The last time I went to Sharjah I saw a man in salwar kameez riding a rickety bicycle down the street with a car door balanced perfectly on each shoulder, his arms through the open windows, as if it were a mode of transport he used every day. It was a sight that will stay with me forever.
He was not conducting an experiment in sustainable transport, however, nor was he some sort of avant-garde street performer. Rather, he was a recent customer at one of the area’s many scrap- yards and he was surrounded by crowds of similarly encumbered buyers and sellers.
The street he cycled down was barely paved and flanked on either side by industrial units, lines of great hulking trucks and mountains of scrap metal.
He moved precariously among teeming crowds of welders, cutters, scrappies, drivers and their customers who, I learnt from a group drinking tea on the pavement, were mostly from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, the entire scene could easily have been drawn in Kabul or Faisalabad.
I could have stayed for hours, watching deals being struck with the slap of hands, the haggling, the disagreements and the exchange of goods. The sheer energy and volume of commerce being conducted was intoxicating to observe.
This is how most of us think of Sharjah. It is the industrial emirate. It is where you go when you need cheap car parts or a compressor for your air conditioner.
But there has always been another side to Sharjah that is often forgotten and goes undiscovered by those visitors whose focus is drawn to the glamour of neighbouring Dubai and the importance of Abu Dhabi.
In Sharjah there are golden beaches, resorts, hotels, traditional souqs, sites of international cultural importance and, increasingly, large numbers of travellers and tourists looking to enjoy them.
Sharjah released its annual tourism data for 2012 yesterday and the numbers made impressive reading.
The number of guests staying at hotels and hotel apartments in the emirate increased by a healthy 11 per cent to almost 1.8 million last year from 1.5 million in 2011, the data show.
And the first-half numbers reveal this year is heading for another impressive increase.
Revenues at the same establishments, meanwhile, increased by 27 per cent and occupancy – the holy grail of the hotel industry – was up by 9 per cent at 64 per cent. Again, the first half of this year is looking equally robust.
The growth in arrivals, occupancy and revenue can be charted in direct correlation to a continued increase in investment in the sector by the Government of Sharjah.
In 2011 the emirate invested Dh1.1 billion in tourism, which increased to Dh1.17bn last year. Plans for this year include tourism spending of more Dh 1.24bn with Dh1.32bn budgeted for next year, Dh1.4bn for 2015 and Dh 1.49bn for the year after that.
Sharjah appears to be getting similarly impressive levels of growth as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but with a much more modest outlay. In other words, the emirate seems to be getting much more bang for its buck in the tourism market.
Much of this is down to its no-frills offering.
This strategy has quietly transformed Sharjah airport into one of the busiest in the region. The airport handled 7,516,538 passengers last year and 419,076 tonnes of freight.
Hotel rooms and hotel apartments are much cheaper than those on offer on average in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Of course, there is nothing in Sharjah to compare with the likes of Emirates Palace or the Armani Hotel at Burj Khalifa, but it does not stop the tourists flocking in.
But while the cheaper end of the market has put Sharjah on the global tourism map it is not set to stay that way forever.
There are big plans afoot to develop a host of new attractions and hotels.
Projects like the billion-dirham Kalba eco-tourism initiative, the Sir Bu Nair island eco-tourism plan by Shurooq and the luxury Chedi Khorfakkan resort and spa are expected to significantly upgrade the emirate’s hospitality sector.
Then there is the Heart of Sharjah project that is set to transform Sharjah’s skyline and waterfront from Khalid Lagoon to Al Majarrah area.
Sharjah has targeted completely different tourist markets from Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with the majority of visitors coming in from Russia, Central Asia, Saudi Arabia and neighbouring GCC countries.
It is an attractive destination for Muslim tourists, a strategy which, again, is expected to gain more traction in the coming months and years.
With all this in mind it is easy to see Sharjah as a real complement to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in terms of tourism strategy. Abu Dhabi will have its high-end cultural offering with some of the world’s finest museums and hotels. Dubai will continue with its fast-paced and youthful party town image, while Sharjah presents a family oriented, culturally astute offering particularly attractive to the global Islamic tourist market.
But I would implore the Sharjah tourism chiefs not to abandon the industrial areas as they pursue the bounties of the international travel market. The crowded streets of scrap metal traders in the backside of town are all part of the emirate’s rich cultural tapestry. I for one would gladly pay for a guided tour.