Oman: An oasis in the Arabian Gulf, waiting to be discovered
MUSCAT - Dubbed “Arabia Felix” by the Romans — Latin for “happy, fertile Arabia” — Oman is one of the lesser known countries in the Arab world. Unlike most of its Gulf neighbours, Oman is not as rich in oil but it boasts a diverse natural beauty and ancient cultural sites that are waiting to be explored by Arab and foreign visitors.
With its majestic high mountains, deep canyons and white, sandy beaches, the country is trying to build on its rich natural landscapes by developing the tourism sector.
Oman, in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, has lagged behind other regional tourism markets because of a keenness to preserve its natural and cultural heritage. A main concern was that large-scale tourism would have an adverse effect on people and the environment. But now, the country is seeking a prized place on the global tourism map as part of a bid to diversify sources of income and find revenue alternatives to oil and gas.
Upgrading the tourism infrastructure through the building of new hotels and beach resorts is high on the government’s agenda. The number of hotels and other types of travel accommodation are increasing fast all over Oman, creating new holiday break possibilities for visitors and residents.
Moreover, Oman offers an ideal environment for tourism investment, largely due to its political and economic stability. Many foreign investors, including Egypt’s giant development company, Orascom, have been injecting capital into Omani tourism over the past decade. “Oman is the most preciously kept treasure in the Middle East, with a unique and diverse offering encompassing 2000 kilometres of unspoiled beaches, magnificent mountains and amazing canyons, which makes it a very attractive tourist destination,” commented Ahmed Dabbous, the CEO of Muriya, a joint venture between Orascom and the Omani government.
“Moreover, Omanis are a very pleasant and hospitable people, a great asset for tourism… You cannot teach hospitality, but Omanis are born with it,” Mr Dabbous said in an interview with the Arab Weekly.
Orascom Development is one of the biggest foreign touristic investors in the Sultanate. Its joint venture with The government owned Omran, already has over 500 million dollars invested. So far, the venture has opened three hotels with a capacity of 600 rooms, sold some 400 villas and apartments and developed two marinas with an additional 500 hotel rooms under development. It is currently working on four development projects in Muscat and in the southern region of Dhofar.
The notion of tourism is fairly new in the sultanate. It was only in the late 1990s that the government established a Ministry of Tourism, seen as a first step towards exploiting the country’s unique tourism potentials in the Gulf region. More than a decade later, a lot has still to be done in terms of development planning, infrastructure as well as human resources and training hospitality personnel.
“When it was first created, the Ministry of Tourism had no real strategy for developing tourism. There was no clear vision as to what kind of tourism they were targeting. It was not clear if it was five-star tourism, eco-tourism, adventure or cultural tourism,” remarked Khaled al Siyabi, a government official.
Siyabi, an information technology expert and professional climber who is celebrated for being the first Omani to reach the summit of Mount Everest, underlined his country’s poor experience in the field of tourism. “We must seek the proper advice from other countries and foreign professionals who have a longer experience. Oman is fairly a newcomer in this field,” Siyabi told The Arab Weekly.
“The touristic potential of Oman is huge, as the country possesses a unique landscape of beaches, majestic mountains and spectacular canyons compared to the flat neighbouring countries,” he added.
Underscoring the importance of involving local communities in developing tourism, Siyabi said the government should invest in training and capacity building. “The people must be part of the development. The government could help them train and open businesses related to tourism like craftwork or restaurants serving Omani food, or become tourist guides on the old trails leading to the most remote and spectacular places,” he said.
“Local communities must be partners in the business not employees.”
In the meantime, Oman remains largely a high-end destination where five-star resorts are prevalent over budget accommodation.
Ahmed al Abri, a young Omani entrepreneur who runs a small bed-and-breakfast business in his hometown of Misfat al Abriyeen, in Dakhiliya governorate in central Oman, pinned down the big shortage in budget accommodation. “We are the only business of this kind in the country while the demand for budget accommodation is growing considerably,” Abri said. He urged the government to encourage projects targeting the average-, or lower-budget tourist, especially the young who come to Oman to experience adventure in climbing its unique canyons, commonly called “wadis.”
Abri transformed his parents’ old residence into a small motel and employed 15 people from his village. His main clients come from abroad through tour operators or are expatriates living in Oman. He said he did not receive any help from the government when he started his business in 2007 but hopes to get some help in the future as he plans to expand.
Dabbous, for his part, underlined the need to diversify the accommodation facilities in the sultanate.
He said, “The country must also consider [developing] different kinds of facilities like camping sites in the mountains and wadis offering a unique product for the tourists and not only hotels.”
Oman is definitely a new tourism destination waiting to be discovered.