Russian tourists. Anna with mum Nina Kalinina at Al Qasba in Sharjah Image Credit: Abhishek Sengupta/XPRESS

SHARJAH It’s a typical Sunday morning rush hour on Sharjah’s Al Wahda street but tourists Anna, 42 and her mum Nina Kalinina, 76, from the Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don seem like a duo with all the time in the world. Strolling by the busy street that’s lined by a slew of rent-a-car companies on one side, they stop by one shop that’s cared to stick out its attractive daily rates for renting a sedan on its glass windows in Cyrillic.

Having arrived in Sharjah from Moscow-Domodedovo the evening before, the couple want to make every moment of their first trip to the country count and what could be better than to start in an all-too-familiar environment. “They don’t speak our language but they know what we want and how it can be communicated to us. That’s the most important thing for us,” says Anna who works as an auto merchandiser in the famous city on the hilly banks of river Don. A two hour flight to Moscow before a four hour journey to Sharjah is what they had undertaken to be here. “It’s not a lot of time and possibly cheaper than flying anywhere else in mainland Europe or say Scandinavia,” explains Nina, a former veterinary’s assistant, why so many of countrymen would want to fly down to the emirate every year – for anything from a short haul to a long visit.

Over 400,000 Russian guests visited Sharjah’s hotels in 2014, underlining the supremacy Sharjah enjoys as a top international tourist destination for Russian and visitors. Palestinian businessman Mahmoud, 43, who runs a men’s salon in Al Majaz that advertises cuts and facials in Cyrillic, knows it all too well. “You didn’t need official figures to say that. There’s a lot of them coming here and they really love this place,” he says, pointing to the local restaurants that have gone down the same Cyrillic signage route. “It’s a common sight across Sharjah - from Al Khan to Al Qasba - to see restaurants, especially, displaying their menu in Cyrillic,” says Oksana Federova. “I just love visiting Sharjah because I feel I belong here,” adds the 29-year-old regular visitor from Moscow.

Number of attractions

“Sharjah has a number of attractions for tourists such as golden beaches – both in Sharjah city and along the long East Coast – moderate weather, rich cultural heritage, museums and cultural centres, leisure and shopping opportunities but for the ones from Russia in particular the emirate’s marketplace and souqs provide a unique home away from home setting,” says Marina Haas, 44, who has been running the conspicuously named ‘Russian Traditions Restaurant’ on level 2 of the Arab Mall (formerly Al Tawwuun mall) since 2006. “They love buying fresh fruit and fish and that’s why you will find a lot of them in and around the Sharjah fish market,” adds Haas, from St. Petersburg. “For foodstuffs there’s a whole section for them in Mega Mall that sells everything from sunflower seeds to buckwheat to cod in oil. For every other traditional cooked food, they can come to us,” says the Sharjah resident whose restaurant is the emirate’s only Russian dine-in cum takeaway joint besides Kazan in Al Seef Hotel.

“Recent studies have highlighted Russia as an important market for tourism in the UAE. While the Russian market has witnessed changes as a result of the rouble’s volatility, Russia remains an important market characterised by high purchasing power that adds considerable value to Sharjah’s tourism sector,” Mohammad Ali Al Noman, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority recently said on the sidelines of the Moscow International Travel and Tourism Exhibition that ran from March 18 to 21 in the Russian capital, drawing considerable attention to the emirate’s diverse tourism products.