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A land of unique experiences

Article - March 26, 2014
While developing its tourism infrastructure, Oman is keen to maintain its distinct cultural identity
DUQM’S PROTECTED ROCK GARDEN FORMS PART OF OMAN’S CULTURAL TOURISM OFFER (PHOTO: VERA MAURO)
Development of Oman’s tourism industry became a key government policy plank in 2004 with the establishment of the Ministry of Tourism (MoT). Since then there has been heavy investment in the sector through various public and private sector entities. 

As the country looks to create a sustainable economy, tourism holds huge potential considering its offerings: rich heritage, natural attractions, stunning beaches, adventure activities such as cliff diving and scuba-diving, souks, forts, the Musandam peninsula, khareef (monsoon) season in Salalah, five-star desert camps, sand dunes, pink sunsets, spectacular mountain ranges, genuinely friendly Arab culture, and world-class hotels such as The Chedi Muscat Hotel and Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa. In fact the sultanate was included on the list of the ‘20 Top Tourist Destinations in the World’ in National Geographic in 2012.

Each region has its own identity and individuality, with potential tourism development lying in their rich heritage, souks, forts, five-star desert camps, world-class hotels and adventure activities

Natural attractions include stunning beaches, the Musandam peninsula, khareef (monsoon) season, spectacular mountain ranges, sand dunes and genuinely friendly Arab culture

“Seventy per cent of our tourist attractions are natural attractions: natural beauty and the heritage that we have. Each region has its own identity and uniqueness, and tourism products fit the nature of the region,” says Maitha Al Mahrouqi, Undersecretary at the MoT. “We know the tourism industry can create sustainable jobs, especially through SMEs.”

Oman has one of the fastest growing tourism sectors in the world. A 2009 World Travel and Tourism report states that the industry will grow by 7.8 per cent per year, reaching a value of almost $7 billion by 2019. The GDP contribution of tourism was 2 per cent in 2011; the MoT aims for that figure to be around 3.5 per cent by 2015.

Visitor numbers have increased steadily, reaching 1.6 million in 2010. Tourists from the UK have risen sharply from 25,000 in 2003 to 121,000 in 2012 – a 15 per cent increase on 2011. As part of the Vision 2020 plan, the MoT hopes that the sultanate will have 12 million visitors by 2020. To reach this ambitious figure, much more investment and promotion will be required.

Central to these plans is Oman Air. “The expansion of our national carrier, Oman Air, has definitely helped us to promote the country,” says Ms Al Mahrouqi.

The airline’s expansion reflects the steady growth of the tourist sector itself: passenger numbers rose to 4.5 million in 2012 and  last year the carrier served around 5 million travellers. Since 2006, Oman Air’s fleet has grown from nine to 30 aircraft and is poised to acquire an additional 16 by the end of 2015. It now has an extensive international network including six European cities.

Furthermore, in 2012 Oman Air won Best Business Class Airline Seat at the prestigious World Airline Awards, run by Skytrax, for the second year in a row.

“Oman Air has come a long way. It has enabled Oman to encourage tourism,” said  Wayne Pearce, former CEO, in an interview last year. “The airline looks upon itself as being an integrated part of Omani tourist infrastructure. It is keen to work with [the MoT] and has taken part in many joint promotions with them.”

Another integrated part of the Omani tourist infrastructure is The Wave, a world-class luxury mixed-use residential project spread along six kilometres of Muscat’s coastline, comprising homes, retail units, restaurants, hotels and a PGA-standard 18-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman. It is also home to Oman’s largest private yachting hub.

“The Wave is a strategic part of Vision 2020 and the diversification of the economy from oil; and is a vehicle for providing enhanced tourist infrastructure,” said former CEO Michael Lenardruzzi. “It brings investment by allowing foreigners to purchase real estate here. Bringing in people from different countries and different backgrounds adds to the vibrancy of projects like this. The residential element of the project provides a community and also a cash flow to fund the development of tourism infrastructure.”

Ms Al Mahrouqi is also Chairperson of Oman Sail, which, like Oman Air, is charged with promoting Oman. CEO David Graham says the company was established in 2008 “to reinstate the maritime heritage of the country” and apart from running sailing schools, Oman Sail is “pushing the Oman brand around the world.”

Now having teams compete on the world stage, it is raising the profile of Oman internationally, as a unique high-end tourist destination.

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