BUILDING MEMORIES

Oman 2015 | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Eng. Wael Al Lawati, CEO of Omran, on creating memorable destinations and experiences, attracting a variety of visitors, and preserving the country's diverse characteristics.

Eng. Wael Al Lawati
BIOGRAPHY
Eng. Wael Al Lawati was appointed CEO of Omran in 2007 following his role in launching The Wave, Muscat, Oman’s first Integrated Tourism Complex. Wael graduated with a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering and obtained a qualification in Real Estate, Hotel Design, and Development from Cornell University. He has also attended executive education programs at Harvard Business School and IMD, Lausanne. Wael has acted as the Vice Chairman of the Middle East Executive Committee of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and he is a Board member of Muscat Hills, which developed the first 18-hole green golf course in Oman, and founding member of the Oman chapter of the Young Arab Leaders Organisation (YAL), in addition to other board and committee memberships of varied entities.

What role does Omran play in the country's tourism industry?

We are focusing on two major areas: hospitality and attractions. Hospitality basically means standalone hotels. Then, attractions are the reasons why you would come to Oman beyond the natural scenery, such as its forts and castles. We have completed a couple of hotels this year, including Atana Musandam and Alila Jabal Akhdar. We officially opened the Duqm Crowne Plaza, which was completed in 2013. We are now lining up some new hotels, for which construction will begin in 2H2014. Omran is also studying various mixed-use entertainment facilities, which the country lacks at the moment. We are trying to create tourism attractions without overdeveloping the country and ruining the main reason people come here in the first place, which is the country's natural attributes.

How is Omran promoting Oman's international brand as an attractive and competitive MICE destination?

This is a new area for us. Because of the lack of suitable venues in the past, all we could do was have hotel-based events, which restricts the size of events. Hotels can have 500 to 600 people, but cannot go beyond 1,000. Our convention center project is placing us in a totally different league. Marketing for MICE is not the same as for leisure. With MICE you need to target specific associations or specific groups, as there are only a handful of people who decide if 2,000, for example, doctors will come to Oman or go to Turkey, China, or elsewhere. It is more focused and requires extra effort. We are competing with established and better-known destinations. We have exhibitions lined up, as well as a few large associations, which is a bonus for us.

The government is investing $6 billion in increasing capacities at international airports in Salalah and Muscat. How does this investment benefit the tourism sector?

Oman is investing in Oman Air, which is now flying to all the major gateway cities. The airport will be ready in time for our events, which takes us into the professional league, as we currently have capacity issues in that respect. We are talking to the government regarding establishing a convention and visitors bureau because that is a request we get all the time. We have prepared a proposal that has been sent to the Cabinet, and we are hoping to receive approval. The exhibition halls and the first phases of the airport will be ready by 2015. From 2016 onward, we will be ready for business. We are looking at exhibitions at the end of 2015, but 2016 is when the machine will really have started working.

How are you protecting and preserving Oman's traditional culture and heritage?

People come to Oman because it is different. From a heritage point of view, we have set up a company that is looking at abandoned villages, existing forts and castles, and so on. We can actually make the experience of visiting a fort meaningful in terms of the facilities being offered, the guide, and the booklets. In terms of the environment, we decided early on to be pioneers of green buildings in Oman; not because it is required, but because we believe it is the right thing for the country. All of our new hotels and convention centers were built to LEED standards.