What new offerings will facilitate Sharjah’s post-pandemic rebound?

Sharjah’s beaches, shopping centres, museums and unique cultural offerings make the emirate a popular tourist destination for nationals and foreigners alike. While international travel slowed significantly in 2020 due to border closures and travel restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic tourism in Sharjah picked up as UAE residents explored destinations closer to home. Despite the disruption, the emirate inaugurated a number of projects in 2020, many of which promote cultural and sustainable tourism, and position Sharjah as a family-friendly destination.

Tourism authorities intend to build on this momentum and renew international interest throughout 2021 with the help of a new travel campaign, more projects, and the resumption of events and activities under strict health and safety protocols. These efforts, in tandem with the UAE’s rapid rollout of vaccinations, could see Sharjah’s tourism sector recover sooner than expected.


The sector’s recent development efforts have been guided by Sharjah Tourism Vision 2021, which was launched in 2015. The blueprint is based on four pillars: promoting the emirate as an idyllic family destination, improving the tourist experience through innovative solutions, enhancing efficiency through partnership and collaboration, and showcasing Sharjah’s culture and heritage. While the Covid-19 outbreak delayed Sharjah’s overarching goal of attracting 10m annual visitors by 2021, in a sign of confidence that the impact of the pandemic will be short-lived, Khalid Jassim Al Midfa, chairman of the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), told local media in July 2020 that the 10m visitor target is now set for 2022.

Recovery Plan

In mid-November 2020 officials met at the Sharjah Hospitality Forum 2020 with the goal to facilitate the sector’s rebound by identifying innovative solutions to support stakeholders and reactivate growth. The result of the forum was a three-stage strategy. The first phase centres on service development and the promotion of safe tourism aimed at the domestic market. Measures include introducing the Safety Stamp, which certifies that tourism and hospitality businesses comply with required health practices, and the Safe Travel certificate to ensure new health and safety rules are followed while travelling. The second phase will focus on targeting new source markets once air traffic returns to normal and global markets open fully. In the third phase measures will be enacted to help tourism activity return to pre-pandemic levels.

Central to the sector’s recovery, as well as that of the broader economy, is leveraging digital solutions. “We are confident that the ongoing global crisis will eventually come to an end, and the tourism sector will recapture its vibrancy and growth, supported by integrated digital solutions designed to ensure a safe and comfortable experience for tourists and local visitors alike,” Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Qasimi, director-general of the Sharjah Department of eGovernment, told international media in November 2020. The use of technology and online tools has already enabled the close collaboration of all government entities in the UAE to effectively carry out containment measures.

In January 2021 Sharjah launched the #SeeSharjah campaign to encourage both UAE residents and international tourists to travel to the emirate. The campaign highlighted a variety of attractions and activities such as cultural events, festivals, water sports, desert and mountain adventures, traditional souqs (markets), mosques, museums and monuments. That same month the SCTDA announced the resumption of desert safari tours as part of wider plans to promote adventure tourism in the emirate. The SCTDA has provided guidelines based on social-distancing measures for the maximum number of passengers per tour and vehicle capacities, among other precautions. More broadly, the government has issued comprehensive Covid-19 preventive measures to help its population and international visitors feel comfortable travelling again.

Confidence Booster

At the federal level, the quick rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is also expected to restore confidence in travel across the emirates. Over 16.2m doses had been distributed around the country as of July 15, 2021 – putting the rate at 163.74 doses per 100 people – the highest in the world. As of the same date, 67.8% of the population had been fully vaccinated and 77.3% had received at least one dose.

The UAE maintained the highest per capita testing rate globally throughout much of the pandemic, and was one of the first countries with a population above 1m to test half of its populace. It ranked first among Middle East countries and 14th globally in the December 2020 Global Soft Power Index issued by UK consultancy Brand Finance, which measured how survey participants perceived their country’s handling of Covid-19. These favourable metrics illustrate how extensive testing of nationals and international visitors will be instrumental in restoring confidence and boosting visitor figures going forwards.

Policy changes at the emirate level provided direct support for the sector, including a zero-tax policy and the cancellation of outstanding fines for hospitality operators. The goal was to reduce the financial burden on hospitality companies and allow them to channel their resources towards maintenance or expansion. Strong coordination between the federal and emirate-level governments has also been key to the successful implementation of tourism programmes in Sharjah. During a meeting with the SCTDA in August 2020, the UAE minister of economy underscored the importance of Sharjah’s tourism industry to the country’s broader long-term economic development plans.


The number of tourists visiting Sharjah can be difficult to calculate due to free movement across emirates in the UAE. However, statistics on the hospitality sector provide a useful proxy. As per the latest data from the SCTDA, all key performance indicators for the sector saw a downturn in the second quarter of 2020 as border closures, travel restrictions and social-distancing measures were implemented. Hospitality revenue trended downwards in the first half of 2020, falling significantly from Dh142m ($38.7m) in the first quarter to Dh34m ($9.3m) in the second quarter. Revenue was comparatively higher over the same periods of the previous year, at Dh176m ($47.9m) and Dh133m ($36.2m), respectively. Meanwhile, hotel occupancy rates dropped from 64% in the first quarter of 2020 to 30% in the following quarter – lower than the respective rates of 73% and 57% in 2019. Similarly, the number of guests at hotels dropped from 458,000 in the first three months of 2020 to 120,000 in the subsequent three months. Figures had been trending upwards prior to Covid-19, climbing steadily from 1.7m in 2018 to nearly 1.8m in 2019, split between 1.3m guests at starred hotels and 480,000 at hotel apartments.

According to the latest full-year data from Sharjah International Airport, the number of passengers handled grew by 13% in 2019 to reach a record high of 13.6m, while the number of aircraft movements rose from 81,262 in 2018 to 86,506 in 2019. The increases were attributed to the emirate’s role in the region as an important economic, commercial and tourist centre, as well as the growing number of destinations served by the airport’s carriers. The Dh1.9bn ($517.2m) Sharjah International Airport expansion project is expected to facilitate further growth once air travel normalises, which will see capacity rise to 20m passengers annually by 2025 (see Transport & Logistics chapter).

Accommodation & Developments

As of the second quarter of 2020 there were 12 five-star hotels, 20 four-star hotels, 12 three-star hotels, nine two-star hotels and 10 one-star hotels in the emirate, along with six deluxe hotels, eight standard hotels and 28 basic hotels, for a total of 5703 rooms. In mid-January 2020 the SCTDA estimated that the number of hotel rooms in Sharjah City would increase by 50% over the next five years.

In 2019 the 1.3m guests at starred hotels stayed for 2.6m nights, according to Sharjah’s latest annual statistical report. Four-star hotels proved the most popular, with 611,000 guests staying nearly 1.1m nights, followed by 326,000 guests staying at threestar hotels for 718,000 nights. Five-star hotels ranked second highest in terms of revenue that year, at Dh149.7m ($40.7m), after the Dh181.8m ($49.5m) recorded across all four-star hotels.

Although construction activity around the world largely stalled beginning in March 2020, planning continued in the emirate. In August of that year Marwan bin Jassim Al Sarkal, executive chairman of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), announced that four new large tourism and hospitality projects would be built in Khorfakkan, Kalba, Al Dhaid and Mleiha. While no targeted completion dates were provided at the time of the announcement, the two planned five-star hotels will be constructed in scenic locations: a 66-key property along the Khorfakkan Beach and the other adjacent to Kalba Waterfront.

Shurooq also has plan to develop a 60-room family retreat in the 14-sq-km Seih Al Bardi Kabeer Safari Park, and the Moon Retreat at the Mleiha Archaeological and Ecotourism site will add to nature-centric offerings. Another project is Palace Al Khan in downtown Sharjah City. The Dh120m ($32.7m) development will feature 88 rooms, a spa, a fitness club, an outdoor swimming pool and meeting facilities. Meanwhile, in March 2021 the City Centre Al Zahia shopping mall opened its doors, with 136,000 sq metres of leasable area for more than 350 stores. It is expected to attract visitors who would otherwise visit shopping centres in neighbouring Dubai.

Source Markets

With the aim of reinforcing the emirate’s position as an attractive tourism destination, as well as targeting new international source markets, the SCTDA participated in the Matka Nordic Travel Fair 2020, which was held in Helsinki, Finland from January 15 to 19. The authority promoted the emirate to the North European demographic, given that the continent as a whole is a growing source of visitors for Sharjah. In 2018 some 578,000 Europeans visited the emirate, up 24% on 2017.

By region, Sharjah’s biggest source markets in 2019 were Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic countries, accounting for 24% of all visitors to the emirate; Asia, supplying 23% of tourists; and non-GCC Arab nations and the GCC, with 16% of arrivals each.

The composition looked different by the second quarter of 2020, however. Asia and the UAE moved into first and second position, supplying 37% and 24% of all tourists, respectively, while non-GCC Arab countries held steady in third place, at 23%. The closure of many international borders gave rise to the larger share of UAE nationals in Sharjah that quarter, and the increase in domestic visitor numbers was especially notable during Eid Al Adha in mid-2020.

The growing share of Asian arrivals over recent years can be attributed to greater efforts by the SCTDA to promote Sharjah as a destination to Southeast Asians – particularly Indonesians and Malaysians – with a focus on attracting pilgrims already travelling to Saudi Arabia for Hajj or Umrah.

China has become an increasingly important source market as well, evidenced by an increase in visitor numbers since 2016, when the UAE federal government started granting Chinese travellers visas on arrival. The number of Chinese tourists travelling to Sharjah rose by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 32% between 2015 and 2018 – second only to Russia, which grew by a CAGR of 57% over the same period.


The promotion of family tourism is at the heart of Sharjah’s sector strategy. In 2016 the authorities launched the Sharjah My Family Destination campaign, which offered families discounts of up to 20% on hotel accommodation, among other incentives. Recent developments such as the family retreat at Seih Al Bardi Kabeer Safari Park should help to further elevate Sharjah’s position as a family-friendly destination – as well as add to the emirate’s portfolio of nature attractions – and see Sharjah capture a larger share of the market. In 2018 GlobalData estimated that the global family tourism market would grow at a CAGR of 4.6% from 300m trips in 2017 to 376m in 2022. The analytics and consultancy company reported that family tourism accounted for 30.8% of all outbound tourism, and that the segment will retain this share over the period, largely supported by Chinese travellers.

Sharjah is also focused on expanding traditional segments such as meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE). One of the most important MICE events in the emirate is the Sharjah International Book Fair. Held for 10 days in November 2020, the 39th edition of the fair was a hybrid physical and virtual event; a maximum of 5000 visitors were allowed to enter the Sharjah Expo Centre every three hours to ensure social distancing. The fair welcomed 1024 publishers from 73 countries, and gained recognition as the world’s first international exhibition to take place since March 2020. In 2019 over 2m visitors attended the fair, making it the biggest event in the region in terms of attendance.

Ecotourism & Adventure Travel

The development of ecotourism and adventure travel is another core part of Sharjah’s tourism strategy. The Environment and Protected Areas Authority works alongside Shurooq to develop ecotourism and adventure offerings on the east coast, and efforts to expand the burgeoning segment gathered pace in 2020 as a number of sites were unveiled.

On February 17 Al Dhaid Wildlife Centre was inaugurated as part of a series of projects concerning the environment and the preservation of biodiversity and wildlife. The opening of the 11,362-sq-km Shees Park in Khorfakkan followed in October, which showcases the natural beauty of the Hajar Mountains. The park includes many leisure facilities as well as a 25-metre-high man-made waterfall.

The Shees Rest House project was under development in early 2021, with its implementation to be carried out in three phases at the northern and southern ends of Khorfakkan Road. The rest house will comprise 60 produce stores, nurseries, carpet retailers and food trucks. The 89-km, Dh5.5bn ($1.5bn) Sharjah-Khorfakkan Road, which was unveiled in April 2019, cuts driving time between the capital and Khorfakkan in half, to 45 minutes, making it a convenient getaway. Another rest house near Khorfakkan Road is Al Suhub, which opened in August 2021. “The pandemic has opened up a whole new segment of hospitality and tourism that capitalises on environmentally minded attitudes and caters to new generations that are drawn to nature and adventure,” David Patrick Court, a consultant at Bushtec, a luxury tents manufacturer, told OBG.

Culture & Art

Sharjah’s cultural and heritage offerings have long attracted tourists to the emirate and garnered international recognition. In 1998 UNESCO declared Sharjah the Cultural Capital of the Arab Region, while in 2014 the emirate was endorsed as the Islamic Culture Capital by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. In the following year it was named the Capital of Arab Tourism by the Arab Ministerial Council for Tourism. More recently, UNESCO gave Sharjah the title of World Book Capital for 2019.

Since attractions in Sharjah reopened in June 2020, tens of thousands of UAE nationals have travelled to the emirate to visit its museums, with roughly 300,000 Emiratis touring exhibits between January and August that year. During the mandated closure of all non-essential businesses, the Sharjah Museums Authority kept its audience engaged by launching virtual tours, digitising 100 Islamic collections as part of the Museums With No Frontiers portal, and offering various workshops and lectures.

Sharjah’s art scene is another major draw for tourists. A key event on the calendar is the Sharjah Biennial contemporary art exhibition, the next iteration of which is scheduled for March 2022. The 15th edition of the biennial will shine a spotlight on the work of scholar, critic and curator Okwui Enwezor, who was invited to curate the event before his premature passing in 2019. The 14th Sharjah Biennial, titled “Leaving the Echo Chamber”, took place between March 7 and June 10, 2019. The 13th iteration in 2017 was conceived in two parts. The first was held across Sharjah from March 10 to June 12 and drew an estimated total of 120,000 local and international visitors – up 25% on previous biennials.

Other recent cultural and heritage projects include Najd Al Maqsar Village in Khorfakkan, which opened in October 2020 as part of a drive to restore historical and archaeological sites in the emirate. An important ancient gathering centre in Wadi Washi, the site contains rocks with engraved drawings that are thousands of years old. Restoration works at Najd Al Maqsar Village will be carried out on 13 houses that date back 100 years, as well as on a 300-year-old fortress. The site is also being equipped with more modern facilities, such as 13 hotels in a traditional style and areas to barbecue.

Sharjah exhibits not only its own culture, but also those of other countries around the world. At the 18th annual Sharjah Heritage Days festival in 2021 the emirate hosted over 500 events and activities that celebrated the customs and traditions of 29 nations, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco. “The event plays a vital role in boosting Sharjah’s tourism appeal and supporting the national economy. This collaboration is among the first significant steps being taken to revive the culture and tourism landscape, not just in Sharjah but for the UAE,” Al Midfa of the SCTDA said at a press conference held in mid-March 2021. The festival was organised by the Sharjah Institute for Heritage (SIH). The main sites included the Heart of Sharjah district and the Khorfakkan Heritage Area. While the event was extended to include the area of Kalba – for three days, from April 9 to 11 – overall it was organised on a smaller scale than previous years due to the pandemic. “The challenges posed by Covid-19 have prevented us from organising the annual event in the way we used to every year, where venues would span all of the emirate’s cities and towns. Initially, we decided to limit the event to the Heart of Sharjah and Khorfakkan. However, the high level of awareness we have been seeing in the audience and visitors with regards to their adherence to preventive measures [enabled us to extend it] to Kalba,” Abdulaziz Al Musallam, chairman of the SIH told international press in early April 2021.


Sharjah is committed to supporting tourism recovery. The positive handling of the pandemic at the emirate and federal level has done much to allow for the gradual resumption of activities and to promote Sharjah as a safe destination for travel. The SCTDA, in particular, will continue to regularly inspect hotels to ensure full compliance with health and safety measures. With the unveiling of new attractions and the ongoing development of key projects in the emirate, it is hoped that Sharjah can resume its pre-pandemic growth in tourist arrivals as international air travel regularises in 2021.

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