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Smart Tourism and Global Challenges! Sharjah looks ahead to SITTF 2021

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Sharjah is gearing up for its first travel and tourism forum to take place since the unprecedented global lockdown, which is just one day away. We speak with HE Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA) about what’s on tap and why delegates this time are in for a treat.

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TD: What are you most excited about for this year’s event?

 The forthcoming Sharjah International Travel and Tourism Forum (SITTF) 2021 is particularly exciting for us as it represents a significant upscaling of the forum’s previous incarnation, the flagship annual Sharjah Hospitality Forum. The decision to enhance the platform was taken because of the new realities the tourism and travel industry faces in the post-pandemic era, which has changed much of how the sector operates through a new focus on safety and security, and also because of the heightened importance being given to environmental considerations and sustainability. Under its rebranded status, SITTF 2021 will be the first Sharjah travel and tourism forum to take place since the unprecedented global lockdown, meaning that it is perfectly placed to facilitate discussions on the new opportunities that are presenting in a world that is reopening once again. The forum will be a dedicated platform that will enable local and international experts and stakeholders to come together, engage in productive discussions, and ensure the continued progress of Sharjah’s and the region’s tourism sector.

TD: What is the key focus of the event this year?

Held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, SITTF 2021 with its theme ‘Smart Tourism and Global Challenges’ will serve as a global platform that brings together entrepreneurs and experts in travel and tourism from Sharjah and around the world to share inspiring insights, ideas, and future scenarios for the sustainable development and growth of tourism in the emirate and the region. Under the spotlight will be topics that include how entrepreneurship can stimulate the tourism sector and drive sustainable growth, the growing significance of smart tourism, the leadership skills needed for success, and how innovation-led services can enhance the customer experience. Also on the agenda is the growing role that travel blogs play in marketing tourist destinations, with influencers an increasingly important marketing tool for tourism companies keen to promote their products and services. In short, SITTF 2021 is the perfect forum to explore global developments in an industry that is seeking new and sustainable methods to ensure that it remains resilient, dynamic and forward-looking in the post-pandemic era.

TD: Compared to, say, the 2018, 2019 and 2020 conventions, how will attendees find this year’s event? What will Covid have made different at the event?

The key difference is that Covid-19 has compelled us to enable virtual and remote attendance alongside in-person participation. We don’t see this in any way as a compromise, but rather something that confers a whole host of benefits. It enables us to gather together more participants and experts than ever before, with geographical borders and boundaries no object to active involvement in the event. Pre-covid, the organising of such a forum using a hybrid format would have been an imposing undertaking, but one positive impact of the virus is that it has accelerated the transition to tools and services that facilitate digitally-enabled participation, meaning that as an organisation, Sharjah Commerce and Development Authority is completely comfortable with this new format. Added to this, our topics have developed into new areas, with safety and sustainability in the industry having become major themes over and above previous years. This has had the effect of bringing in new sets of stakeholders, as well as encouraged innovative thinking and creative modes of working. Another aspect is how the rise in social media usage, in part as a result of the lockdown, has led to a proliferation of bloggers, with influencers also an important part of the travel and tourism landscape. All these are tremendously exciting areas that form part of the post-covid travel and tourism ecosystem and we are looking forward to discussing these – and many more – at SITTF 2021.

 TD: For the first time last year, you introduced a virtual format and this year, there is a hybrid event. Could you throw more light on how the event will pan out this year?

Virtual events have been hugely successful for a number of reasons, not least safety, during the pandemic. However, a need for physical interaction remains and finding a way to combine the benefits of the virtual with the physical events is the way forward. SITTF 2021 will follow a traditional agenda of keynote addresses, presentations, panel discussions and breakout workshops, with engaging speakers, interactive content and insight-generating sessions remaining the cornerstone of the event’s success. Creating in-person and digital events that offer equal value may bring challenges, but with online platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Webex, we are confident that SITTF 2021 will be as successful – if not more so – than the previous editions of the Sharjah Hospitality Forum.

TD: Now that people have become fully vaccinated and have plenty of vacation time, what’s your outlook on Middle East travel?

I am confident in the future of travel and tourism in the Middle East. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has forecast that, following a 51 percent drop in 2020, the sector will grow by around 27 percent this year, with the council predicting a slow but steady recovery. More and more people are keen to take trips abroad now that restrictions are easing. The Middle East region represents a good choice for travellers who want somewhere that is exotic yet only a short flight away, with the region just four hours from major markets. These travellers will be a welcome boost to the region’s economy and international spending is expected to grow by about 38 percent this year, driven by a rise in visitors from neighbouring countries. Also from an economic perspective, the sector is expected to offer increasing employment opportunities as travel and tourism picks up. Following the devastating impact of the pandemic, which led to a loss of about 1.2 million travel and tourism jobs last year, employment in the sector in the Middle East is set to rise by 1 per cent in 2021. with this to increase to an annual 8.2 per cent in 2022. This will provide an additional 470,000 travel and tourism jobs to a total of 6.2 million people employed in the sector. While these figures bode well, the one thing they can’t quantify is the ‘feel good factor’ – something that is definitely being experienced at the moment and which is adding to confidence in the industry.

TD: How will the event help in shaping up the tourism strategy for Sharjah?

The tourism sector is essential to Sharjah’s sustainable development and a key contributor to its growth. With its host of insight-forming activities and productive discussions, SITTF 2021 will provide SCTDA with the information needed to advance its future directions in the travel and tourism realm. The platform is a valuable tool for us to highlight strategies and efficient solutions for the sustainable growth in travel and tourism, as well as to analyse international success stories and best practices in new fields, such as sustainable and smart tourism. With the forum exploring inspiring models presented by leading experts and stakeholders in the tourism sector, both from Sharjah and around the world, we are confident that it will lead to constructive recommendations that will be instrumental in shaping the emirate’s future tourism landscape.

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