From unique cultural experiences to a diverse variety of landscapes and wildlife, Sharjah offers a wide range of tourism activities for visitors from around the world. And with a goal to attract 10 million tourists by 2021, the emirate’s tourism scene is constantly blossoming with new hotels, museums, and innovative products to cater to all tastes and budgets. In a ground-breaking achievement, Sharjah was also named as the world’s first “Child Friendly City” by Unicef in 2018, and has been recognized as a capital of Islamic culture. Here, His Excellency Khalid Jassim Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), outlines what makes Sharjah a perfect destination for Chinese visitors and opportunities for investment in the burgeoning sector
You recently returned from ITB China in Shanghai. What were some of the outcomes of your attendance at that trade show?
ITB China served as a strategic platform for the SCTDA to put the spotlight on Sharjah’s continuing efforts to become a highly preferred tourism destination for the region. This was an opportunity to showcase our authentic Arabian offerings and the combination of experiential, nature-driven activities that are perfect for all the family. At the same time, the event also allowed us to gain a better understanding of the potential being presented by China’s enormous outbound travel market, while also enhancing the opportunity of reinforcing bilateral tourism cooperation between the UAE and China.
You are hoping to attract as many as 200,000 Chinese visitors by 2021. Why target Chinese tourists in particular?
As mentioned, China represents a large outbound travel market, evidently seen in the more than 120,356 hotel guests that visited Sharjah last year. This figure looks towards further increasing with the UAE government’s move to grant Chinese tourists with visas on arrival. As part of the move to attract more Chinese tourists to Sharjah, the SCTDA has conducted strategic promotional campaigns and workshops in China itself. We have also organized exhibits and a promotional roadshow series that went to major cities like Guangzhou, Chengdu and Hong Kong to promote Sharjah’s unique attractions and offers.
What makes Sharjah stand out as the ideal holiday destination for Chinese tourists traveling to the UAE?
Sharjah proves to be an excellent destination for these Chinese tourists wanting to take part in authentic and culturally relevant experiences in their visits. The emirate remains widely popular for its rich history, unique cultural heritage, and other diverse related offerings.
Please give an overview of Sharjah as a luxury destination and what it offers to the high-end Chinese segment.
A strong point of Sharjah as a preferred tourist destination is its ability to integrate its rich culture and heritage with top-of-the-line luxury offerings. For example, we are offering luxurious boutique hotels with cultural bends such as Al Bait. There is also a variety of sophisticated pursuits and activities such as golf, shooting, kayaking and horse-riding on offer. We strive to offer quality at all times, even as we pursue a stronger online presence, aiming to push our exclusivity and uniqueness, especially in the realms of art, culture and experiential tourism.
Sharjah’s travel and tourism segment largely benefit from the UAE’s position as a globally recognized tourism destination. The continued growth of the emirate’s tourism industry is backed even further by the presence of drivers like a growing expatriate population, government investments in tourism infrastructure, and rising disposable income.
Another niche Sharjah has carved out is its position as a leading eco-destination in the Middle East – something especially appealing to Chinese visitors who often come from big cities. What is it about Sharjah’s nature and tourism industry that makes it stand out?
Sharjah takes pride in its eco-tourism, which is made even stronger with its role as a host to various nature and wildlife reservations, including what is considered the first learning center in a protected area – Arabia’s Wildlife Centre. These protected and preserved areas are strong examples of the efforts placed on the environmental strategy being implemented by Sharjah. Sharjah’s East Coast, which consists of Kalba, Khorfakkan, Al Dhaid and Dibba Al Hisn, is also renowned for its water sports, snorkeling, diving and relaxing. This coast creates the ideal break and can be enjoyed while camping or residing in the motels and hotels that line the coast. For those who come to us from sprawling cities, we offer a perfect combination of nature and cultural experiences, something that makes us unique.
The fundamental vision of SCTDA is to make Sharjah the ideal family-friendly destination, attracting more than 10 million tourists by 2021. What steps is the emirate taking to make this a reality, and why is family tourism an ideal fit for Sharjah?
The emirate’s strategic tourism expansion falls in line with the local government’s Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021 and is also the result of our continuing efforts to develop and implement innovative initiatives and products such as VisitSharjah.com, which will allow local, regional and international tourists to learn more about what Sharjah has to offer, from essential destinations to exciting activities catering to all types of travelers. Family tourism is an ideal fit for the emirate as we already have a number of the attractions, destinations and most importantly, the ethos to make this a reality, as shown by Sharjah recently being named the world’s first ‘Child-Friendly City.’ In line with this, the SCTDA has adopted four strategic pillars to help achieve these set goals and objectives. The first is to promote Sharjah as an ideal family tourism destination through its offer of distinct packages and offers that have been specially designed for families. Secondly, through the adoption of an innovative tourism approach designed to improve the tourist experience through the provision of innovative solutions. Thirdly, the enhancement of efficiencies in the tourism sector through partnerships and collaborative action to provide world-class tourism facilities and capabilities. Finally, the promotion of the cultural and heritage elements among families to build Sharjah as an international cultural hub.
Throughout its history, Sharjah has been a beacon of knowledge and culture, and Sharjah was named the Capital of Islamic Culture in 2014. For a visitor to the emirate, what is the best way to soak up this unique culture?
The best way to experience Sharjah’s unique culture and embrace its heritage is to take a heritage walking tour of the emirate, which includes key stops like timeless souks, awe-inspiring museums, elegant mosques, an enchanting waterfront and elegant heritage buildings. In every city, there is a place that defines its heartbeat and becomes the pulse of the city, reflecting its history and mirroring its spirit. That’s what ‘Heart of Sharjah’ is, a project that is an intrinsic part of Sharjah’s life, a project interwoven into the history and heartbeat of Sharjah. Visitors can also learn more about Sharjah’s rich marine history, as it is the only emirate that stretches along the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.
For the future development of Sharjah’s tourism industry, what opportunities and incentives are available for Chinese investors?
The SCTDA strongly encourages the creation of well-balanced and sustainable investment opportunities, which in turn, can result in its development as a highly attractive destination point for both investment and tourism purposes. Sharjah is committed to driving more growth in its local economy via the provision of unique opportunities to potential foreign and local investors, particularly in the tourism and leisure segments. As we place stricter tourism standards on our hospitality industry, the ROI is becoming increasingly stable and attractive, and as the dirham is pegged to the dollar, investments are not as badly affected by currency fluctuations. Perhaps most important is the recent announcement that investors will receive UAE residency visas that are valid for up to 10 years, a move sure to attract investors and boost the industry. This, in addition to the visa-on-arrival for Chinese visitors, is certain to boost the confidence of Chinese looking to invest in Sharjah’s tourism industry.
How do you envision changes in Sharjah’s tourism landscape within the next five years?
We expect that growth in the tourism industry will continue, bringing us closer to the achievement of the goals set forth in the Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021. As such, we also expect the completion of new and ongoing projects that are aimed to further reinforce our position as a highly preferred tourist destination, such as the new Khorfakkan road project, the Al Badayer Oasis Project, the Kalba Kingfisher Lodge project, the Al Bait Hotel, the Novotel Sharjah Expo, the Sharjah Anantara Resort, the Pullman Hotel, the Fossil Rock Lodge and DoubleTree by Hilton Sharjah, the Tulip management hotel, the new Rain Room designed by Sharjah Art Foundation and the Al Jada Project. We also expect to see a number of changes brought about by our many festivals and conferences and the types of tourists we attract as we diversify our tourism product.