excellent point of entry. We are very active in providing an enabling environment for this business to grow, as it will add value to Sharjah as a destination, and stimulate economic development for the communities in Khor Fakkan.

What is your assessment of the potential of Sharjah to become a MICE hub?

MICE visitors account for almost 10% to 15% of our annual visitors. We have many new facilities, such as the Expo Center in Sharjah, which was expanded two years ago with an additional 10,000sqm of floor space. A new four-star hotel with 200 rooms will be linked to the Expo Centre Sharjah. There is also the Al Jawaher Reception and Convention Centre, strategically placed opposite Sharjah International Airport. On the east coast, we have another expo center that we use for conferences and so on.


What opportunities exist for foreign investors in the tourism industry in Sharjah?

Considering our current figures, the potential, the occupancy rates, and revenue for available rooms, I think the hotel sector will offer investors a solid return on their investment. We work in tandem with Shurooq, which is Sharjah's Investment and Development Authority, to promote to investors different areas that have been designated for major projects by Shurooq. These are projects in different sectors of the economy, which make Sharjah appealing and attractive for investors.

Where do you see the Sharjah tourism sector five years from now?

We are expecting growth, and I anticipate the planned improvements to Sharjah's infrastructure to be one of the main factors and measures of success. More five star hotels are planned for Sharjah as the demand for this category grows. I see a lot of new developments by His Highness, particularly in the new major ecotourism projects across the country. I am confident that Sharjah's image will become stronger and more prominent. Sharjah has been fortunate to benefit from steady sustainable growth. It is a destination providing many valuable offerings and we are seeing efforts and promotional plans really starting to pay off. Sharjah will always be a cultural city, and we will always hold onto our traditions. If you decide to go 100% commercial you can, but you often do this at a cost. Achieving this balance is the focus of His Highness and it is what we believe in too.