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Thu 11 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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Global vision

As Sharaf Travel prepares to expand into new markets we meet its chairman Salah Sharaf.

As Sharaf Travel prepares to expand into new markets we meet its chairman Salah Sharaf.

With the Middle East's travel and tourism industry expected to account for 11% of the region's GDP this year alone, it is no surprise that business is booming for Sharaf Travel.

Salah Sharaf, chairman of Sharaf Group, Travel and Tourism, says the company has had one of its most successful years of business ever so far in 2008. It has also doubled in size in the past five years.

"It's going excellently, I can say," he boasts.

Some people might complain that there’s a lot of competition now but this year has been one of our most successful.

"It's one of the best years that we've had so far and, while some people might complain that there's a lot of competition now, this year has been one of our most successful."

Competition is certainly not something that Sharaf is scared of. The huge growth of the UAE's tourism sectors means that the number of travel operations has expanded rapidly even since Sharaf Travel set up in 1991.

But, says Sharaf, it is only through increased competition that the quality of the service provided by travel companies in the UAE will improve.

"This sort of competition is healthy," he says.

"It makes people think outside the box and deliver good customer service. If there is no competition then there will be no improvement."

Thinking outside the box is what Sharaf Travel and its founder Ibrahim Sharaf specialise in. The company is not afraid to take a risk - hence becoming the sales agent for Virgin Galactic in the region.

And Ibrahim, Sharaf's father and chairman of the Sharaf Group, will be one of the first Arabs to travel to space after buying a ticket last year.

"I think it will be a great experience for him," says Sharaf. "He is an adventurer, he's been to the North and South Poles and he's crossed Siberia all the way, driving from the furthest point in Russia.

"We don't have to worry about him doing this trip - he has a strong heart."

As well as joining the space travel market, the company is also pursuing more down-to-earth opportunities through international expansion and the opening of a chain of Sharia-compliant hotels.

Sharaf reveals that the company hopes to open Sharia hotels in all the markets where it currently operates.

One property will open in October in Dubai, and another in the emirate's Business Bay area next year.

Sharaf says the company will lease out the hotels to management companies. It has not yet come up with a name for the chain.

"These will be luxury four to five-star hotels," he says.

"They will be aimed at a mix of people; both families and business travellers.

"The Sharia-compliant hotels will be in the markets where people know about the Sharia-compliant concept. You cannot open Sharia-compliant hotels somewhere where people don't know about it. You could not open it somewhere like London."

He goes on to say that he believes there will be strong demand for the hotels from visiting Gulf tourists.

"If you look at the demand for Sharia-compliant banking products, and insurance companies, for instance, this shows that there is demand in the market for these types of products."The same will apply to the hotels."

Sharaf also reveals the company's plans for international expansion - particularly into the India market, where it forecasts strong demand.

It is opening its first Indian office in Bombay in October or November this year - and hopes that this will be the first of many.

"We as a group have a lot of investment in India," Sharaf points out.

To find the right quality of people is difficult. It’s easy to find management professionals but the people at the entry point are very hard to find.

"We operate the cargo railways, where we have a concession with the Indian government, and we have the shipping network, logistics and warehousing facilities there, as well as real estate.

"We'll start in the country with a general sales agency, which will represent our products.

"The Indian economy is booming. There are a billion people over there and of that around 5% are affluent people. That's a big number."

He says he believes there could be particular potential for demand for Virgin Galactic space tickets from the Indian market.

"Maybe some of those 50 million people might want to go to space.

"I believe there will be strong demand for space tickets there."

Sharaf says that, as well as India, the company is planning to expand into Bahrain and Kuwait, and will also consider opening offices in any of the 40 countries that currently form part of its shipping network.

"We will look first into those countries and then, if there's positive growth and a tourism infrastructure there, we will go into those markets," he says.

One of the biggest obstacles to the growth of Sharaf Travel that he sees is personnel shortages, which he says is a big challenge facing the whole travel and hospitality industry in the UAE.

"The biggest challenge, I can say, is in the area of human resources," he states.

"Dubai today is a place where thousands of people move to the city every single day, and with all the new organisations being set up, it has become very easy for people to keep moving from job to job and from organisation to organisation.

"To find the right quality of people is difficult. It's easy to find management professionals but it's the people that are there at the entry point that are very hard to find."

Sharaf's own entry to the business was not something he planned as a student, having originally intended to study architecture or become an artist.

"I never thought of this [entering the family business]," he admits.

"I wanted to study architecture, but then I went into hospitality."

But he insists he has no regrets. "It's good to be in the business instead of becoming an architect or artist, which is what I wanted to be," he says. "With artists, their paintings only go up after the person dies."

And given the success that Sharaf currently enjoys, it's not surprising that he has no regrets about becoming part of the family firm.

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