Oman seeks to tap its tourism potential


Oman is spending billions to boost tourism as part of a strategy to diversify its economy. But while the Sultanate is keen to attract more visitors, it is also determined to protect its culture and traditions.

Oman recently unveiled a new scheme that places great importance on tourism as a way to diversify the country’s economy away from oil.

Under the new strategy, called ‘Vision 2020’, the government is teaming up with the private sector to invest more than $10bn in several major tourism projects.

The country hopes that the new initiative will enable it to attract 12 million tourists annually by 2020, as compared to 3.2 million per annum at present. One of the key projects that has been launched is a major expansion of Muscat International Airport, which includes a new terminal building, an additional runway, and an upgrade to the existing runway that will enable it to handle the Airbus A380.

When finished in 2011 the airport will be able to accommodate more than 12 million annual visitor arrivals. Three smaller airports are also to be built in Nazwa, Salala and Duqm to help promote these relatively new areas.

The blueprint for Vision 2020 also entails the development of 10 new resorts over the next five years, including the newly opened Muscat Hills Golf and Country Club, the $7bn Blue City complex, and the Wave, a beachfront resort costing $4bn.

Oman Air is also doing its part by rolling out new service to Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris starting in September. The carrier will fly seven times a week to Germany and four times a week to Paris.

Last but not least, Oman is building a venue for the 2010 Asian Beach Games, which it will host in Wudum Al Sahil near Muscat in December next year.

In addition to building new resorts and infrastructure, Oman recently eased its visa policies to make it possible for nationals of up to 60 countries to receive entry visas on arrival at the airport.

‘Healthy’ growth
Although Oman is determined to boost its tourism numbers, it is also committed to protecting its traditions, culture and natural sites. Its main strategy is to attract a niche market of high-spending visitors, rather than hordes of tourists.

Khalid Habib, who is in charge of special events for Oman’s Ministry of Tourism, said that the sultanate is committed to growing its tourism in a ‘gradual and healthy’ way. ‘We know what we want. There are ways we could market ourselves to attract millions more tourists, but that is not our strategy,’ he said.

The difference between tourism in Oman and Dubai is ‘like night and day’, says Lore Koening, director of sales and marketing at The Chedi hotel in Muscat, which readers of Conde Nast Traveller voted as their favourite hotel within the region of Africa, Middle East and the Indian Ocean in 2008.

‘People come to Oman because they are interested in the country, its culture and its history,’ Koenig explains. ‘They don’t come because there is a cheap deal going and they will get guaranteed sunshine. That is not our market.’

Economic downturn
Like the rest of the world, many hotels in Muscat have been hit hard by the economic downturn, said Khalid Al Rashidi, front office manager at the 86-room Ramada hotel in the capital.

‘Last year you couldn’t get a room, but now our occupancy is more like 70%,’ he said. So far the hotel has yet to receive a single advanced booking for June or July, whereas last year the hotel would have been already full by this time.

Koenig says occupancy at The Chedi has also been affected by the slowdown. ‘We were spoiled for the past few years. People knew if they didn’t book six or seven months in advance they wouldn’t get a room. Now the booking pattern has changed dramatically. Every source market has suddenly turned into short-notice bookings,’ she said.

She estimates that occupancy in the hotel is down about 10% for the first four months this year compared to 2008. ‘Yes we are affected, but if any hotel in the world said they are not I would say they are point blank lying,’ she noted.

So far the hotel has chosen not to lower its rates to attract guests, but instead has focused on offering add-on specials. ‘It’s more about adding value to the offer. I don’t think that by dropping your pants and giving everything away for free you are actually creating a bigger market. You are diluting the market that would have come to you in the first place,’ she said.

One trend that might help hotels in Oman this summer is that expats in the GCC are likely to go on shorter holidays and travel closer to home, which would make Oman a great choice for these travellers, she added.