Holidaymakers and Meetings Industry clients who don't want to stray too far from home this summer would do well to explore the money-saving offers available in Muscat this year.
Most GCC holidaymakers bound for Oman this summer will be headed straight for Salalah, but locals and expatriates looking to take advantage of discounted rates might consider a city break in Muscat, either as a stop over en-route to a second destination or as part of a twin centre with Salalah.
Luxury seekers who want to spend a long weekend lounging in a five-star hotel have plenty to choose from, including Shangri-La's Barr al Jissah Resort and Spa, the newest hot property in the city.
Those in search of more than a city and beach holiday might want to use Muscat as a base for excursions to the surrounding areas or a starting point for a driving holiday around the Sultanate.
Although it does not get soaked by the cooling rains that turn the south of the country into a lush green oasis, Muscat is comparatively cooler than the rest of the Middle East during the summer, and as Oman Tourism's Mark Senior points out, most of the tourist attractions in the city are air conditioned.
"Even the old palaces that aren't air-conditioned are built in the traditional way that will keep people cool when they visit," he says.
Senior is director of Bahrain-based Afkar Marketing Company, which represents Oman Tourism in the GCC.
He acknowledges that Muscat has its limitations as a standalone destination, but encourages agents to sell the city as an add-on or stopover.
"At this time of year many people are planning their holidays outside the region, plus there are clients who travel to Dubai for short breaks during the summer too," he explains.
"What we propose is that you urge your clients to consider Oman as a twin-centre break with Dubai, but also as a stand alone destination that is fabulous for families and also offers quite unique soft adventure opportunities."
Oman's Ministry of Tourism director general Salim Bin Adey Al-Mamari says Oman is "different to other GCC countries" because of its history, uniqueness, culture, and environment, and because of the safety, quietness and the cleanness of the country.
"We always target the high end and we are looking for responsible tourism. Oman is a year-round destination because the climate differs from one place to another," he explains.
Within the Muscat city limits, the Bait Al Zubair Museum, the Muttrah Souk and The Grande Mosque are some of the key tourist attractions, all of which welcome visitors of all nationalities to come inside and explore - The Grande Mosque even has a daily morning tour for non-Muslims, he adds.
Regular travellers put the driving time from Dubai to Muscat at somewhere between four and six hours, depending on the number of sightseeing stops customers take on the scenic drive or the speed at which they drive.
For holidaymakers travelling from anywhere else in the GCC, Oman's national carrier, Oman Air, operates an extensive flight network to regional destinations, while regional national carriers Gulf Air, Qatar Airways, Kuwait Airways, Etihad Airways and Saudia all operate regular flights to the Omani capital.
UAE-based low cost carrier Air Arabia flies daily from Sharjah to Muscat and Kuwait-based Jazeera Airways flies four times weekly from Kuwait via its second hub in Dubai.
The rate race
The demand for rooms in Salalah during the summer means that Muscat hotels drop their prices or offer customers extra nights, two-for-one deals on tours, or spa treatments as incentives to compete for business.
Probably the city's most prestigious property, InterContinental's Al Bustan Palace is currently closed for renovation, and is not scheduled to reopen until December, but the chain's sister property, The InterContinental Muscat, is still going strong.
The latter 258-room property has 11 meeting rooms, including a 704m² ballroom, that can cater to up to 500 guests in banquet style, making it a popular choice for Oman's emerging meetings industry.
"Currently that is a small new market we are looking at," says Harish Neel, assistant director of sales and marketing, InterContinental. "In fact the whole of Oman is looking at MICE at this point.
"There has been a lot of interest, especially since Oman is becoming more popular with tourists and companies wanting to come in. Through the summer Muscat does normally take a bit of a drop in terms of occupancy levels, but then again at this point there are [few] direct flights to Salalah so people coming through Muscat might want to stay a day or two for a leisure break.
"However, knowing the growing business demands in Oman, summer is looking quite promising for the corporate side of business."
According to the Ministry's Al-Mamari, there are currently some 8700 rooms in Oman, but the government hopes to increase that figure to around 13,000 by 2011.
The newest hotel on the Muscat hospitality scene is Shangri-La's 681-room Barr al Jissah Resort and Spa, which now accounts for some 47% of the city's five-star hotel room inventory.
The property is in effect three hotels in one, comprising Al Waha, a family resort mainly focused on the leisure market; Al Bandar, an up-market property for couples and corporate clients, and Al Husn, a self-proclaimed six-star property for luxury travelers and corporate clients.
"It's an excellent place for a honeymoon or if you are married, somewhere to take your wife on your anniversary," explains Tamer Mecky, director of business development at the hotel.
"We can cater to indoor meetings of up to 900, and we have an amphitheatre with an open garden that can cater to up to 1200 guests. We have an attraction that is perfect for the MICE and incentives market; the Omani Heritage Village. It showcases how the Omanis used to live years before. Visitors are shown how they made the Kandjar (the little knife that they carry in their belt), and they get a souvenir too."
While most visitors come from Europe, substantial numbers of European ex-pats living in the UAE have stayed at the hotel since it opened four months ago: "It's only four-and-a-half hours from Dubai if you drive - people would do this just to go and see the dolphins," Mecky says.
"We have witnessed an increase in the number of visitors from Kuwait, as well as the UAE. Saudi Arabia is yet to grow more; the Saudi market is huge and we should get a better share of that. Salalah is very popular, but Muscat is not yet - it is getting there though."
Destination management companies like Zahara Tours are working to grow the meetings industry market, developing specialised itineraries for incentives groups, or adding a twist of adventure to tried and tested outings.
"With MICE groups, instead of the normal Muscat city tour, we will enhance the programme by making it a sort of rally," says Harsh Abrol, manager, Zahara Tours.
"We give them some clues to get from point A to point B and so on, and then we take them to a souk. If they were normal tourists we would take them around and explain to them what everything is, but if it is a MICE group, we would give them a small amount of pocket money and some scraps of paper with words written in the Arabic language and then they have to buy these things."
He continues: "Few non-Arabs know how to read and write Arabic so they have to go to the shopkeeper and interact with them; talk to them and create a repertoire. We need to think out of the box for this market."
The Omani government is currently building a convention centre, part of a mixed-use project that will also include a shopping centre and several hotels that will cater to around 7000 people when completed in 2010.
Even clients who plan to spend their time in Oman exploring the countryside outside of Muscat will still have to use the capital as a gateway to the rest of the country, and they can save considerable amounts or money by basing themselves in the city given the range of summer offers available.
"We get a lot of Kuwaitis going deep sea fishing year round, so you can combine that into an itinerary for a client and add on a couple of days in Muscat," says Senior.
"Typically a reduction in Muscat in the summer months can be 50% to 60% off high season rates. They can get value adds at hotels for very good prices including dolphin watching tours and other incentives."
The Ministry's Al-Mamari says it is important to bring agents from the GCC to Oman to experience the product for themselves: "Nobody can sell your destination unless they like it and to like the destination they have to be convinced about the product. In order to be convinced [the agent] has to come and see and discover for himself," he concludes.