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Sophistication at sea

Interview - July 12, 2012
United World meets with Mehdi Bin Mohammed Al Abduwani, Chairman of National Ferries Co., who discusses Oman's current and future ferry routes, which are serviced by the fastest and most sophisticated ferries in the world, and are becoming increasingly popular as they simplify travel

What was the vision behind the establishment of the National Ferries Company, and what are the main routes you cover today?

With 3,165km of beautiful coastline, Oman is historically known for its sailing tradition. The National Ferries Company is part of His Majesty’s Vision 2020 and a manifestation of his commitment to his people. In 2006, the government decided to link the remote coastal areas with the mainland to ease the movement of people and freight, as well as to create opportunities for the inhabitants of those secluded areas.

Musandam is located in the far north of Oman and it is a very strategic location. The country’s geography makes traveling to Musandam by car very complicated as people have to cross four borders (two Omani and two UAE) to get there. To avoid these difficulties and decrease the road traffic and number of accidents, the government decided to establish a ferry service.

We started this project in 2006 by acquiring five ferries – two for the northern routes, two for the southern routes, and one for Shanna and Massira area. In 2008 the government officially announced the establishment of the NFC and I was appointed by the Cabinet to form a Board of Directors. I am an economist by formation and did not have experience in the ferry business prior to this, so it was a challenge to set up the company from scratch.

The first two ferries arrived in May 2008, but the infrastructure was not there yet and none of our ports was prepared to accommodate these vessels. However, as this is not a private business for profit, but a national project with major social, political, and economic implications, the Ministry of the National Economy, the Ministry of Transport & Communication, the Royal Oman Police, and the Port Services Corporation mobilized to help us execute things as quickly as possible. With the collaboration of all these government agencies, we built the infrastructure and started operations one month after the arrival of the ferries.

It is important to say that our ferries are the fastest and most sophisticated ferries in the world. They run at about 56 knots as maximum speed and 48 knots as operational speed, which is about 104 km/h on water. Ferries usually sail for 2-3 hours, so it is interesting to point out that Muscat-Khasab is the longest domestic trip in the world at 225 km one way, which lasts for 4-5 hours non-stop.

Our ferries are designed to accommodate 208 passengers between the first class, business class, and tourist class. We offer five star services on board with customers paying a minimum cost. It is a unique experience, which is why we call it “cruising with nature”. The first two years we were only carrying passengers. The first month we only had 181 passengers, but today we carry more than 16,000 passengers annually in the northern route alone. The ferries also have the capacity to transport about 40 cars, so in April 2011 we started ferrying cars on the Muscat-Khasab route. We saw a real increase in the number of passengers and cars, as it is more economic for people to bring their own cars to Khasab.

How many routes are you currently servicing and what other projects do you have in the pipeline?

Today we have three ferries that are servicing three routes: Muscat-Khasab, Shinas-Khasab, and Khasab-Lima. Numbers are picking up and there is demand from the government to look into more remote areas, so we are looking at new possibilities. By 2013, we hope to have nine ferries and seven ferry routes by 2013.

Another interesting project in the pipeline is to start sailing between Khasab and Iran. On 24th October 2011, His Majesty issued a Royal Decree to ratify and approve the agreement of a corridor between Oman, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Qatar. The NFC will be the main vehicle for transporting both cargo and passengers, but mainly cargo, between Oman and Iran. There are only 62 miles to Bandar-Abbas. We are currently conducting a feasibility study and we should soon make our first visit to Iran.

We are also going provide a ferry service from Shinna to Masirah. Masirah is a beautiful little island, which is only about 14km wide and 95km long. At the moment the private sector is providing its own landing crafts, but they are very old and do not follow safety measures, so there is a risk. In 2007 the government announced that the NFC would start providing a service in Masirah as well. The problem is that the water is very shallow there so we cannot operate with our ferries. This is very critical, but we do not want to start dredging. Therefore we are building two ferries especially for this area. The tender has been issued and we are now at the awarding stage, but our aim is to start by 2013. In the meantime, we will acquire a few second-hand 30m vessels to start serving this route. Also, we are looking for investors to bring them into the market so they can service this area.

We are also serving Alhalaniyat Islands with landing crafts, which we were given by the government to operate. This is important because of the new port project that is being developed. They have lots of raw materials, but the trip takes 16 hours as these vessels are very slow.

How is the NFC contributing to the tourism offer of the country? What is the profile of the passengers so far? Do you have many tourists?

The NFC has the potential to contribute significantly to tourism in Oman, as our routes provide an opportunity to both Omanis and tourists to visit beautiful hidden corners of our country. Today, the tourists make up to about 15% of our passengers, but the numbers are increasing and there is demand for more. However, at the moment the accommodation capacity in Khasab is limited with only one 4-star hotel and two or three hotel apartments, which are almost always fully booked in from September to April. So we often have cancellations due to the shortage of rooms. Therefore, the government recently opened a tender through its investment arm (OMRAN), and they awarded the construction of two hotels in Khasab. Hopefully by 2013 we will have a greater room capacity to accommodate more of our passengers.

How big is the manpower of the NFC? And how do you train your staff for these sophisticated fast ferries?

One of our aims with NFC was to provide work for Omanis. We currently have 147 employees between the staff, crewmembers and administration; at the moment we have achieved 57% Omanization. This kind of business needs special certificates, so it takes us longer to train people, especially with the unavailability of a Fast Ferry Masters. We are trying as much as possible to recruit from the International Maritime College Oman (IMCO). At the moment we have eight deck officers from IMCO who are being groomed for masters. We have sent four to Spain for training, and hopefully by the end of 2013 we will have our first Omani Master on one of our fast ferries. 

You recently won the prestigious 2012 Middle East Responsible Tourism Award at the World Travel Exhibition. What were your main assets to win this award?

It was a wonderful surprise for us. The NFC and the government have been committed to this project since the beginning as part of our social responsibility. We are very active in social commitments and we are sponsoring different activities in Oman, so it seems that this organization noticed what we were doing without us realizing.

We are also very active in a number of international organizations, such as Interferry, which we attended in Istanbul, New York, and Barcelona. We were explaining our experience to other ferry operators and we realized that we were the only member that serves a purely development purpose without real commercial interests. The rest of the operators are mostly from the private sector, while we are a government-owned company that serves certain objectives. Our experience was very interesting for them, and we were very welcomed as new members. As part of our commitment to social responsibility, we were announced the winners of this Responsible Tourism Award. It means a lot to us and we were really happy. It is a challenge to maintain that standard and move forward. Other than that, Muscat is the 2012 Arab Tourism Capital, so by winning this award we are contributing to promoting Oman on the international stage as well.

Behind this award are the Omanis, who made this possible, as well as our partners and service providers. Our service providers brought us foreign masters and deck officers who are committed to training and educating Omanis to improve their expertise and take over these positions in the future. They have created a national capacity within the NFC to operate to this standard.

What was the response of the local community in these remote areas when you started the service? Did you notice an increase in the economic activity?

We really felt the happiness and joy when the local community saw this project coming to Khasab. It makes their lives and movement so much easier, especially when we started the car ferry service. We have also created job opportunities for people in Khasab through our office there. This has also encouraged entrepreneurs from other industries to bring business to Khasab, such as the hypermarket.

There is a daily flight to Khasab which takes 40-50 minutes. But the location of the airport between the two mountains is very challenging and there are often issues with wind and visibility, so sometimes the flights are cancelled. But now, these passengers are re-routed through NFC and we take them to Khasab by ferry, so this is another great advantage.