Sharjah: an exotic imperial stopover

The emirate is seeking to shake off its conservative image and generate more tourism dirhams.

Sharjah's Souq Al Arsa around the Heritage area. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Venturing out of the confines of the fort that served as an airport, passengers curious for a taste of Arabia would explore the exotic sights and smells of Sharjah's souqs.

Such travellers, in transit on routes from London to India, were among the first non-muslim foreign tourists to Sharjah - and the entire Arabian peninsula - more than 80 years ago.

They were travelling aboard Imperial Airways - now British Airways - which used the airport for refuelling and stopovers on flights over the Arabian Gulf.

The establishment of the airport in 1932 helped to open Sharjah to the outside world long before neighbouring Dubai was to become the thriving tourism hotspot it is today.

Now the emirate is seeking to shake off its conservative image and generate more tourism dirhams.

"We are trying to offer something not currently available in the market and that is why we are going into ecological tourism, historical tourism and archaeological tourism," said Marwan Jassim Al Sarkal, the chief executive of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, known as Shurooq.

A number of recently announced initiatives have signalled its intent.

Shurooq, the government body set up in 2009 oversee the emirate's development and lure investment, has partnered with the Singapore-based hotels operator General Hotel Management (GHM), on two luxury hotel projects. GHM is building the Chedi Khorfakkan, a 170-suite resort situated beside a private cove on Sharjah's east coast, due to open in 2015.

The two are also partnering on what Shurooq likes to call "the first Emirati-themed hotel", a boutique 54-room hotel, partly built around a 200-year-old souq.

Mr Al Sarkal said both developments illustrated the emirate's desire to interweave its history with luxury tourism.

Other projects reflected a desire to establish an eco-tourism footprint.

In May, Shurooq unveiled plans for a five-star hotel resort on the remote wildlife-filled island of Sir Bu Nair, 65 kilometres off the UAE coastline. Home to turtles and marine birds such as peregrine falcons, alasards and alwaraqas, Shurooq is keen to position the island as a destination for eco-conscious holidaymakers.

Other hoteliers are coming too. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the American hotel chain, is opening a Sheraton and a Four Points by Sheraton next year.

"With its beaches, numerous museums and cultural centres, Sharjah is an attractive destination for regional and international tourists," said Guido de Wilde, the vice president, regional director, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Middle East.

Gabriel Matar, the head of hotels and hospitality within the Middle East and North Africa for Jones Lang LaSalle, said he believed the emirate could benefit from both UAE residents on weekend breaks but also tourists from further afield.

"In the worst case scenario, Sharjah will benefit from a spillover from Dubai, either because there's no room there or because they attracted by Sharjah being a 'dry emirate'," he said.

"But if Sharjah promotes itself as a eco-friendly or family tourism destination, it will benefit from increased demand."