Of the seven sheikhdoms that together make up the United Arab Emirates, perhaps just two – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – are familiar names. But while the two largest emirates steal the limelight with ever-grander developments, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah have been working hard to establish themselves as attractive destinations.
While Dubai and Abu Dhabi have gone for show-stopping skylines and modern developments that span the tallest and largest to the cultured and captivating, the other emirates have taken their own approach to attracting visitors. By focusing on the likes of heritage, wildlife and outdoor activities, they make an ideal complement to their more established siblings.
As the third-largest emirate, Sharjah’s appeal lies in history and authenticity. The Heart of Sharjah restoration project, which includes the demolition of some high-rise buildings, will recreate age-old architecture, markets and mosques by 2025.
In contrast, as part of its bid to welcome more than 10 million visitors by 2021, Sharjah is further developing its family product; its newest attraction being Pearl’s Kingdom, a water park with rides and a wave pool.
Also in the pipeline are several ecotourism projects such as Khor Kalba, set in a mangrove coastal reserve. As well as hiking, biking and kayaking, visitors can overnight here in all-new Kalba Kingfisher Lodge’s luxury tents.
Other recent openings include Al Badayer Oasis Lodge (a desert resort among sweeping dunes) and five-room Fossil Rock Lodge, a boutique hotel with a spa. Also on the way are properties from Anantara, Vida and DoubleTree. Budget airline Air Arabia now connects Sharjah to 150 destinations in the Middle East, Europe, North Africa and Asia.
Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, says: “Last year was a great year, during which we welcomed 1.7 million tourists from around the world.
“So far, 2018 has been a remarkable year too – we’re confident we’ll see high numbers of international arrivals by the end of the year.”
He said events such as the annual Sharjah Light Festival would attract a broad audience and the Al Montazah water park, opened in February, would appeal to families.
Sharjah is targeting key Asian markets such as India, China, Indonesia and Malaysia. These new arrivals will use an expanded Sharjah airport, which will be able to handle 25 million passengers per year by 2023.
Neighbouring Ajman is also growing in popularity despite being the smallest of the seven emirates. Easily accessible from the airports in Sharjah (15 minutes), Dubai (30 minutes) and Abu Dhabi (two hours), Ajman’s growing attractions, retail and activities options have boosted arrivals (up by 14% in the first half of 2018).
Visitors are also drawn by new hotels (Oberoi, Radisson Blu and Wyndham all opened properties this year) and flagship developments such as Marina 1, a waterfront leisure park. Authorities hope the investment will help Ajman attract 700,000 visitors next year.
Also under development is Heritage District, due to open next year, while the citywide Qubes project has transformed 45 shipping containers into pop-up eateries. More authentic attractions include Ajman Museum, Ajman Pearl Experience, Souq Saleh for shopping and the wildlife of Al Zorah nature reserve: a protected wetland whose mangroves, creeks and wild flamingos are best seen from a kayak.
Nikki Hain, Middle East product manager at UK-based Premier Holidays, says: “Ajman is the latest emirate capturing people’s attention. It’s just 30 minutes from Dubai airport, so clients can get here quicker than Dubai Palm, for example.”
History and wildlife also feature in Fujairah, which lies across the Hajar Mountains, some 45 minutes from Dubai. “We are the only emirate exclusively fronting the Indian Ocean,” says Fujairah Tourism’s marketing and exhibitions coordinator Omar Bani Hamour, “which means we have completely different sea life to our neighbours. We also have the UAE’s oldest mosque – 700-year-old Al Badiyah – alongside new hotels and family attractions”.
The newest hotels include properties from Fairmont and InterContinental, with Ritz-Carlton and The Address following next year. A wealth of historic attractions make this emirate stand out; Fujairah City has Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Fujairah Museum and a Heritage Village Museum, while further out lie a trio of forts: Fujairah, Al Hayl and Awhala.
The Hajar Mountains form a backdrop to the city that is distinct from the other emirates’ dunes and desert. Here, visitors can hike, mountain bike or try other activities at noticeably cooler temperatures than found on the coast.
Fujairah welcomed 700,000 international tourists in 2017, up 4% on the previous year, with ambitions to reach the one million mark within four years.
Umm Al Quwain
Perhaps the least well-known emirate, Umm Al Quwain is sleepier than its siblings. Tucked between Ajman and Ras Al Khaimah, it’s the antithesis of glitzy Dubai, with few international branded hotels or malls. Instead, its appeal lies in sailing on the lagoon or spotting shorebirds and flamingos in one of several wildlife reserves.
Visitors seeking more active pursuits can windsurf, kayak, canoe or ride horses. Motorised sports include sky-diving, quad biking and motor racing, while youngsters will enjoy the wave pools, slides and lazy river at Dreamland, one of the UAE’s largest water parks. Camel racing will entertain inland at the oasis town of Falaj Al Mualla.
Ras Al Khaimah
The northernmost emirate is known for history, culture and Jebel Jais – the UAE’s highest mountain and home to Jebel Jais Flight, the world’s longest zip-line.
Ambitious growth plans have a target of three million visitors by 2025. Visitor figures are up by 14% for the first half of 2018 to more than 500,000, putting Ras Al Khaimah on course to achieve its target of one million arrivals this year.
“We are investing heavily in developing our attractions and adventure offerings,” says Haitham Mattar, chief executive of Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority. “With our beaches, mountains and year-round sunshine all within 45 minutes of Dubai, we deliver real value-for-money for international and regional visitors.”
Germany is the emirate’s largest international market, followed by Russia, Britain, India and Kazakhstan, while the Nordic region also performs well.
Further growth will be driven by additional hotels: the existing 6,500 rooms will be joined by some 5,000 more over the next few years, including global brands such as Marriott, Movenpick and Anantara.