The sun's rays illuminate Khalid Jasim Al Midfa's already beaming face, as he leans forward in his seat to talk facts. Based on the ninth floor of the headquarters of Sharjah's Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, the glass walls of Mr Al Midfa's office overlook a panoramic view of leafy parks and grand mosques, standing alongside high-rise towers and crane-filled construction sites in central Sharjah.

The emirate has developed a unique identity as a modern metropolis but retains its well-established cultural heritage. From the Al Hisn Fort, which was built in 1820 as the former domicile of the ruling Al Qasimi family, to the Blue Souk, which is the city’s largest trading bazaar for goods ranging from gold and silverwares to handmade carpets and handicrafts, Sharjah’s Arabic heritage is its main selling point when it comes to attracting tourists.

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Alternative destination

For Mr Al Midfa, the director general of Sharjah’s Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, Sharjah is increasingly serving a need among international travellers that want holiday alternatives to conventional city breaks. “The problem is that with most people wherever they go, the product [they find] is the same,” says Mr Al Midfa. “They find a shopping centre with the same outlets, so it becomes a bit routine and they do not experience anything new. We have experienced a growing demand, especially from the Germans, who [want to experience our] cultural heritage.”

Well known within the United Arab Emirates as having some of the strictest codes on public conduct and alcoholic consumption, Sharjah has used this to its benefit, positioning itself as a safe and family-friendly destination. Sharjah has developed a mix of activities for tourists seeking alternatives to the high octane pace of city life, whether it be in one of the galleries lining the Al Qasba canal in central Sharjah, or at Sharjah’s beach resorts.

“Sharjah has been able to differentiate itself by being more family oriented,” explains Mr Al Midfa. “Sharjah is a ‘dry’ state, which means we do not have any alcohol or nightclubs here because when it comes to security, families do not want these activities. We have identified a niche and we have focused on offering things that are not offered in the rest of the region, [including] museums, a wildlife and aquarium centre, and a lot of festivals, which is unique here.” 

Expected growth

The travel and leisure sector has been one of Sharjah’s significant sources of revenues. Shurooq, the Sharjah investment and development authority, predicts this sector, which is currently worth Dh1.2bn ($33m), could become a Dh1.5bn industry by 2016. Playing host to a range of global hotel chains, including the US-based Hilton Hotel and Radisson Blu, and the UAE-based Rotana Hotel, Sharjah has invested in its luxury hotel market. Indeed, demand has been on the rise as hotel occupancy rates are expected to grow at a rate of 6.2% between 2013 and 2016, according to official government estimates.

“We see a growing demand, [especially] from the Germans who are looking for five-star properties and high-end services,” says Mr Al Midfa. “We are preparing ourselves for this demand by passing on this message to entrepreneurs, to construct new projects to serve the market.”

Restaurants and fine dining have emerged as another area of opportunity for prospective investors. According to Shurooq, the vast majority of existing restaurants are concentrated in six areas around the city centre, thus the government is keen to attract more food and beverage outlets as demand for restaurant services is expected to grow by 4.6% in coming years. Yet Hussain Al Mahmoudi, director general of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is confident in Sharjah’s ability to attract FDI into its tourism industry.

“[The chamber of commerce] is venturing into hospitality and opening new hotels to cater to the business community,” says Mr Al Mahmoudi. “Shurooq is developing many touristic projects to attract investors. I have travelled across the world and when I look at the region – it is quite developed. The local government is investing heavily in upgrading the infrastructure and this is stimulating business opportunities.”