FROM SAND TO SAIL

Oman 2014 | TOURISM | REVIEW: TOURISM

With tourism a key component of Oman's economic diversification away from oil dependency, an enticing door is held open for business and tourist arrivals alike.

The Sultanate may wisely be pursuing a process of Omanization to ensure a highly skilled local workforce. Its tourism offering, however, is anything but parochial. In fact, Oman has a tourist arrival target of 12 million by 2020, and major infrastructural developments, including airports, hotels, and retail zones are afoot to welcome, water, feed, and entertain them. All this is quite apart from the historic and cultural features that distinguish this ancient Gulf nation. The numbers show that ongoing promotional campaigns under the “Beauty has an address—Oman" banner are winning attention abroad.

UN(BELIEVABLE) NUMBERS

The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)—an agency tasked with promoting sustainable and universally accessible tourism—in its Tourism Vision 2020 forecasts global international arrivals of around 1.6 billion by 2020. The figure is broken down into 1.2 billion of intraregional arrivals and 378 million long-haul visitors. Meanwhile, travel to the Middle East is forecast to grow at an annual rate of over 5%, exceeding the world average of 4.1%. The UNWTO's Tourism Highlights 2013 reveals that Oman, already among the top four tourist destinations in the GCC, is vying for first place in the Gulf region. The top three GCC countries for tourism receipts in 2012 were the UAE ($10.4 billion), Saudi Arabia ($7.43 billion), and Qatar ($2.85 billion), with Oman coming in at fourth. Significantly, the Sultanate broke the magic $1 billion mark in international tourism revenues that year on a print of $1.09bn. This gave it a 2.3% stake in total international tourism receipts in the Middle East for the year, up by $300 million from 2010.

Continued economic weakness in Europe in recent years has prompted the Omani government to rely more on the GCC and BRICs, and the promise of flush wallets from emerging markets. Several Gulf nations are of course synonymous with opulent retail outlets and hotels that in some cases consider the five-star moniker insufficient for their offering. While big name hotels target high-end regional holidaymakers, alternatives such as eco-tourism and spas are also on the rise, an example being The Chedi, a five-star establishment opened in 2011.

HOTEL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN

Oman today has approximately 5,331 rooms, or 7% of the GCC's forecast supply under development. According to Muscat Daily, it will see an additional 3,000 rooms by the end of 2014. Room capacity is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.3% over the 2011 to 2016 period, adding a further 2,000 rooms. David Crickmore, CEO of luxury goods retailer Amouage, stressed the need for this to TBY by saying, “If we don't want Oman just to be a terminal for travellers flying on elsewhere…we need many more luxury hotels to house the potential influx of tourists." The Ministry of Tourism has staged road shows in India, many citizens of which already live Oman, and Russia too has been wooed. Over recent years, the Sultanate has seen a rise in three- and four-star hotels to broaden its appeal beyond the high rollers.

MICE IN THE ROOM

In 2010, the international tourism industry, worth around $5.7 trillion, accounted for over 9% of global GDP. The MICE sector alone accounted for more than $650 billion of this amount, and Oman is keen to tap into this wellspring. General Manager of the InterContinental Muscat, David Todd, highlighted Oman's appeal for both tourism and MICE visitors by saying that, “You are six-seven hours flying time from mainland Europe. Developing the MICE concept is directly related to the expansion of the international airport and the convention center." He goes on to more specifically say that Oman should focus its nation branding on its cultural offering, as much as its accessibility. “Muscat is not like other big players in the region. Here you get an authentic Arabian experience. With other major cities in the GCC, when you arrive you could be anywhere," he added. Meanwhile, Maitha Al Mahrouqi, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Tourism, described the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre boasting 3,200 seats and four hotels with 1,000 rooms, as “a transformational project."

PLENTY YOU'RE SHORE TO SEA

Fishing is a traditional Omani industry that Vision 2020 aims to support through massive dedicated port construction. Yet, as a littoral country, Oman's seaside has another dimension for tourists. And while the coastal plain accounts for just 3% of the Sultanate's 309,500 square kilometers, it boasts a coastline of 2,092 kilometers. For this reason, the port of Muscat is seeing exclusive redevelopment as a cruise port. In the 2010/2011 season, Muscat's cruise ship passenger arrivals rose notably to 231,100 from just 44,885 in 2007, and the Ministry of Tourism forecast 300,000 arrivals by 2015. A record 2.08 million arrivals were recorded at Muscat International Airport, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA) data. Apart from providing a luxury means of arrival, Oman's waters offer diverse activities ranging from lazing at the beach to diving, and for the more active, yacht charter and competitive sailing, with the Muscat Regatta staged each November being the prime event. The much-plied Strait of Hormuz is located in the Governorate of Musandam. The point where the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Makran, the Sea of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean meet is known as the “Gate of the Lion's Jaws." While the Iranian province of Bandar Abbas lies to the north, Oman holds the remit for managing maritime traffic since the navigable section of the Strait lies within its territorial waters.

HERE'S A FORT

Oman is replete with fortifications that in their quiet beauty today hark back to more bellicose times. A prime example is Jabreen Castle, which dates back to the late 17th century. It is around 20 kilometers from the City of Bahla in the A'Dakhiliyah region. The palace was watered by a traditional aflaj, or underground system of aqueducts, passing through its center. It principle space—the Sun and Moon Room—has a brilliant natural cooling system where 14 windows, half located toward the ceiling and half by the floor, provide circulation.

A DIFFERENT SHIP

As they say, “When in Rome." So when in a desert nation, don't miss the desert. The proverbial ships of the desert are both beasts of burden and a beloved animal in the Sultanate. With their welfare and training overseen by the Royal Camels Unit, those specimens belonging to HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said are also ceremoniously raced. The spectacle of camel racing can be enjoyed during a visit to A'Sharqiyah Sands, a popular site for camping. The original home of the Bedouins, today it is easily accessed for a variety of outdoor activities. Situated adjacent is the wilayat of Badiyah, which offers relaxing oases with sand on three sides. Today, the area is known for sand skiing and four-wheeled-drive sand-duning, but also for horse and camel racing.