Dubai: Defying all global economic projections and predictions, the emirate of Sharjah has been hogging the limelight for quite some time. At a time when the rest of the world had been struggling with the continuing effects of the recession, it continues to attract thousands of foreign tourists.
Last year, the emirate attracted 1.55 million visitors, nearly half of them from Europe. Sharjah registered eight per cent growth in international tourist flow.
Sharjah's hotels received 774,651 guests in 2009 and 748,677 in 2008, whereas hotel apartments had recorded 782,234 guests in 2009 and 699,257 in 2008.
Hotel occupancy grew to 73 per cent last year compared to 69 per cent in 2009 whereas hotel apartments recorded 70 per cent occupancy compared to 64 per cent in 2009.
The total number of room nights in Sharjah's hotels and hotel apartments rose to 1,537,765 in 2010, with hotel room nights accounting for 806,401 and hotel apartment nights accounting for 731,364.
This compares with 1,462,165 room nights in 2009 with 790,000 hotel rooms and 671,265 hotel apartment rooms, a five per cent increase from 2009.
In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Shaikh Sultan Bin Ahmad Al Qasimi, Chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) talks about the emirate's ambitious plans for the future.
Gulf News: How's Sharjah's tourism industry doing?
Shaikh Sultan Bin Ahmad Al Qasimi: We are going from strength to strength Alhamdulillah and thanks to the vision of Sharjah's leadership and relentless efforts of the SCTDA team and numerous other departments and agencies involved in the emirate's tourism industry. We are sparing no effort to promote and exploit Sharjah's immense tourism potential at local, regional and international levels.
In the past few years we have organised numerous events to turn the spotlight on the emirate's rich heritage and its magnificent Arab-Islamic monuments and architecture as well as its several other tourist attractions and sport and MICE facilities. All these events have enjoyed tremendous success. We have been hosting the Sharjah Water Festival and the UIM F1H2O World Championship 2010 for several years now. The Sharjah Light Festival, the first of its kind in the Middle East, last month was another outstanding spectacle.
Sharjah has been participating in top local exhibitions like Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, and Gulf Incentive Business Travel and Meetings Exhibition (GIBTM) in Abu Dhabi to promote its tourism. Also, the SCTDA promotes the emirate at all key international exhibitions and forums to bolster Sharjah's position on the world tourism map.
As a result this beautiful emirate with a unique heritage like no other has been attracting the world's attention.
How was the growth last year?
Last year, the tourist flow into the emirate exceeded 1.55 million from around the world, registering a solid eight per cent growth in numbers. Interestingly, in 2010, more than 42 per cent of the visitors had come from Europe whereas 24 per cent of the tourists included visitors from the neighbouring Gulf countries. Hotel occupancy increased by 73 per cent. So we hope to drive this growth further.
What are your expectations and outlook for years 2011 and 2012?
We are of course determined to carry forward our amazing growth story of 2010 into this year and the next. We would like to at least double our own achievement, bringing more tourists from around the world and from across the region to this fascinating emirate. We offer something that not many others can. While we have a rich heritage and remain strongly connected to our Arab and Islamic traditions, we also boast world class infrastructure and facilities to cater to all sections and kinds of tourists. So as far as Sharjah is concerned, 2011 and 2012 are going to be only an improvement on 2010.
How many hotels and hotel apartments are there in the emirate of Sharjah?
The number of hotels and hotel apartments in Sharjah has touched 107 (45 hotels and 62 hotel apartments) with an increase in the number of rooms that has reached the 8,585 mark (4,661 hotel rooms and 3,924 hotel apartment rooms).
What is the total hotel capacity (rooms and apartments) in the emirate?
The total number of room nights in Sharjah's hotels and hotel apartments rose to 1,537,765 in 2010, with hotel room nights accounting for 806,401 and hotel apartment nights accounting for 731,364. This can be compared to 1,462,165 room nights in 2009 with 790,000 hotel rooms and 671,265 hotel apartment rooms, a five per cent increase from 2009.
How many hotels are there in the pipeline?
We are trying to balance the hotel sector by bringing in more luxury hotels. Ten new hotels are being developed in the emirate which will help us achieve this balance. Of course, there will be many more in the future with the numbers of tourists constantly growing.
Have you felt any impact of the regional turmoil?
Thankfully, we haven't experienced any effect of the situation in the region so far. Besides, our immediate neighbourhood has remained unaffected and we're confident it will remain so inshaallah.
Do you foresee any effect of what is happening in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Oman?
We do not foresee any adverse effect of what's happening in the region on tourism in the UAE and the region.
What are the issues and challenges faced by Sharjah's tourism industry?
I think we need to do a great deal more to further spread the awareness about Sharjah's tourism and economic potential. We need to reach out to more markets and more tourists from around the world to promote what we have to offer: the exquisite architecture, rich heritage, natural beauty of the East Coast and marine life, world class infrastructure and facilities and much, much more.
So given all this I believe the emirate is not getting the attention it deserves from national and regional media, especially in English media.
What's driving Sharjah's tourism strategy?
Our strategy is inspired by the vision of the emirate's leadership. We believe that Sharjah has much more to offer to international tourists from across the world than many others in the region and beyond. In addition to all the extraordinary features I just mentioned, the emirate, just like this great country, offers a totally safe, friendly and welcoming environment to visitors of diverse backgrounds and profiles.
This is a complete international tourist destination for the entire family. And when tourists come to Sharjah, they are coming home. And the more tourists visit Sharjah, the better it will perform on economic front benefiting everyone. We are finally ready for the future and ready to welcome the world.
Are you planning to open offices of SCTDA in new markets to woo more tourists and better coordinate?
We already have our offices in crucial markets like Berlin and hopefully expand to other markets as and when necessary.
I believe your government is to develop a master plan for tourism in the East Coast?
Yes, the master plan to develop tourism in the East Coast is on track. The Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq) is putting together a tourism master plan for East Coast cities — Khor Fakkan and Kalba — to create niche tourism products for international visitors. Shurooq is working with the private sector on a public-private partnership model to facilitate investment in the tourism sector.
The objective is to create a distinctive identity for each city.
Khor Fakkan has a water sport facility while Kalba is ideal for eco-tourism with mountains and clear beaches and mangroves at the waterfront.