TBY talks to Maitha bint Saif Al Mahrouqi, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Tourism, on developing the tourism sector, niche areas, and the MICE segment.

Maitha bint Saif Al Mahrouqi
Maitha bint Saif Al Mahrouqi is Undersecretary of the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Tourism, joining in September 2011. She is an experienced travel and tourism executive and leader and a Board Member of Oman Air, The Wave Muscat, and chairs Oman Sail. She is the driving force behind many of the Ministry’s initiatives to boost the tourism sector’s performance. These include Oman’s highly successful “Beauty has an Address” global branding campaign, leading the Muscat Arab Tourism Capital 2012 campaign, and the development of tactical campaigns with Oman Air and industry stakeholders. Prior to joining the Ministry, she was formerly Country Manager for Oman Air. She is a graduate of Oxford Brookes University.

What role has the Ministry played in the rapid development of Oman's tourism industry in recent years?

Since its formation in mid-2004, the Ministry has provided the institutional framework for the sector's development as well as leading the industry's development and marketing. In addition, in mid-2005, the Oman Tourism Development Company (OMRAN) was formed to accelerate the delivery of strategic infrastructure. As you can see, Oman is taking a managed approach to tourism with the government pro-actively involved in the demand and supply sides of the industry. The results of this work can be seen in several areas including the WEF's Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013, which ranks Oman 57th in the world, up from 69th in 2009. In marketing to attract its visitors, Oman ranked 23rd, thus far ahead of many well-established tourism destinations.

What initiatives are employed by the Ministry to promote niche areas of tourism such as yachting, eco, health, and spa tourism?

Niche tourism is a major contributor to Oman's overall tourism performance. The Ministry and related government ministries have sponsored international conferences on responsible tourism, geo tourism, and recently a medical tourism exhibition and conference. Our next event is the Arab Aviation and Media Summit 2013, which we are co-hosting with Air Arabia in Salalah. The Ministry oversees the Oman Sail program, which promotes Oman's maritime heritage through competitive sailing. Yacht charter and watersports are also promoted through this platform. Spa tourism is expanding with a focus on our many coastal resorts from Jebel Siffah to the Six Senses Spa Resort at Zighy Bay and the Al Nahda Resort in Al Batinah. In addition to these, in early 2012 The Chedi Muscat opened a brand new spa and wellness center, while the Ministry is overseeing the development of the Six Senses Spa adjacent to the Ritz Carlton al-Bustan Palace Hotel.

How does business tourism feature in Oman's future, especially in regard to the new convention and exhibition center coming online in 2016?

Business tourism has been well established for many years, underpinned by a growing portfolio of domestic events and Oman's hosting of an increasing number of international conferences and exhibitions involving up to around 1,000 delegates. The Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre, with 3,200 seats and four hotels totaling 1,000 rooms, is a transformational project. It will allow Oman to host large international business and MICE events, and make a major contribution to the diversification of the industry from its hospitality base to one that involves a wider range of visitor segments in addition to strengthening Oman's tourism positioning. It is also recognized that the project poses many challenges. For example, we need to consider accommodation and tour options for large events, and how to spread the benefits of city-based business tourism to regional communities.

Could you describe the Ministry's efforts to safeguard the environment?

Our environmental efforts operate on three levels. At the international level, we are an active player in forums on sustainable tourism, for example hosting UNWTO and Responsible Tourism events in recent years. The Declaration on Responsible Tourism Destinations conference, hosted by the Ministry, led to a call by participants including UNESCO, UNWTO, and around 330 delegates, for all tourism agencies, businesses, and participants to take responsibility for ensuring sustainability is central to their business plans and daily operations. The Ministry provides a wide range of industry-related advice on climate change and advocates sustainable outcomes. We believe that this is gaining traction with more stakeholders adopting green building codes and alternative energy. Many resorts and hotels have ISO environmental accreditation, and the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre is a LEED demonstration building. At the community level, the Ministry manages a schools program and participates in many community events, all of which have environmental content.

What role will the tourism industry play in Oman's economic diversification?

Tourism accounts for nearly 2.5% of GDP and contributes OMR650 million annually to economic activity. In the medium term, we expect tourism to account for 5% of GDP. In terms of FDI, the $1.6 billion invested in joint venture projects managed by OMRAN is a healthy indicator of investor interest in our sector, and our expectation is that the investment base will increase rapidly in the medium term.