Less flashy than Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the south but no less rich in culture, history and adventure offerings, the UAE’s northern emirates now draws a critical mass of tourists from China and India, with Muslim countries in Asia coming up on the radar too.
Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah are fast emerging as sought-after destinations on UAE’s tourism landscape, as visitors to the region look to explore beyond the established cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
While the neighouring GCC countries are significant feeder markets for these northern emirates, emerging too are markets from farther afield like China and India.
“Tourists from both India and China are looking for experiential travel. They are drawn to our tradition and heritage,” Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), told TTG Asia on the sidelines of Arabian Travel Market (ATM) 2018. “We expect the numbers from both these markets will continue to grow strongly this year as well.”
Sharjah welcomed 138,000 hotel guests from India and 126,000 hotel guests from China in 2017, posting growth of 32 per cent and 45 per cent respectively over the previous year.
Feedback from the UAE tour operators attending ATM 2018 also spoke of an uptick in foreign arrivals to the nothern emirates.
The expanding tourism infrastructure has been a key driver of rising visitor interest, noted Jamal Abdulnazar, CEO of Cozmo Travel. “New luxury property openings and a host of new attractions have boosted international tourist arrivals to the northern emirates, (evident) from the strong double-digit growth in international tourist visitation to Sharjah,” he said.
“In winter, there is good MICE movement to Sharjah from India, and the government’s visa-free policy for China has helped to grow the Chinese market as well,” he added.
“Northern emirate destinations like Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah are becoming more popular among Indian travellers. Sharjah attracts Indian tourists looking for cultural tours, while adventure tourism is picking up in Ras al-Khaimah,” said Kulwant Singh, CEO, Lama Tours.
The SCTDA, meanwhile, also has its sights set on expanding into new Asian markets like Malaysia and Indonesia as it aims to attract 10 million international tourists by 2021. The authority is currently developing market intelligence on these markets to back its promotion and marketing strategies while shortlisting key outbound travel agencies in Malaysia and Indonesia to partner with.
Khalid elaborated: “We are looking at ways to reach out to Malaysia and Indonesia where at present we’re attracting a small number of tourists. There is a lot of potential in these two markets, considering their sizeable Muslim populations. We will promote Sharjah by showcasing our rich Islamic culture.”
Naveen Saldanha, managing director, Royal Arabian, agreed: “There is a significant number of tourists from Asian markets like Indonesia who transit in the UAE when visiting Saudi Arabia for Islamic pilgrimages. If a segment of these transit travellers can be attracted to visit northern emirates, the tourist numbers will grow significantly.”
Lama Tours’ Kulwant added that he expects Sharjah will attract a “good number of Indonesian travellers” moving forward, attracted by Sharjah’s Islamic heritage.
Other northern emirates Fujairah and Ras al-Khaimah are clearly not resting on their laurels either.
Like Sharjah, India and China will be focus markets for the Fujairah Tourism and Antiquities Authority, according to coordinator, marketing and exhibitions Omar Bani Hamour.
“We will be opening our representation office in India and China within the next two years. We aim to increase international tourist arrivals to one million in the next four years,” he shared.
Last year, Fujairah recorded 700,000 international tourist arrivals, a growth of four per cent over the previous year, while Ras al-Khaimah achieved a 19 per cent growth in tourist arrivals.
With plans to welcome one million visitors this year, the destination is focusing on adventure tourism, following the opening of the world’s longest zipline on Jebel Jais, the UAE’s highest mountain. An observation deck with viewing spots and picnic areas is currently under development in the mountain.