With an exceptionally long coastline of over 3000km long, Oman's National Ferries Company is a significant contributor to the country’s transport infrastructure, both for the population and tourists – who can experience the majestic coastal scenery with a first class service. As Oman begins to open up to more and more tourists, CEO of the NFC Mr. Mehdi Mohamed Al Abduwani, talks to PM communications about the importance of developing a better integrated tourism and transport infrastructure system in order to attract a greater number of visitors, as well offer improved services to Omani citizens
The Sultanate of Oman is experiencing a great moment on its development with a sustained GDP growth over the last 20 years. The country has emerged as an attractive destination for foreign direct investment due to its stable system, political stability under the guidance of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said and the stable macroeconomic environment. Could you tell us in your opinion what is the real recipe for success in Oman?
I believe, and most of the people will agree, that Oman's success story is due to the commitment of the government and people to development.
The path to development may be filled with challenges facing Oman as a large country with a small, young population. All these things burden the shoulders of the government as they have to provide services and infrastructure. Despite these challenges, Oman is a success story because of the commitments of the leadership of His Majesty and his government towards the nation. We believe that we are going in the right direction in our development, we are reviewing what we are doing and not doing to fast tract our progress to achieve a better path for development.
Aside from the commitment to development, one of the biggest commitments of this government is regarding tourism development. Yesterday when we met with the Undersecretary of the ministry of tourism she was telling us the plan the government is undertaking to improve tourism in the region. I would like to ask you as the CEO of this company which is related to both national and international tourism. Please describe in your opinion the rise of tourism in the region and the prospects for the future.
Tourism is a large economic sector and always a leading sector in terms of creating jobs and other services.
There is a dilemma in terms of what kind of tourism we are calling for. Oman's general trend is to open up for tourism, however, on a disciplined basis. We want an organized and well-structured tourism because Oman has a diversity of things to see. We have everything; the sea, air, land, and desert. However, the lack of adequate tourism infrastructure hinders the development of the tourism industry in Oman.
Approximately two years ago the Ministry of Tourism began a study with the help of a specialized consulting company to promote tourism in Oman. We hope the outcome of that study will identify a roadmap for the Ministry of Tourism to implement its plan. Tourism doesn’t only mean restaurants and hotels. There is much more and everything is interconnected.
Transport, strategic locations and travel agencies are all aspects of the tourism sector. We as Omanis are ambassadors of the country so the curriculum in our schools should be improved so that our children know more about their country. When we are abroad we all must talk about the beauty and reality of Oman. In fact this is what I am always telling the crew on our ferries. I say that we should always know about our country because sometimes we will face situations where travellers will ask about what to do and see in Oman. If an Omani doesn’t know about Oman it is such a shame. As Omani people, we should know about the great potential Oman has. So I think education system is also important in this sense.
Now looking at the transport sector, in 2013 there was the Oman Roadshow in the USA organized by the government. There was a large delegation headed by the Minister of Commerce and Industry and included private sector organizations. This roadshow showed the great potential of the transport sector in Oman covering the airports, railway, seaports and land transport. Oman has invested heavily on linking its areas and establishing a network.
As you said, there is a network in place. We have been with Oman Airport Management Company that is preparing not only Muscat International airport, but also airports at Salalah and Duqum. Do you think your company, the National Ferries Company will expand from a need to connect regions of Oman that are difficult to connect, for example from Muscat to Musandam where currently you must pass through the UAE to reach. Do you believe that connecting such areas is one of the reasons for the growth of your company?
From our experience since 2008, when National Ferries Company was established, there is definitely a need for such a project. His Majesty had a great vision pertaining to the need for this project and for connecting the land with over 3,000kms of coastal areas. In the case of Musandam, which is geographically isolated from the rest of the country, there are many challenges because it is outside the borders of Oman.
Before, there were only two ways of reaching Musandam by car and air. However travelling by car was difficult and time consuming, because 3 to 4 border points had to be crossed in Oman and the UAE. It was also seasonally difficult travelling by airplane due to the location of the airport in Musandam.
At the National Ferries Company we have achieved our goal of connecting the people and the homeland. Yes, we are fulfilling the objectives of the government to serve the purpose of setting up the company. We mobilized more than 34,000 passengers to Khasab in 2013.
We are improving people’s lives by connecting very small villages in Musandam, such as Lima. This is a beautiful mountainous village inhabited by only 2000 – 3000 people who had no access to the rest of Oman. At the National Ferries Company we are trying to connect this area by operating 6 trips per week.
So the work of the National Ferries Company has a public service aspect and a touristic mission.
Today we have a good service to the North. We have 16 trips per week to Musandam, from Muscat to Khasab, Shinas to Khasab and Lima to Khasab. Now we are creating a new hub at Dibba and connecting it to Musandam and Muscat in the coming months.
Can you give us a brief overview of your service and your fleet?
Today we are having a fleet of 4 fast ferries serving Muscat - Khasab, and Shinas - Khasab. There are two ferries serving Muscat – Khasab, one ferry serving Shinas - Khasab and one ferry servicing Lima - Khasab. We also have a landing craft called Halaniyat which is a cargo vessel and in March we received two new ferries which were built in Vietnam to serve Shannah – Masirah route. Shannah - Masirah is in the eastern side of Oman.
These two ferries will serve by filling a gap in the market as currently the only ferries that operate in this area are for cargo. Because of this we built two new ferries each with a capacity of 154 passengers, 38 cars and can travel from Shannah to Masirah in 45 minutes. We are planning to conduct 12 trips a day, 6 from Shannah to Masirah and 6 from Masirah to Shannah.
What is your opinion on your competitive advantages compared to other similar organizations?
The National Ferries Company has established a track record of quality by following the best International Best Practices of safety and service. Regarding the Shannah - Masirah route, our services will half the distance and time and will give choice to the people. When we launch two new ferries to this route people will come to us because that is the nature of people.
In fact, as a testament of our distinguished service, we received international accolades and won 3 World Travel Awards, involving the World Responsible Tourism Award for 2013, the Middle East Responsible Tourism Award in 2012, and the World Leading Sustainable Tourism Award 2012, in addition many other national level awards.
Regarding travel from Muscat to Salalah, as you know the only airline service in this route is Oman Air with 6 or 7 flights a day. The round-trip costs 63 RO or 117 Euros. What do you think about it and what do your company could do to give people a more affordable option?
We have plans involving Salalah. Unfortunately a trip from Muscat to Salalah via ferry would take more than 15 hours. Our current route, Muscat to Khasab is 5 hours, so we are serving the longest domestic route in the world. This route is 225 nautical miles or 460kms which is the longest distance any fast ferry can travel. We also have one of the fastest running ferries in the world, traveling 50 knots per hour.
Yes we have a plan to cover the south of Oman and to connect Salalah to Al Halaniyat and Salalah to Hasik.
Our newest challenge is to start business with Iran. It is our plan to start a service from Khasab to southern Iran. The cruise from Khasab to Bandar Abbas in the south of Iran would only take two hours. This is if the ferry is running at only 29 knots. However, if we are running at full speed we will reach Bandar Abbas in half an hour to one hour. This depends on government direction once international sanctions against Iran have been reduced or lifted.
I would also like to ask you about the process of Omanisation in the National Ferries Company, which as I understand is very high. How are you training the youth and young workers in order to be able to work in such a specialized industry?
Today we have a 71% rate of Omanisation in our company I am glad to report that we are receiving lot of new applications to join the National Ferries Company. We do have challenges as we are searching for more qualified crew members especially on the operation side.
There is a lack of Omanis with suitable engineering qualifications which is a difficulty for us as we are operating highly sophisticated vessels which require significant amounts of experience and qualifications. For this reason, we have engaged with an international firm in Germany to provide us with people to serve in the senior positions in the crews such as masters and chief officers. Currently the supporting positions are filled by a combination of Omanis and expatriates. Addressing this balance is one challenge.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications is also helping to address this challenge by conducting workshops for crew members. In 2013 we sent 44 Omanis to Spain for a special training course with a German company called FRS that operates between Tariffa and Tangiers and also in Aljazeera. We have an agreement to cooperate with training of staff on this busy and important route.
All the 44 Omani members of the crew we sent last year said, “Thank God” as they were very happy with the training. They found it beneficial to see a different culture and experience on this busy route. It’s a challenging route but indeed it is a very good experience for them to interact with challenges.
Now this year, another batch will be leaving in the coming weeks for a month long training also in Spain. There will be a number of courses such as this taking place this year, which will help enable us to benefit from the Omanis with proper qualifications and experience.
Regarding ferries and maritime transport, what are the areas you hope to see greater cooperation between Oman and the United States of America?
Oman has benefited from interacting with the USA in the maritime sector because we are members of an association called Interferry. In 2010, we attended an Interferry convention in New York where we had shared our experience as a new business with a unique service. They were very much impressed to see that government is behind this company from the development side and commercial side. In most cases around the world, the government subsidizes the ferries but the operation of the services is conducted by the private sector.
So in this sense, our experiences are very unique. The other attendees of the conference appreciated our efforts and benefited from hearing about our experiences at the exhibitions and meetings.
From business point of view, I believe the maritime sector is very promising and is a leading sector in Oman. I am sure the investors from USA will find an attractive business platform for them in Oman.
In your opinion how do you see the maritime sector in 5 years from now?
I believe that marine sector not only in Oman in the region has a promising future. Of course there are many challenges.
One thing that is lacking is a greater integrated transport network in Oman. . So now the Ministry of Transport and Communications, as well as some government agencies are looking at this sector as a whole and seeking to find ways for integrating land transport with sea transport. In Oman land and sea transport are inextricably linked so having an integrated system linking the cities to the ports is essential. This is a major challenge but these challenges provide opportunities for improvement.