External faade, Centro Sharjah. External faade, Centro Sharjah.

Sharjah is incorrectly considered as the often overlooked emirate while its neighbours, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, forge ahead. But of late, Sharjah has been making some noise and people are beginning to notice.

The emirate is currently trying to market itself as the UAE’s capital of culture and history — and it does that well. A number of eco-tourism projects, built around the concept of sustainability, are also being developed, including the Fossil Rock Lodge in Mleiha and the Kalba eco-tourism project.

While the hospitality market took a hit back in 2015 and 2016 due to drop in oil prices and the declining visitor numbers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), both factors have since been on an upward curve which has helped register more stable numbers in Sharjah. Sharjah’s authorities are also focused on moving away from being an oil-dependent economy and diversifying.

“Due to the improved transport infrastructure as well as the development of new luxury resorts and attractions, the emirate is now witnessing a steady growth in visitor arrivals,” says TRI Consulting director Christopher Hewett.

In 2017, Sharjah welcomed 1.7 million visitors and the revenues generated by its hotels and hotel apartments amounted to US$188.94 million (AED694m) for the fiscal year, up from US$181.86 m (AED668m) registered in 2016, according to Hewett.

The influx of visitors can be credited to Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority’s (SCTDA) ongoing initiative to market itself as a family-focused, historical and Arabic cultural destination as opposed to the glitz and wealth promoted by its neighbour, Dubai.

SCTDA chairman HE Khalid Jasim Al Midfa tells Hotelier Middle East that the emirate is also focused on internal infrastructure development to attract more business and elevate Sharjah on the whole.

“We just opened a mega project in the UAE — the Khor Fakkan Road, which connects Sharjah city to the beautiful city of Khor Fakkan, on the emirate’s east coast. This project took 10 years of hard work and cost us US$1.5 billion (AED5.5 billion) but it cuts travel time from Sharjah by half to just 45 minutes. The project is part of the Sharjah ruler’s long-term vision to connect the east to the west to attract more investments and developments on the east coast strategically,” Al Midfa explains.

Hotel Performance

In 2015, SCTDA launched the Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021 which aims to attract more than 10 million tourists by 2021, coinciding with the UAE’s 50th anniversary. In line with that aim, the hotel market in Sharjah, which currently accounts for 46 hotel apartments and 53 hotels as per SCTDA, has seen quite a few recent additions and a horde of new signings but the upswing in pipeline, Hewett says, has not completely disrupted the emirate’s occupancy rates.

“According to SCTDA’s statistics, the emirate’s occupancy levels remained relatively stable at 70% despite the addition of new hotels. The stabilisation of occupancy rates was primarily attributed to an increase in tourist arrivals and SCTDA’s ongoing marketing and promotional efforts,” Hewett explains.

Currently, Al Midfa says Sharjah has approximately 10,000 hotel rooms in operation and says the emirate is expecting to add 5,000 more rooms this year. “More importantly, it’s the big names that are coming to Sharjah,” Al Midfa notes, referring to Marriott International, Emaar’s Address, Vida and Rove, AccorHotels and other brands like the Anantara resort which is scheduled to open in 2020. “These brands are important to Sharjah’s collection of hotels and the perception of the emirate,” he adds.

In the first quarter of 2018, approximately 2,200 keys were either in a planning or a development stage, with the majority of the future hotel room supply falling into the luxury and upper-upscale segments. Hewett forecasts that there might be short-term downward pressure on the occupancy rates because of the new additions but only “until the new supply is fully absorbed by the market”.

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