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Sat 4 Mar 2006 04:00 AM

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A destination on top

Oman is being tipped to top the list of tourism destinations in the Gulf in coming years as the country’s travel industry goes from strength to strength with more five-star hotels and tourism activities

|~|Oman-L.jpg|~|Oman is the place to get in touch with nature and discover the beauty of Arabia, according to Tony Zamora, general manager of the Al Bustan Palace in Muscat (above).|~|The efforts of the Sultanate of Oman’s ministry of tourism to triple tourism in the country by 2010 have not been in vain. The country is rapidly coming to be regarded by many to be one of the most prominent emerging markets in the GCC and the surge in the Sultanate’s popularity in recent years has raised hopes within the tourism sector that the next few years will be a boom time for Oman.

“Here in Oman we are witnessing a transition period where there is a greater interest in visiting the country than ever before,” says Tony Zamora, director of operations for Oman at the InterContinental Hotels Group and general manager of the group’s Al Bustan Palace in Muscat.

Since its inception in 2004, the Omani ministry of tourism has been proactive in driving what Zamora refers to as the country’s “transition”. Relaxed visa regulations now make it easier for travellers from 76 nations to visit the country, and the government has been working towards updating the country’s tourism strategy as part of its current five-year plan.

While public and private investment in the tourism sector over the last decade exceeded RO200 million (US $5.2 million), preliminary estimates are that the investment in this sector is set to double in the next five years.

There are on-going projects to improve the transportation infrastructure and communications systems within the Sultanate, and the construction of a new terminal at Oman International Airport is due for completion this year. Tourism-sector specific infrastructure, comprising hotels, restaurants and the entertainment sector, also continues to show strong growth as major hotel chains seek to capitalise on the country’s unique potential for attracting both leisure and business travel clientele.

“With stunning year-round weather, Oman is the ideal place for a holiday. It is just the place to relax, get in touch with nature and discover the beauty of Arabia in a tranquil setting. But because of the stunning environment, it is also becoming a hot spot for business and MICE travellers,” confirms Zamora.

Traditionally, Oman has always been a favourite destination with travellers from GCC countries, and indeed the country still receives around 50% of its visitors from the neighbouring United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, hotel chain Shangri-La is hoping to help diversify the country’s visitor profile with its new Barr Al Jassah Resort & Spa. After months of eager anticipation two of the resort’s hotels are now open for business and the third is scheduled to be up and running by April this year. Russell Loughland, director of sales and marketing for the Shangri-La, is hopeful the new luxury resort will pique the interest of tourists globally, particularly from Europe, bringing both business and leisure travellers to Oman.

“The resort targets mainly the GCC and European markets, principally the UK and Germany. However, from the guest profiles we have received since the opening of Al Waha and Al Bandar, we can see that in reality we have succeeded in attracting an impressive combination of client sources, covering the Asia Pacific region as well,” he says.

The five-star Al Waha hotel opened in January, offering 302 bedrooms, with a room size from 37m² including balcony or patio, and facilities including a kids’ club, children’s pools, and babysitting facilities to target the family holiday market.

The second of the resort’s hotels, the 198-room Al Bandar, opened in February and targets the business and corporate market, promoting itself as a retreat for meetings and banquets. The five-star deluxe property is the focal point of the entire resort as it is home to the majority of the restaurants and bars, a souvenir souq, ten conference and meetings rooms, and the 700-seater Barr Al Jissah Ballroom.

The final hotel in the resort, the Al Husn hotel, is a six-star deluxe property with 180 bedrooms. Rich in Arabic design and Omani feel, the hotel will open in April, appealing to the luxury travel market with its private beach and gymnasium facilities for guests, a 500m² royal suite, and high-class bars and restaurants. The resort, as a whole, has boosted the total five-star inventory in the Omani market by 60% according Shangri-La’s Loughland. “The new resort offers amazing groundbreaking possibilities, and with facilities such as the Chi spa, the 1000-seat outdoor amphitheatre, and the marina and dive centre, we hope to be able to really put Oman on the map,” Loughland says.

Chris Pike, general manager of the Radisson SAS in Muscat, says that he, for one, has already noticed a significant growth in the awareness of Oman as a high-end tourism brand, not just within the GCC, but also throughout Europe.

“More inbound tour operators are setting up here, regional airlines are looking at increasing flights and international hotel chains are also opening new properties. These are clearly positive signs for Oman’s tourism industry,” he says. Pike adds that in 2005, hoteliers in particular enjoyed a strong, profitable year with high occupancy rates, and he expects the trend to continue.

“Our occupancy increased about 17% in 2005 and our house-rates have also gone up by about 30%. Demand has grown from all ends of the market. We saw an increase in the number of GCC business travellers and a rise in European leisure guests. MICE business has also grown strongly and we averaged 95% occupancy in 2005,” he says.

The Radisson was not alone in its success last year. The performance of the Middle East’s first design-led boutique/lifestyle hotel, The Chedi Muscat, exceeded all expectations in 2005, according to Lore Koenig, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. The 161-room hotel receives the majority of its guests from the UK, Germany and the GCC, and Koenig attributes its solid growth in 2005 to collaboration between the hotel, a global network of travel agents and tour operators, and the Omani ministry of tourism.

“We are working closely with our partners, tour operators from all over the world, to ensure that The Chedi Muscat is featured prominently, and our regional sales offices and representatives are doing a wonderful job in terms of publicising [the property] to travel agents, media and tour operators within their respective countries,” Koenig explains. “In addition, we join the ministry of tourism at all major trade exhibitions held on a yearly basis to support their efforts in promoting the Sultanate of Oman [and] the hotels the country has to offer to its tourists.”

Ejabyah, a destination management company based in Muscat, is also working in conjunction with the ministry of tourism to grow its international client base. Together with the ministry’s system of market-based representatives, which promote Oman through various activities and promotional campaigns in countries across Europe, Ejabyah is helping to build awareness of Oman, particularly with customers in the UK, Germany, France and Italy.

“We have built up a sizeable network of agents to attract these main markets and are in regular contact with them,” adds Michael Crawley, managing director of Ejabyah.

“We are now seeing an increase in enquiries from Russia. Perhaps most significantly, however, is the fact that we have seen twin centre Dubai-Oman holidays, which previously tended to stop for four nights in Dubai and only one or two nights in Oman, start to change their itineraries in order to offer three nights in Dubai and three nights in Oman,” he notes.

Crawley has also noticed an increase not only in arrival numbers, but also in terms of per-person spending, a trend that has been apparent at a number of Oman’s hotels throughout 2005. “Business this year has been much better than in previous years — more guests have been accommodated, and they have been dining in all our restaurants and taking advantage of all the activity packages we have on offer,” confirms Pinky Cayabyab, sales and marketing manager at the Al Sawadi Beach hotel.

In light of the increased interest in all aspects of its facilities, the 100-room, chalet-style hotel has carried out a host of upgrades and improvements. The Al Sawadi Beach has replaced furniture and fixtures in its guest rooms, and upgraded the equipment of its PADI licensed dive centre, acquiring an additional boat to transport the ever-growing number of divers to the Dimaniyat islands. Two new restaurants have also been opened to better cater to the different tastes of its customers, with The Fire & Spice serving Far Eastern and Asian cuisines and the Al Khanjar serving traditional Omani dishes. Finally, the hotel has introduced better value for money with its all-inclusive packages, with and without diving.

As with many of Oman’s hotels, the Al Sawadi Beach found that with improved facilities came a more diverse range of visitors during 2005. “Our main markets are Italians, Austrians and Germans. Recently, however, cruises from the US, Germany and France have also started coming to Muscat as part of their itinerary,” Cayabyab says.

Although this type of leisure travel may be Oman’s primary revenue stream at present, a rise in the number of properties offering conferencing facilities has resulted in a growth in the number of business travellers entering the country over the last 12 months.“With the improvements in the development in Oman as a whole, [and] our change in positioning the hotel more toward the corporate business sector, our occupancy and average rates have increased, which reflects a positive increase in our business,” says Paul Diab, general manager and director of operations at the Golden Tulip Seeb in Muscat.

With four different hotels in its Oman portfolio, Golden Tulip is well positioned to target all possible market segments in the country. While the 177-room hotel in Muscat caters primarily to corporate, airline and tourist business, the Khasab, Nizwa, and the recently acquired 50-room property in Dibba, allow Golden Tulip to also tap the leisure, incentive and tour operator business. The hotel group has also signed an agreement to open the Golden Tulip Hotel and Resort at Mirbat in Salahlah’s Dohfar region in the first quarter of 2007.

Another ambitious tourism plan in the Sultanate is the development of the $800 million resort complex known as The Wave. Built on reclaimed land along the Seeb seafront, the wave will stretch along 7.3km of beachfront west of Muscat and is scheduled to open in 2009. The resort will include three hotels, a golf course, a marina with yacht club and upscale real estate.

“The Wave is designed to contribute to the experience of Oman, a country with fascinating heritage and astonishing natural beauty,” says Mohsin bin Khamis Al-Balushi, Oman’s undersecretary of tourism. “We have a clear vision for The Wave, which will be a fully integrated premium tourism and residential resort in Oman.”

The western edge of The Wave will accommodate a five-star, 200-room beachfront hotel and spa. A 300-room golf and conference resort nearby will accommodate guests wishing to play at the newly constructed 18-hole golf course, and an additional 505 residential villas will overlook the golf course and the ocean.

Further expansion of Oman’s tourism industry comes in the form the RO119 million ($308 million) Al Sawadi Tourism project. It is hoped that the resort will provide a strong stand-alone destination for European guests as well as a must-see attraction for tourists from the GCC countries.

Located on approximately 34km² of land within Oman’s Barka region, the Al Sawadi resort will form the first high class traditional Omani-style resort. When completed in 2009, the resort will include various luxury hotels, two 18-hole golf courses, a golf and country club, a family water park, private villas and a multitude of leisure, entertainment and sports facilities.

“The diversification of tourism products is one of the main points of the tourism strategy, as it attracts a large number of tourists and boosts competitiveness regionally and globally,” says Rajha Bint Abdullameer Bin Ali, Oman Minister of Tourism.

“[We have] programmes to renovate forts and castles. There are also plans to develop caves to promote adventure tourism. Another project aims at building routes in mountainous areas in the Muscat Governorate and Shariqiyah and Dakhilia regions. Maritime tourism is catching on [and] the ministry’s plan includes a project of [cruise liners],” she continues.

With such wide and varied plans in the pipeline, the future certainly looks bright for one of the Middle East’s more traditional tourist destinations. The ministry of tourism’s commitment to developing the country’s natural resources, and its concerted efforts to promote Oman’s reputation in Europe and further a field, will continue to improve visitor numbers and encourage further investment from international hotel chains. This will no doubt help Oman to secure its place at the heart of the Middle East’s tourism industry in the not-too-distant future. ||**||

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