Sharjah's tourism promoting authority has launched a detailed strategy aimed at consolidating the Emirate's position as a cultural hub and developing new lines of tourism.
The Emirate of Sharjah saw 2 million visitors in 2014 and was proclaimed the Emirates’ Capital of Arab Tourism in 2015. One of Sharjah’s strengths is the robustness of the tourism industry, which goes well beyond glittering malls and prioritizes its family-friendly offerings.
Developing a robust tourism infrastructure has been at the heart of the Emirates’ strategies, historically the second biggest contributor to growth after the oil industry. In order to build on this growth, the government has launched “Vision 2021.” The vision has an ambitious goal of attracting 10 million visitors by the same year. The body responsible for reaching this target is the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), which has been traveling to trade fairs such as the ITB in Berlin and the World Travel Market in London in an attempt to boost awareness of the attractions Sharjah has that differentiate it from regional competitors.
Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021 may seem rather ambitious, but SCTDA is working on a variety of projects to up the numbers, most of which focus on strengthening the diversity of Sharjah’s tourism industry. A recent report by the World Tourism Organization says that there is a growing trend of experiential travel, rather than the usual retail travel that has dominated tourism strategies in the UAE. Khalid Jasmin Al Midfa, Chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, told TBY, “Travelers have been saturated by shopping malls and modern life, they want culture and Sharjah is all about the authentic experience.”
One such glistening example is the Sharjah Light Festival, which ran from February 4-13, 2016 and was organized for the sixth year running. The festival is one of the anchor events of the tourist industry, taking place in 24 locations this year. Part of attracting more people to the event is tactical advertising as Al Midfa explains, “Last year we had 180,000 interactions through Google and this year we invested in advertising and marketing for the event, and we had 2.68 million interactions this year.” Raising awareness of the attractions that are unique to Sharjah is key to bridging the gap for 10 million tourists.
One of the unique aspects of Sharjah that is being developed is the Al Bardi Park, which opened as a conservation park in 2007. It is currently in its second phase of development and, once complete, will be the largest safari park outside of Africa, and home to around 50,000 animals. The park will be expanded to an area of 14 sqkm (3,500 acres). The park is expected to tap into the growing demand for eco-tourism by hosting not only indigenous species, but also a wide range of animals from Africa and Asia.
Sharjah has also recently opened the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Center in the Hajjar mountains. This park’s purpose is to protect native species that have become endangered. Such animals include the Arabian leopard, which has been on the IUCN’s critically endangered list since 1996, and fewer than 200 wild animals are estimated to be alive. Here, the Emirate supports its indigenous species by having breeding programs for endangered species such as the Arabian wolf, the Arabian tahr, and the striped hyena. The center is open to the public and offers the usual touristic services such as guided tours and other amenities.
Taking advantage of what Sharjah already has to offer in terms of cultural and ecological diversity are key pillars in attracting more tourists to Sharjah’s shores and differentiating itself from other options in the region. Both aspects appeal to family-based tourism, which is expected to grow within the Emirate as Sharjah’s numerous festivals, museums, and conservation centers become more widely known.