ROOM FOR MORE
Sharjah's popularity as a year-round tourism destination is ever increasing as the Emirate's diverse offering caters to new markets and families in particular.
As Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021 shines on the horizon, the Emirate is working tirelessly to create innovative experiences, build world-class facilities, and establish Sharjah as an international cultural hub. Known for its authenticity and adherence to Islamic traditions, Sharjah is well positioned to attract not only families from around the Gulf, but tourists from new markets, especially those interested in the culture and history of the region. “Sharjah has flourished," Hanan Al Mahoud, Director of the Al Jawaher Reception & Convention Centre (JRCC), told TBY, adding, “In the fields of knowledge, reading, education, art, museums, or festivals, it has positioned itself in a way that is very different to the other Emirates."
With 2015 as a point of reference, Sharjah can expect tremendous growth in coming years—a tourism sector that Shurooq, Sharjah's investment authority, predicts could grow to a value of nearly AED2 billion by 2020. Comparing 1H2016 to the previous year, hotels in Sharjah posted a 7% increase in revenue, or a grand total of AED378 million. The complete market potential for 2015 was estimated at AED1.44 billion, with a value of more than AED1.5 billion probable for 2016. These predictions are based on the recent trends observed in the sector, which include significant increases in guest arrivals from new markets and consistency from traditionally reliable markets as well. According to the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), China is the fastest-growing market for tourism to Sharjah, with over 73% growth in 1H2016, compared to the previous year. During the same time period, Pakistani visitors increased by 10.3% and the number of Asian tourists overall increased by 12%, making it the second-largest source market after the GCC. Notably, African and Russian tourist numbers also climbed by 2% and 1.8%, respectively, in 1H2016, although the number of Russian visitors was much less than anticipated due to fluctuations in the value of the ruble.
Bearing in mind this impressive growth, Shurooq also predicted that demand for hotel rooms was bound to shoot up by 6.2% from 2014-2016, with 5,800 more rooms needed by the end of 2020. “The growing middle class worldwide, emerging source markets, the addition of new tourism and family attractions, and the enhancement of infrastructure have all contributed to the success of our industry and opened up new opportunities," Laurent A. Voivenel, CEO of Hospitality Management Holdings, told TBY.
In addition, major cruise lines have started to add Sharjah as a stop on their routes, putting pressure on the Emirate to expand the sector for arrivals not only by air, but also by sea. With demand swiftly outpacing supply, many tourism projects are in the pipeline—including several new five-star resorts and eco-tourism products. The Emirate appears to be on track to attract 10 million visitors by 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the UAE, and achieving one of the key goals of Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021.
Thanks in part to campaigns and heavy promotional work by SCTDA, hotel occupancy rates during 1H2016 reached 62%. In total, 878,006 guests spent nearly 2 million nights at hotels across Sharjah. The “Sharjah My Family Destination" campaign played a key role in bringing families to Sharjah's hotels in 2016, with its aim to introduce new tourism offers and packages by tour companies, and promote hotels and leisure destinations for families visiting Sharjah. Al Qasba, Al Noor Island, and Al Majaz Waterfront are all examples of family-orientated leisure destinations that also offer cultural activities. The “Sharjah My Family Destination" campaign will also establish direct communication with the public through social media channels, effectively compiling feedback that will be used to enhance the development of the family tourism sector. As part of the campaign, some hotels offered a 20% discount on rates in summer 2016.
SCTDA also took steps toward broadening Sharjah's MICE tourism offering in 2016, with a specialized study aimed at attracting business tourists who can make a more direct impact on Sharjah's economy. SCTDA—along with a number of investors, stakeholders, and employees in the sector who participated in the study—concluded that the most important segments for MICE tourism are education, healthcare, and diplomacy. As Al Mahoud of JRCC explained, “Our focus in 2016 will be to work more towards being a business hub… the 'it' venue for any kind of MICE event." JRCC has hosted over 330,000 people at 758 events in Sharjah.
Estimated to have potential revenue of AED1.15 billion over the 2014-2020 period, Sharjah's food industry is a segment of the tourism sector to be watched closely. Located around six major areas in Sharjah, the F&B market is distinctly underserved and enjoys huge demand. Everything from fast food outlets to luxury restaurants are needed in the Emirate, with opportunities for expansion as a result of vastly increasing visitor numbers. The high expectations of local customers and foreign visitors to the Gulf means that the quality products are of utmost importance. As Shurooq mentions, franchising is also an option for investors seeking to enter the market in Sharjah. Successful brands set up in key locations throughout the Emirate have a proven track record of success. Zuhour Group took advantage of these ideal market conditions by opening its Lebanese cuisine franchise, Zaroob, in Sharjah in February 2016—its second location in the UAE. The new Zaroob is open in Buhaira Corniche on Al Majaz Street in Sharjah.
At the front line of growth in the F&B segment, Alpha Flight Services UAE offers airline meals, manages airport restaurants, and carries out event catering. “We have seen strong growth [since 2010], with revenue up almost 50% and our workforce increasing by 100 employees, to 455," General Manager Mark Whelan told TBY. With passenger growth predicted to increase by 7.5% to reach 9.4 million passengers over the 2014-2020 period, the airport and airline food industry is poised to see demand increase significantly.
FUN & GAMES
In line with aspirations to become a more family-oriented destination, Sharjah is promoting itself as a place to participate in leisure activities for all ages. “We are trying to highlight Sharjah as a destination that has everything, not only culture," Joseph Estephan, General Manager of Sharjah Golf and Shooting Club, explained to TBY, adding, “Sport has always been part of culture in the Middle East; it is part of our religion, in terms of horse riding, in terms of shooting, in terms of archery, and even swimming."
Established in 2005, Sharjah Golf and Shooting Club has become one of the most popular resorts and clubs in the UAE. Its wide range of activities includes a golf course, an indoor shooting facility, and the only mixed gym in Sharjah. There is also a pool, basketball and tennis courts, four football fields, and a spa, as well as an outdoor paintball field. Having examined what was missing in the local market, Sharjah Golf and Shooting Club invests heavily on providing family-friendly fun that is continually upgraded according to the latest technology and in line with global trends. “You can come as an entire family, because there is something for everyone to enjoy here," Estephan concluded.
Another leisure activity that has enjoyed consistent popularity in Sharjah is cricket, which was introduced to the Emirate as early as the 1970s. Sharjah is home to the first and oldest cricket academy in the UAE, located at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium and founded in the 1980s. The stadium is large and advanced enough to accommodate an event as large as a cricket world cup. Such events are already in the pipeline, with the Sharjah Cricket Stadium lined up to host the Women's Gulf Asia Cup and World Cup for Indoor Cricket in 2016 and 2017, respectively
As of 2016, Sharjah holds the Guinness Record title for hosting the most one-day internationals, at 224, while Australia comes in second place at 167. “We have a strong legacy and we need to keep it growing," Waleed Abdelrahman Bukhatir, Vice Chairman of the Sharjah Cricket Council, told TBY.