GOING PLACES

Oman 2014 | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Wael Al Lawati, CEO of OMRAN, on government investment in infrastructure, environmental initiatives, and diversification plans.

Wael Al Lawati
BIOGRAPHY
Wael Al Lawati was appointed CEO of OMRAN in 2007 following his role in the launching of The Wave. He is also a Member of the Board of Yiti Tourism Development Company, Muriya Tourism Tourism Development Company, Oman Sail, and Injaz Oman, as well several other organizations. Before joining Omran, Al Lawati was Vice-Chairman of the Middle East Executive Committee of Urban Land Institute (ULI), Board Member of Muscat Hills, Vice-Chairman and Board Member of Oman Society of Engineers (OSE), and a Founding Board Member of the Oman Society of Contractors (OSC). He graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and obtained a qualification in Real Estate as well.

How has OMRAN grown since its inception in 2005?

OMRAN was established in 2005, and I joined in 2007. The key challenge was to build up the team to deliver on the government's ambitious plans for the sector. This included establishing an asset management team, project development team, and a megaprojects team. We are 100% owned by the government, acting as its executive arm in tourism and real estate. This means we manage directly or through joint ventures all new projects and investments. We support the government in an advisory role in projects, marketing, and promotion. Our investment arm participates in joint ventures with domestic and international investors, and our focus over the next few years is on domestic tourism. We are looking at projects across the whole country, be it heritage, support, or leisure. The focus was previously on accommodation; however, now it is to provide something that is smaller and well rounded.

What environmental initiatives does OMRAN promote?

Our environmental initiatives stem from Oman's belief in the need to protect the environment. His Majesty has always been very keen on preserving the environment; therefore, architectural guidelines and restrictions are designed to protect and preserve the traditional culture of Oman, as well as promote the green agenda of the country. At the moment, there is a lack of understanding of green buildings; hence, we have been spearheading building awareness over the past few years. All of our new hotels will be constructed under green guidelines and obtain the internationally recognized LEED certification. This involves looking at buildings holistically from a design, construction, and operational point of view, so you can be assured their impact on the environment is minimized. We were the founding members of the Oman Green Building Council, so it is not just us building a few green buildings here and there, but trying to establish a body of knowledge within Oman so that others can make use of it to push the agenda within the municipality and the Ministry of Environment into the future.

How instrumental will the government's investment in infrastructure be for the tourism industry?

The expansion of the airports is the single most important development from our point of view. One of the main complaints we hear at the moment is that the airports lack capacity. The government is undertaking major expansion plans as well as building new airports, which will attract new business. For me, as far as tourism goes, it is the airline expansion and the airport that will help, especially for business tourism. When you are competing internationally to host an event with 5,000 doctors, engineers, or geologists, it is all about convenience. Our timing is fortuitous in that the airport and the Convention Centre will open almost simultaneously. We are looking at serious investment in Salalah because it has so much potential. Again, the expanded airport there will help tremendously, running more direct flights. There is existing infrastructure now in Duqm, with the port and the dry dock, and with the new free zone, which is going to create its own business. These are the destinations outside of Muscat that will benefit from heavy infrastructure investment in the future.

What is your vision for OMRAN and for the wider tourism industry within the Omani economy?

Our view as developers is the target for 2020, set back in 1995 at 3% of GDP, which has already been achieved today, some eight or nine years early. It is quite clear that this sector has a lot of potential, and, more importantly, it is a great job creator, because tourism is relatively inefficient in terms of manpower versus the high-tech industries of oil, gas, and manufacturing, which rely heavily on automated systems today. A $2 billion investment in oil and gas creates 300 or 400 jobs, whereas a $2 billion investment in real estate or tourism creates many times more than that. Our vision also has to be tied to projects that help alleviate some of the social and economic problems of the country. It is difficult to put a figure on, but I think even up to 10% of GDP is a reasonable target.