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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Sharjah’s tourism focus is all about Islamic culture

Sharjah is banking on Islamic and cultural tourism to win its share of the tourism market, despite being in the shadow of Dubai.

Sharjah’s goal to attract tourists faces an obvious and profound challenge: it sits right next to one of the most famous cities in the world, dripping with superlatives and home to the world’s tallest building, the biggest mall, the boldest land reclamations, the ... well, the list for Dubai’s attractions goes on. Compare that to Sharjah – when it launched hop-on hop-off bus tours this year to attract visitors, the on-board commentary including sights like the municipal offices and a desalination plant.

Dubai deliberately pitches itself to a very broad demographic, as demonstrated most markedly by its successful bid to host World Expo 2020. By contrast, Sharjah has opted for a much more focused approach, such as building on its reputation as a centre of Islamic culture to take advantage of the burgeoning field of Islamic tourism. In less than two weeks, this is set to get a significant boost when the Emirate takes on the title of Islamic Culture Capital for 2014, awarded by ministers of culture at an Organisation of Islamic Countries conference in Azerbaijan four years ago. The UAE delegation at the time vaunted Sharjah’s “Islamic cultural panorama” and cited it being named by Unesco in 1998 as the cultural capital of the Arab world.

The focus for the Islamic Cultural Capital celebrations will be based in part on existing attractions, such as the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, and new attractions, like Al Majaz Island, a Dh140 million artificial island being built in Khalid Lagoon and which is intended to be the centrepiece of the emirate’s celebrations as part of the Islamic Culture Capital. The island is expected to be ready to greet visitors in March and will include an open-air amphitheatre capable of seating 4,500 people.

Sharjah’s focus on Islamic tourism is both an intelligent choice and an obvious one, because that gives it a clear point of difference to its far bigger and flashier neighbour. The emirate is backing its vision by enhancing its tourist infrastructure, including a surge in hotel construction and is also looking far into the future. Under construction now is the Heart of Sharjah, a heritage project that in 2025 will augment the museums with a cultural, commercial and residential zone. Sharjah might not have the biggest or the glitziest attractions, but it is showing it does not need them to get a slice of the tourism market.