Many in the Gulf state praise the consumer protection agency set up in 2011 – but now, it is at risk of being defanged.
Salalah, Oman – Outside the tomb of Prophet Ayoub, or Job, on the misty summit of Jabal Atin, tourists have besieged Ahmed’s kiosk to buy corn on the cob, while others swarm around adjacent karak tea and coffee stalls.
Ahmed’s friend Mohammad Yusuf, a Bangladeshi tailor who works as a driver during southern Oman’s monsoon season, offers taxi rides to pilgrims and travellers from Salalah city to the mountain peak. The rains have transformed the otherwise arid terrain into a verdant landscape, with waterfalls and bursting springs.
“This time of the year is important … the monsoon pumps wealth into Salalah,” said Ahmed, who is from Pakistan and works as a tailor outside the monsoon season, which lasts from July to early September.
“The rest of the year nobody comes here. We also move back to stitching and laundry,” Yusuf told Al Jazeera.
Salalah, the capital of Dhofar governorate, is at the core of Oman’s tourism industry. Major hotels along the Indian Ocean coast here are filled with Gulf nationals and holidaymakers from Europe and Asia.
Also known for its coconut plantations, palm orchards, serene beaches and frankincense market, Dhofar is a crowd-puller for its religious sites, including the tomb of Ayoub’s wife Rahima in central Salalah and the 40ft-long grave of Prophet Umran nearby. Adventure-seekers can also enjoy hiking, and humpback whale and dolphin watching.
Oman’s economy was powered by agriculture, fishing, camel and goat herding, and handicrafts, until oil was discovered, propelling the sultanate’s dramatic development over the past four decades. But when oil prices plunged in 2015, Oman ran a budget deficit of $8.57bn, forcing the government to raise corporate taxes, fuel prices and visa fees, and to cut subsidies. Many private companies started downsizing and suspended bonuses, and some expatriates sent their families home to cut back on living costs.
Since then, property owners have slashed rents and the government has delayed several infrastructure projects, including a planned rail network connecting the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
But Oman plans to replace its heavy reliance on hydrocarbons by diversifying its economy, and transforming the tourism industry into a major revenue generator.
“Tourism certainly can and is playing a major role in Oman’s economy,” James Wilson, CEO of the state-run developer Omran, told Al Jazeera. “The government is now focused on five key economic sectors: tourism, logistics, manufacturing, mining and fisheries, all of which will help Oman advance from its current dependency on oil.”
Earlier this year, Oman’s tourism ministry announced plans to attract more than five million international visitors a year by 2040, up from 2.6 million visitors in 2015. Tourism currently contributes just 2.5 percent to the sultanate’s economy, and the government aims to raise that figure to 6 percent.
Under the new, $35bn investment plan, the government predicts the tourism sector will employ more than 500,000 people, with a large number of them predicted to be Omanis.
Despite harsh economic conditions hitting all sectors, officials say that Omran has not stopped work on its projects. “In fact, we have at least OMR 300m ($779m) worth of tourism projects under construction across Oman,” Wilson said.
Yet Oman’s dream of becoming a tourist hub in the region is strewn with difficulties. Tourist visa regulations are one issue. A lack of transportation for tourists may also be a difficulty: Although Oman is dotted by a string of valleys with lush date plantations and emerald-green waters, they are far from the capital Muscat, where much of the accommodation lies.
“Oman ranks top in the GCC when it comes to slowest and most expensive Internet service. At many places, you won’t get it at all,” a senior official at a major private tourism group told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity. “Also, Oman is still drafting its environmental policy and waste management law. These are musts for tourism projects.”
Many also fear job losses amid efforts to “Omanise” the tourism industry. “Omanisation restricts companies to hire skilled expatriates. Instead, they’re forced to hire local Omanis with no language skills or interest in the tourism trade,” Imtiyaz Ahmed, a south Asian expatriate, told Al Jazeera.
Ahmad, who supervises bookings in his Muscat hotel, said that the hotel recently downsized staff after oil prices dropped, “but now the sword of Omanisation hangs over our heads”.
But Graham Stewart Leslie, the CEO of Muscat-based Al Siraj Hospitality, said that Omanisation in the industry is “important” since engagement with the people of a country is an important part of tourism. However, he warned: “This cannot just be a dictate which is where most of the difficulties are encountered, and I don’t feel forced Omanisation is the solution.”
Despite bordering war-torn Yemen, Oman is peaceful and stable. The sultanate, which helped to broker the Iran nuclear deal and is currently engaged in peace efforts in Yemen, takes pride in being a “terrorism-free” country – it scored a 0 on the 2015 Global Terrorism Index.
Oman seeks to attract more travellers, especially amid developments in Europe and Middle Eastern countries, including a rise in anti-migrant violence, bombings and political disturbances.
The CEO of Omran told Al Jazeera: “The new visa system [which has yet to be adopted] … looks at producing a joint visa with neighbouring countries, allowing tourists to obtain visa entry to Oman and its surrounding countries. This aims to ease the travel experience within the GCC.”
However, Oman will have to expand accommodation options if tourism does surge. Currently there are only 16,691 hotel rooms in Oman, according to data from Omran. The government expects to add 2,000 new rooms by December.
By 2040, the government aims for a total of 33,373 hotel rooms, 29,287 holiday home rooms and 17,262 rooms in “integrated tourism complexes”, according to Omran. These clusters will be developed over the next 10 to 15 years, with an aim to become destinations in their own right.
Meanwhile, back in Salalah, Yusuf is happy: His earnings have doubled. This year’s monsoon has drawn more than 650,000 tourists, mostly Arabs – around 20 percent more than the same period in 2015.
“Oman is a land of generous people,” he said. “It’s a beautiful corner of the world culled from paradise.”