Muscat, Oman – In the quiet Gulf state of Oman, blue-collar workers are busy building new airports, hotels and a convention centre, in a push to boost tourism as the government reduces its reliance on oil revenues.
In addition to the ongoing construction of world-class hotels and resorts, infrastructure projects in the aviation, road, rail and maritime sectors include a new passenger terminal at the Muscat International Airport, with an expected capacity of 12 million passengers annually.
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In 2013, oil accounted for 72 percent of Oman’s government revenue, but Sultan Qaboos bin Said plans to make tourism a key piece of the country’s economic picture. Last year, tourism contributed 6.4 percent to Oman’s GDP, and that figure is expected to reach 8.2 percent by 2024, according to new data released by the World Travel and Tourism Council.
If we're able to extend the stay of the visitors, basically entice them to spend more in the country, that has a better impact than trying to chase more people coming in.
Ghasi Humaid al-Hashmi, the deputy director general of tourism promotion with Oman’s Ministry of Tourism, said the report reflects a “booming” sector. “The growth in the travel and tourism sector will also result in the creation of more job opportunities in the sector, thus boosting chances of employment for Omanis, which will definitely have a positive effect on the country’s economy,” al-Hashmi told Al Jazeera.
Investing in tourism has become a common feature of Oman’s economic plans. The plan, which outlines the aims from 2011-2015, allocates $14.7m to projects undertaken by Omran, a company set up by the Omani government to manage assets and investments in the tourism sector. Already this year, two five-star hotels have opened – the Salalah Rotana Beach Resort in the southern port city of Salalah, and the mountaintop Alila Jabal Akhdar boutique hotel.
Omran’s CEO, Wael al-Lawati, told Al Jazeera that growth in Oman’s tourism industry is proceeding at a good rate. Up to 41,000 jobs are expected to be created within the tourism sector by the end of 2014, and while the government aims to have 12 million visitors by 2020 – up from 2.1 million in 2013 – al-Lawati wants to ensure their value is maximised.
“Growth should not just be looked at from an arrivals numbers point of view, but from a yields point of view,” he said. “If we’re able to extend the stay of the visitors, basically entice them to spend more in the country, that has a better impact than trying to chase more people coming in.”
Oman has many historic and cultural sites to attract tourists – old forts, castles, villages and markets – but they could be better packaged, and there remains a need for family-oriented entertainment, al-Lawati said.
Sheikh Hamood Bin Sultan al-Hosani, the CEO of Saraya Bandar Jissah, a tourist complex that will have two five-star hotels, residential units, restaurants, wedding facilities and sports facilities, told Al Jazeera that Oman offers an ideal environment for tourism investment, thanks in part to its political and economic stability. “Taken in conjunction with a progressive policy to advance tourism and encourage the development of its unique geography and topography, [this] makes Oman one of the best regional investment opportunities,” he said.
The government’s push for tourism is attracting international hoteliers, but it is also benefiting small local tourism companies. Anwar al-Jabri, owner of Golden Oryx Tours and Sama al-Wasil Camp, said the number of clients he receives is growing all the time and the nationalities are becoming more diverse amid the Ministry of Tourism’s international advertising campaigns. “It takes time but it’s paying off. It’s not as fast as I’d like, but it’s working,” he said.
Among the challenges Oman now faces is how to maintain a constant flow of tourists throughout the summer months. The southern governorate of Dhofar has a rainy monsoon season from June to August that attracts tourists from the GCC, but temperatures sometimes hit 50c around Muscat, Nizwa and the Sharqiyah Sands, deterring European tourists.
Al-Jabri says there is great potential to develop integrated tourism complexes in the mountains, which can be 20 to 30 degrees cooler than Muscat in the summer, and along the southern coast, which has thousands of kilometres of undeveloped beaches with moderate summer temperatures thanks to the monsoon winds.
“Go along the coast and do more,” al-Jabri said, relaxing on a sofa in a popular shisha cafe in central Muscat. “That will change the dynamics of tourism in Oman.”