New Omani tourism sector begins with one inn
Muscat - “Coffee, coffee, welcome. Please do come in.”
In the early 1980s, a small boy used to greet tourists with these words and invite them into his parents’ traditional house in Misfat al-Abriyeen in the heart of Oman’s al-Dakhiliyah region.
Years later, the hospitable boy turned “Misfat Old House” into Oman’s first heritage inn.
“I was young then but enjoyed meeting people from different countries visiting my small village,” recalled Ahmed al-Abri.
Although Omanis are known to be a tolerant and friendly people, Abri said he encountered resistance from villagers when he turned his house into a bed-and-breakfast establishment
attracting young tourists and backpackers.
“In the beginning, the villagers were not happy
to see the tourists roaming around their houses. Some neighbours even deposited a complaint at the Ministry of Tourism in Muscat,” he said.
Abri’s endeavour was also thwarted by the government’s tourism policy, which was designed to attract visitors to five-star luxury hotels. But the many hurdles he faced did not discourage the “grown-up boy” from pursuing his dream.
“I left my hometown for the first time in my life in 1998 to go to a university in Muscat where I did study archaeology and tourism in addition to learning English.
“I was interested in tourism and felt that I could use my sense of hospitality to develop a business in Misfat al-Abriyeen,” he added.
During his studies, Abri presented many papers about his home village, including a statistical study about the number of tourists it received and its potential of becoming a tourist spot for those wanting to experience traditional Omani life. His graduation project consisted of a comprehensive description of life in Misfat.
Shortly after graduation, Abri began contemplating transforming the family residence into a guesthouse. He started by offering Omani food and proposing his services as a guide to Misfat visitors.
“When my parents decided to move from the old house in 2007, I bought the place and started restoration works to transform it into a structure that can host tourists,” he said.
Restoration proved to be a daunting task.
“The walls were made of mud and stones and the space had to be redesigned in order to create toilets, which wasn’t easy at all, because I wanted to keep the original shape of the house,” Abri said.
“I had to import wood from Africa to redo the ceilings of the rooms according to the original design and it cost me a lot of money.”
Abri finished the restoration in 2009 but soon faced even bigger challenges as the local community and the authorities tried to put him off. The Tourism Ministry would not give him a licence for his bed and breakfast because such a classification did not exist in a country known for its high-end tourist accommodation.
“I sent several letters to the ministry to get the green light to start receiving guests but I did not get any answer so I decided to open the place anyway,” he said.
Nothing would stop Abri from expanding his hospitality business. He bought another traditional house in 2011, which he restored with the intention to turn it into a guesthouse.
But the fight was not over. In 2012, Abri received a letter asking him to pay a fine and to close Misfat Old House.
“It was a nightmare, but al hamdoulillah (Thank, God), I ended up paying the fine only and the Misfat house remained open to visitors,” Abri said.
Oman’s Ministry of Tourism has since introduced three new categories to the country’s hotel classification list, including guesthouses, heritage inns and eco-lodges.
“Today I have my official licence. The papers say my business falls in the category of heritage inns,” Abri said.
“Demand for this type of accommodation is growing rapidly because tourists nowadays want to live an authentic experience in the country they visit and there is nothing more authentic than living the traditional way with all the comfort that modernisation offers,” he said
Business is booming for the hospitable boy who grew into a determined and passionate hospitality innovator in his country.
“In 2009 we received 100 people in the 12 rooms of Misfat Old house but last year we hosted around 3,200,” he said.
Abri’s fellow villagers soon realised that investing in “budget tourism” could be a lucrative endeavour and many planned to start similar businesses. They created a tourism investment company — Misfat al Ahlia LLC — with 50 shareholders from Misfat al Abriyeen and bought several old houses.
Abri’s attachment to his dream helped introduce a new trend in Oman’s tourism industry. He said he hopes his inn will be a pioneer project and copied all over Oman.