Its UAE neighbour has been getting all the attention lately, but Oman has a plan to change that. If the nation can harness growing interest in the Middle East as a tourist destination and raise its profile, it could be on to a winner. We spoke to Her Excellency Maitha Al Mahrouqi, under secretary of the Ministry of Tourism for Oman, to find out more.
What is the strategy for boosting tourism to Oman?
The Oman Ministry of Tourism’s 2040 Tourism Strategy is based on a cluster approach that creates a series of unique tourism experiences in different areas of Oman, reflecting local culture and heritage. The Ministry is trying to encourage visitors to spend some time in Muscat before escaping to the cool of the mountains, having a true Bedouin experience in the desert or travelling down to Salalah in the south of the Sultanate, which has a different climate entirely.
The Ministry is focusing on pushing Salalah’s experiential offering. Salalah is becoming an increasingly popular destination and the opening of the brand new airport in Salalah is playing an important role in tourism development in this region. The multi-product offering, including a pristine coastline, a picturesque mountain chain, and the vast expanse of the desert presents a variety of special and unusual experiences.
Meanwhile, tourism infrastructure across Oman is being rapidly enhanced, with the planned opening in the near future of the new extended Muscat International Airport. Furthermore, several five-star resorts opened in 2016, including the Anantara in Jebel Akhdar and Salalah. Additionally, a refurbished Sheraton re-opened in Muscat and construction is underway on Oman’s first W Hotel.
The Tourism Strategy has identified digital marketing and promotion as the most effective platforms to promote Oman as a preferred and top-of-mind tourism destination. As such, efforts are being channelled into those particular vehicles of communication in order to boost tourism in the destination.
The priority is to ensure that the experiential tourism offering in Oman continues to develop sensitively, protecting both the physical and cultural environment, and that the destination retains its identity and heritage, while showcasing the country and people to an international audience.
What is the tourist profile?
Oman caters for holidaymakers looking for a truly authentic, quality Arabian experience. Oman is witnessing an increase in travel from those consumers with an experiential travel focus. Visitors are interested in history and culture and activities such as sailing, cycling, trekking, golf, diving, spa and wellness and other special interest groups. It is predicted that these markets will continue to grow as Oman’s product offering develops. Special-interest groups constitute one of the fastest-growing segments of world tourism, and Oman perfectly caters for that category.
How many tourists do you hope to attract by 2040 and how will you reach these predictions?
By 2040, Oman aims to attract more than five million international visitors, in addition to same-day visitors and domestic tourists, making tourism one of the most significant income generators in the Sultanate, at just over six per cent of annual GDP.
These figures will be achieved by promoting Oman as a year-round destination for tourists – with water sports, mountain escapades and luxury hotels included in a new summer campaign designed for visitors from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Muscat and Ras Al Hadd near Sur, Al Jabal Al Akhdar and Jabal Shams are among the varied destinations offered in the packages. Oman will also be targeting business travellers and promoting MICE tourism with the opening of Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre in Muscat at the end of 2016.
Is the strategy shaped by upcoming events in the region, such as Dubai’s Expo and the World Cup in Qatar?
Oman is certainly in a position to capitalise on events taking place in the region by offering tourists a seamless and hassle free multi-centre holiday. Over 2,000 new hotel rooms opened in 2016 alone and Oman will have the capacity to welcome tourists from Dubai and Qatar following the Expo and World Cup.
We’ve seen the attractions industry developing rapidly in Dubai. What role does the attractions industry play in Oman tourism?
Currently, Oman is known for its UNESCO-recognised heritage sites, beaches, mountains, old markets and the Royal Opera House in Muscat. Over the next few years, as more resorts open and tourism increases, it is predicted that there will be more developments in the attractions industry in Oman. Plans are underway to build a theme park complex in Barka in northern Oman [see below].
What are Oman’s flagship attractions?
Currently, a lot of tourists are interested in boat trips and turtle watching along the east coast around the city of Sur, hiking and camping in Al Jabal Al Akhdar and diving in Masira Island. Muscat is visited more for the culture and heritage of Oman, with the Royal Opera House and the National Museum as some of the main attractions. Jebel Shams and Al Jabal Al Akhdar are popular for mountain retreats.
What attractions have opened lately?
The National Museum opened its doors to the public last year, showcasing the cultural heritage of the Sultanate from prehistoric times to modern day.
What attractions are planned?
Plans are underway to build a 150 hectare (370 acre) theme park complex in Barka in northern Oman. The multi-cluster development is being built by the Muscat National Development Company and plans include an integrated theme park, wildlife attraction, waterpark, equestrian centre and edutainment centre. The complex will also feature multiple hotels, a residential zone and retail areas.
The Oman Tourism Development Company launched the $1.3bn (£1bn, €1.2bn) Mina Sultan Qaboos Waterfront project aimed at transforming Port Sultan Qaboos into a major tourism based mixed-use waterfront destination. As per its initial launch in 2015, the project is planned in four phases. The first phase consists of a fisherman’s wharf, fish souq, a five-star marina hotel, a four-star family hotel, residential, destination shopping, restaurants, cafes, boutiques, entertainment and cultural facilities, as well as a superyacht and leisure boat marina. It will be completed by 2020.
An agreement has been signed for the construction of a new waterpark development in Salalah. The first phase of the waterpark is currently under construction. The project will include six types of water rides, a restaurant, a coffee shop, parking and green areas.
Majarat Oman, the Sultanate’s biggest indoor theme park is being built in the premises of the Al Sawadi Beach Resort and is planning a soft opening in 2017. The theme park is a futuristic, alien-themed indoor attraction, which offers a classic mix of all entertainment elements for the family.
The Sultanate’s first snow park, part of the Palm Mall Muscat project, will be a new-generation Alpine winter-themed real snow and ice amusement park. Spread over 5,400sqm (58,00sq ft), the snow park and the mall are expected to be ready by the third quarter of 2017.
Does the government invest in or drive the attractions industry in other ways?
Ithraa, the Public Authority for Investment Promotion and Export Development, has recently published five Briefings papers, Economic Briefings from Oman, that are designed to connect the world with contemporary Oman and its dynamic business community. Each of the Briefings provides a snapshot of one sector in the Sultanate and the ambitious projects and innovative business ideas currently driving that space. Informative, realistic and easily digestible, the Briefings are intended to inspire business owners, investors and partners at large to consider the significant opportunities these sectors present.
What challenges do you see to tourism to the region, and how could they be overcome?
Some forecasts suggest that water availability could halve across the region within the next 50 years – and these may not fully account for anticipated tourism growth. In anticipation of this, Oman has joined the Ramsar Convention Wetlands a year ago to ensure that areas attracting important birdlife, particularly in the south of the country, are protected.