Oman, the hidden treasure

Relatively few have experienced the wonders of Oman but multiple projects and a flurry of international hotel and tourism operators venturing in are set to turn the quieter corner of the Gulf into a must-see tourism destination. But businesses worry red tape could scuttle plans
Oman, the hidden treasure
By Courtney Trenwith
Fri 09 Jan 2015 09:59 PM

Once discovered, it becomes difficult to understand how Oman has remained so obscure on the international tourism trail.

Its topography and more moderate climate make it an adventurer’s haven, while the only opera house in the region has attracted world-class performers to the capital Muscat, making it a cultural highlight.

Omanis are famous for their unwavering hospitality and down-to-earth nature, particularly when compared to locals from richer neighbouring states.

Yet a mere 1.5 million tourists visited the sultanate last year. By comparison, about 11 million holidayed in Dubai, itself an emirate of only 1 million residents, and Egypt accepted 9.5 million visitors in 2013 despite ongoing unrest.

But the Oman Tourism Ministry director general, Salim Al Mamari, tells Arabian Business the industry is one of the fastest growing in the country and figures are forecast to more than double by the end of the decade as both local and international investors plough millions of dollars into mega developments, rapidly creating dedicated tourism destinations, and, just as pertinently, an increasing number of locally-run tourism operators pop up.

The number of visitors during the first three quarters of 2014 grew by 13 percent to 1.13 million, Al Mamari says. The industry’s contribution to gross domestic product has risen by 2.5 percent annually, and the government is aiming for a 6 percent contribution by 2020.

The number of hotel rooms is planned to more than double to 32,000 by 2020, while five international airports are being either upgraded or built, including a major facility designed to make Salalah a second tourism and trade hub in the expansive country. Muscat International will double in size to a 12 million passenger annual capacity when it opens next year following a $1.8bn upgrade.

The national airline, Oman Air, has ordered 24 new planes to be delivered in instalments over the next four years, including its first Dreamliner, due to arrive shortly, to accommodate expansion plans. Two new destinations already have been launched this month, with the number of passengers expected to near 6 million this year.

Meanwhile, a $1bn conference and exhibition centre is due to open in 2016 with an auditorium for 3,200 people and more than 22,000 sq m of exhibition space. Although two years behind schedule, in true Omani style it will overlook a wadi famous for attracting vibrant birds.

A growing number of international hotel brands also have moved into the country, including Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group, GHM Hotels, Wyndham, Starwood, Shangri-La and Alila, which has just opened the highly anticipated Alila Jabal Akhdar in the dazzling Hajar mountains. All of those are now competing alongside local brands cultivating their own niche, such as Al Nahda.

Three new 18-hole golf courses have added an extra attraction to the list of activities that have long entertained visitors to Oman, particularly scuba diving, fishing, camel racing, turtle watching, hiking, photography, rock climbing and exploring the country’s heritage and markets. 

The world’s largest cruise line company, Royal Caribbean International, will return to Oman from December, after pulling out of the region a couple of years back. It’s planning 16 sailings from December 2015 to March 2016.

Hotel occupancy rates are above 70 percent year-round, bearing in mind that low-lying areas struggle to attract visitors during the hotter months between June and September.

But Al Mamari says there is a point of difference in the growth of tourism in Oman compared to its neighbours — the industry is being built for Omanis and they make up a significant proportion of the guests.

Omanis themselves are playing a crucial role, with about 80 percent of jobs in the industry expected to be filled by locals.

“It is very important to have Omani representation in hotels and tourism outlets to interact with visitors and tourists,” he says. “As opposed to GCC countries that have relied heavily on expats’ presence, tourists visiting Oman are greeted by Omanis the moment they step on an Oman Air flight to Oman, are accompanied by Omani tour guides during their trips and are checked into the hotels by an Omani front desk officer.”

Tourism in Oman really kicked off in 2007 following the opening of the country’s only second five-star luxury hotel, Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, sprawling along a cliff face just outside Muscat.

General manager Mark Kirk says despite doubling the number of luxury hotel rooms in Muscat overnight, Shangri-La’s international marketing of Oman’s natural lure helped to boost occupancy across the industry rather than draw from it.

He says the establishment of a hospitality school for Omanis at the same time proved the government’s assurances that the industry would be driven by locals.

However, he concedes attracting Omanis to the hospitality industry still is “our biggest challenge”.

“You can imagine 15 years ago there were only two hotels, so it’s a new industry,” Kirk, a Brit who has worked in Oman and Dubai in the past, says.

“The majority of them don’t mind working [in hotels] as long as they’re not in the public areas. Omanis are a little bit shy in some ways, a little bit reserved.

“We need to educate people in schools. [In the UK], we would have 500 British chefs wanting to work with us. Here we have to go out and convince [locals] that working in the kitchen is a good job.

“A lot of Omani families grew up with servants from various countries so they don’t understand the service sector. But it will change, it’s just a matter of education and I think the government is on the right path to addressing it.”

The co-founder and CEO of Go Dive Oman, Daryle Hardie, also says areas of red tape are preventing Omani tourism from reaching its full potential, particularly access to work visas and the high level of local employment quotas.

“We’ve got some great things on the table; tourism in Oman is increasing, we just need a little bit more support from the government to make things a bit easier for us,” Hardie, who founded the dive centre with Omani Sayyid Nasr Albusaidi in 2007, says.

“These are fantastic initiatives and it does need to be introduced but it has to be done over time, not like it has been [rapidly enforced] for the last couple of years.”

Hardie says Go Dive Oman has grown “a lot” since it started as a “very small operation” with one boat and a single dive master. Two years ago it partnered with global diving firm Euro-Divers and it now runs two dive centres.

“We’ve [expanded] because there is demand,” he says. “We’re [also] looking at other opportunities on the table; there’s definite growth.”

Kirk says more could be done to boost occupancy levels during the summer. The Shangri-La averages 80-85 percent annually, he says. But during summer it can fall to as low as 40 percent, with the exception of weekends when Omanis fill the rooms, a poignant difference to other areas of the Gulf.

“We have to focus more on good deals for people to stay longer in summer and more activities, more events, going on in the summer months that are promoted by the Ministry of Tourism,” he says.

However, it is unlikely Oman will launch promotions based on shopping or modern architectural wonders; the country has remained adamant its tourism will remain steeped in heritage and culture, as well as outdoor adventure.

“The abundance of naturally occurring sites such as its pristine beaches, jagged mountains and vast deserts are what the country’s main tourism strategy is based on, thus it is not vital for Oman to indulge in man-made and artificial projects to attract tourists to the sultanate,” Al Mamari says, in what is presumably a reference to the skyscrapers and mega malls of neighbouring Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

“Oman’s unique climate, geography and topographical features make it a unique niche in the Gulf. Even though a large mass of Oman is covered in desert, sandstorms are not the norm in comparison to its neighbouring Gulf states. Oman also has a very rich heritage and history with over 500 forts and castles [and] Muscat is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East, dating back to the second century.

“In addition, Oman boasts many old mountain houses and UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Al Ayn Beehive Tombs, the “Aflaj” (man-made water channels) irrigation system, Bahla Fort and the Frankincense Trail. Oman’s rich history includes pre-Islamic archaeological sites such as Job’s Tomb in Dhofar.”

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