by Sarah Hedley-Hymers, The Telegraph, February 27, 2019
One of the seven cities that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sharjah shares a border with Dubai, but has enjoyed nowhere near the same attention as its world-famous neighbour. It is almost unheard of in British households.
But this could be about to change, with the emirate set to deliver a heady dose of art and culture that educated travellers may find hard to ignore in 2019 – despite being an alcohol-free zone.
Sharjah has the same Arabian coastline, climate, cuisine and customs as Dubai – minus the boozy brunches.
Some hotels in the city are even closer to Dubai International Airport than their Dubai counterparts, just 15 minutes from the border, and there’s no shortage of international chains defining the high-rise skyline – Hilton, Sheraton, Ramada and Radisson Blu among them.
Sharjah has its own Ferris wheel, as well as watersport centres, dune-bashing tours, souks, malls and wildlife centres. But facilitating family-friendly, health-conscious holidays in year-round guaranteed sunshine isn’t its only strength. The art scene in Sharjah is booming and gives it an edge.
The cultural hub of the UAE
January saw the first ever Sharjah Film Platform, which opened the emirate’s cultural calendar with talks, workshops and screenings of 140 films from 40 countries.
But this isn't the only event on the calendar for 2019. The art world will once again turn its attention to the region for Sharjah Biennial 14, from March 7 to June 10, followed by the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, a major programme of architecture-focused events in the MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia), which will run from November 9, 2019 to February 20, 2020.
“Sharjah is renowned for its commitment to art, culture and local heritage,” says Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA). “It’s the best place to experience the secrets of the unique Arabian lifestyle and Islamic culture. Here, tourists can visit more than 20 museums, art galleries and beautifully restored heritage areas.”
Sharjah held the titles of Unesco Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 1998 and Isesco Capital of Islamic Culture in 2014, while Unesco has named it the World Book Capital for 2019, largely due to the annual Sharjah International Book Fair, held in the autumn.
On the right track
Sharjah has its own international airport (though there are currently no direct flights from the UK), three main ports and two enclaves on the east coast of the UAE, providing access to both the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. A new landmark dual carriageway connects the City of Sharjah and the enclave of Khorfakkan, passing through eight miles of rock tunnels, reducing the current 90-minute journey time between destinations by around a third.
“The link will encourage the use of Khorfakkan port, bypassing the Straits of Hormuz, and allow visitors to more easily access the stunning national treasures of the east coast,” says Jasim Al Midfa.
Where to stay
The four-star Four Points by Sheraton, Sharjah and five-star Al Bait Sharjah are among the hotels to have recently opened their doors in the emirate, with many more to come. The latter, located in the Heart of Sharjah cultural centre, features a collection of four heritage houses containing 53 guest rooms, with doubles from £620 per night.
The Heart of Sharjah highlights the city’s “quintessential charm through the restoration of heritage homes once owned by influential Emirati families that had a significant impact on [the city’s] history,” explains Patrick Moukarzel, general manager of Al Bait Sharjah.
Helicopter transfers can be arranged, but the property is only a 20-minute drive from Dubai International, while it takes 25 minutes from Sharjah International. The hotel also offers a spa, an outdoor pool, a fitness centre, an ice cream parlour, a café and two restaurants.
General Hotel Management, the firm behind luxury hospitality brand The Chedi, manages Al Bait Sharjah and has already seen success in the region with The Chedi Muscat in Oman. Building on its achievements, the company now plans to open The Chedi Khorfakkan in 2020.
The 225-key Four Points by Sheraton, Sharjah offers far more affordable accommodation at £69 a night, with complimentary shuttles to downtown Dubai. Facilities include an open-air pool, a separate kids’ pool, a 24-hour gym with sauna and steam room, and four food outlets catering to both families and corporate travellers.
“The increase in trade shows at Expo Centre Sharjah is bringing in more corporate travellers,” says Dany Dagher, complex general manager of the Four Points, “additionally, Four Points, an internationally known brand with a strong loyalty programme, will drive more customers to the destination.”
A promising future
Sharjah’s hotel occupancy rates were at 70 per cent for 2017. In that period, Visit Sharjah (SCTDA) reports that the emirate welcomed 1.7 million guests to 102 hotels and hotel apartments, generating £143 million in revenue, up from £137.7 million in 2016. Almost half of all visitors came from China, while the total number of European tourists climbed by 36 per cent, but the largest increase came in the number of Russian tourists, totalling 266,000, following the move to allow visa on arrival entry to the UAE.
Dubai – host city of the 2020 World Expo – is on track to net 20 million visitors next year, making it the most visited place on earth. This bodes well for the UAE as a whole, with the possibility that a percentage of holidaymakers will choose to stay at or visit neighbouring Sharjah, which has set its sights on hosting 10 million visitors by 2021.
But what the emirate is really hoping is that Sharjah moves out of the shadows of its behemoth neighbour and becomes an attractive destination in its own right.