THE GRASS IS GREENER

Sharjah 2015 | ENVIRONMENT | FOCUS: ECOTOURISM

Sharjah's government has implemented initiatives and undertaken projects to strengthen the Emirate's ecotourism sector, which does not only raise awareness of Sharjah's ecology and natural resources, but also serves as a catalyst for job creation and revenue generation.

As ecotourism has gained popularity around the world, it has also taken flight in Sharjah in recent years. Deemed as a sustainable way forward, ecotourism not only helps to advance the economic development of Sharjah's local communities, but also limits the environmental impact that generally comes with more conventional tourism. Since Sharjah is endowed with an abundance of natural sites on both its coasts, while the mainland also offers a rich diversity of landscapes, Shurooq has set out to cultivate the Emirate's obvious potential to cater to ecotourists and turn Sharjah, whose diverse ecological profile includes long coastlines, rich marine life, mountains, valleys, deserts, and natural reserves, into a hub for ecotourism.

At the forefront of Sharjah's rapidly developing ecotourism sector is the Kalba Ecotourism project. This ambitious AED1 billion project, which results in the creation of 5,000 jobs, was launched in 2012 as a joint effort between Shurooq and the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA). Geographically different from most parts of Sharjah, Kalba offers a unique biome of fauna and flora, which the government aims to showcase with the project. Its integrated and eco-friendly mixed-use master plan will delicately balance environmental conservation with low-impact commercial, hospitality, and cultural development. Visitors will be able to watch turtles lay eggs at the turtle rehabilitation center, become familiar with some of Sharjah's mountainous species, and get in close proximity of falcons, eagles, and owls. Creating an overall experience, a plethora of opportunities will be available for outdoor activities, such as kayaking and scuba diving, and the project will be home to a five star hotel and waterfront mall.

Another joint venture between Shurooq and EPAA sees the transformation of a 25,000-ha area in the Maleiha region into a major eco-tourism destination that should be a reflection of local heritage and ecology. The project will see the creation of hotels, resorts, restaurants, and cafes, as well as a visitor center that will provide guided tours to Maleiha's archeological sites, which are some of the most fascinating in the entire UAE. As with the Kalba project, a significant amount of jobs created will be created, especially for the local population.
These projects, as well as the Sir Bu Nair Island development, merely represent the tip of the iceberg, as Sharjah's government seems keen on making a name for itself on the global ecotourism stage, with His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi quoted as saying that more ecotourism projects will be announced as soon as the Emirate looks to boost tourism, raise environmental awareness, attract foreign investors to its ecotourism projects, and create jobs to ensure greater welfare for its people. As the entire UAE is becoming an international tourism destination, Sharjah's niche ecotourism sector might very well enable it to capture a significant slice of the cake, while at the same time preserving Sharjah's natural beauty, as well as improving the life of its citizens.