As the country diversifies away from its reliance on oil for economic stability, tourism is being seen as the next big thing. But is it ready? Is tourism up to the job? Kate Ginn and Alvin Thomas report.
With its pools of cool clear water and little green oases, Wadi Khoud in Muscat is a popular haven for locals and tourists to soak up the natural landscape of Oman.
It’s exactly the type of place that the Ministry of Tourism is so keen to promote as part of its new campaign, launched just last week, urging everyone to “Discover Oman’s Beauty”, a push to encourage nationals and residents to holiday in the Sultanate.
Had the Ministry visited the wadi recently as Y did, they might not have been quite so enamoured by the sight that greeted visitors, either from home or abroad. We found litter strewn around Wadi Khoud, scarring the Sultanate’s precious natural resource. Water bottles were carelessly thrown in the water, where kids were paddling, and plastic bags were floating everywhere. There was even a shampoo bottle discarded on the ground. On the side of the water, the remains of a campsite fire were visible, the ashes blowing around in the wind and scattering across the wadi.
This is the side of Oman that the Ministry of Tourism would understandably not be quite so keen to promote.
What the authorities want to sell is the image of pristine beaches, mountains and wadis that were on show at the “Discover Oman’s Beauty” launch at Muscat City Centre last Thursday (May 19), all stunning scenery that the country should rightly be proud to advertise.
The reality is that littering remains a big problem in Oman’s beauty spots, such as Wadi Khoud, along with other concerns such as a lack of proper facilities.
“It really irritates me when I see it,” says Y’s photographer Shaquel al Balushi, who travels all around Oman for assignments and regularly sees spoiled beauty spots.
“People can clean their house but when it comes to their country, they believe it’s not their responsibility. It’s sad.
“The Government works hard for the country and we have such beautiful nature. Why do they want to ruin that?
“Also if a non-Omani sees that an Omani doesn’t care about his country they think neither should I. We are giving out the wrong message to people who come here.”
Which does beg the question of whether Oman’s tourism industry is heading in the right direction and ready to take on the not insignificant burden of holding up Oman’s economy in the future, bearing in mind that the country’s fiscal deficit is hovering somewhere around the RO4.5 billion mark.
In a wide-ranging report, Y has spoken to Ministry officials, industry experts and tourism insiders to gauge whether they believe we are on the right track in a bid to diversify away from our reliance on oil – the most pressing matter facing Oman.
What we received was a mixed response. All those we spoke to were in unanimous agreement that the “product” – Oman as a country – had so much potential and international appeal, but issues such as the littering, delays to the new airport, high hotel prices, non-metered taxis and a public transport system still lagging behind many developed countries, still need to be addressed.
“In my view, Oman has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near where it wants to be,” one source working in the tourism and hospitality sector succinctly puts it.
Others are more optimistic.
“Oman is one of the ‘hidden gems of the Middle East’ and there’s no better time to invest and promote tourism in Oman than now,” says a manager with Oman Hotels & Tourism CO. SAOG, a company in the tourism and hospitality business with several hotels around the country, including Desert Nights Camp and the Sur Plaza Hotel.
“Even with the recent slump in oil prices, Oman has shown the world that slow and steady progress means there is development occurring even in the worst of times [with the new airport and real estate projects].”
Around 30 hotels have signed up to take part in the Ministry of Tourism’s “Discover Oman’s Beauty” campaign, which will run for three months and see a range of special deals and discounts on offer in Oman and to residents of GCC countries.
Speaking to Y at the launch, HH Sayyid Faisal bin Turki al Said, Director General of Marketing & Media at the Public Authority for Investment Promotion & Export Development (PAIPED), says: “It is very important [to have an event like this for Oman], it is good for the country.
“The whole idea is to create some interest in the local tourism, encouraging people to have a reason to travel around Oman.”
On whether tourism could be Oman’s future, he adds: “It is the most prominent and potential contributor to the economy. The ripple effect that it could create, the economic benefits at all levels that cascade because of tourism. Look at it. One hotel can generate easily 100 jobs, 200 indirect jobs and so on.”
But he does believe that Oman must broaden its appeal to attract different visitors.
“You cannot any more afford to lock up the country and say I will have to be very, very selective. Oman could be a niche tourist destination but there are other layers of tourism as well. As long as they are packaged properly, you will get them.”
Last year, GCC visitor numbers to Oman surpassed one million, the majority coming from Saudi and then the UAE. And the total number of visitors to Oman almost hit 2.5 million in 2015.
Which can only be good news for the industry.
Recent statistics show that companies in the hotel and hospitality sector had a rough first quarter this year, with revenues down due to the global oil price slump.
According to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI), revenues for companies in the hospitality sector fell by 0.6 percent to RO16.7 million in the first quarter of this year, down from RO16.8m in the same period last year. Occupancy rates at three to five-star hotels were also down by 10.3 per cent to 59.1 per cent.
“Drop in oil prices has affected the entire economy, including the tourism sector,” said Ubar Hotels and Resorts, owner of Golden Tulip Nizwa and Park Inn by Radisson Muscat, in its first quarter report.
“Weakened euro also has a negative impact… as it has resulted in Oman becoming an expensive destination for tourism. Travellers are diverting to other countries, especially Egypt, Iran and Jordan, which are cheaper destinations and once again gaining popularity among European travellers.”
Alarming reading, indeed, and one that an industry insider told Y was not surprising.
“Oman is ludicrously expensive. It’s expensive to get here and hotels have some of the highest rates in the region. Eating out and trips are not cheap.
“The problem with the taxis is also frustrating. They are holding the Government to ransom by refusing not to have meters. Tourists are being overcharged.”
It’s a view echoed by Hunain Farooq, general manager of a Muscat-based construction company, who has clients visiting from all over the world.
“My British client and his family, who were in Oman for a short visit, wanted to go around Muscat for some sightseeing.
“They decided to hire one of the taxi drivers in Oman for eight hours, to show them around the capital. They were charged a total of RO250 for the services.”
However, Akbar Abbas, the resort manager of The View Oman, believes Oman is on the right path.
“I believe the political situation in Oman is favourable for tourism,” he says.
“We’re starting to receive great support from the ministries, with the help of some great new projects, like the new international airport and the newly redesigned public transport system.
“We hope that with the implementation of these new projects, more people will be enticed to visit the Sultanate, and soak in the beauty that the nation has to offer.”
On the other hand, contradicting Akbar’s statement is Deepu, a reservation manager at Al Maha International Hotel in Ghubra. He believes that the only way the country can expect to shift its focus on tourism is if they address the longstanding troubles relating to the issuance of visas for foreign travellers from Asia and expats from various parts of the GCC.
According to the manager, tour operators charge 10 times the rate for obtaining tourist visas for Indians and citizens from other Asian countries.
“The standard charge for obtaining a tourist visa is RO20,” says Deepu. “However, I see tour operators [in Oman] charging RO100 for the same.
“The visitors have to cough up almost RO200 per head, just to visit Oman.
“Of course, there’s no denying that the Sultanate has the beauty to enthrall visitors, but at this price, I don’t think any Indian or Singaporean tourist will cough up such an amount for a few days visit to the country.
“Certain star hotels also charge exorbitant rates in comparison to other GCC countries.”
In response, Akbar Abbas says: “It is true that the rates charged by star hotels and resorts in Oman are high.
“The reason for that is as simple as the demand and supply theory. In the UAE, there are a lot of hotels in close proximity and it leads to competition.
“Thus, the rates are considerably lower than a comparable star hotel in Oman.”
He claims that despite the fall in the hospitality sector, the boom in tourism in Oman is only beginning.
More than 20,000 hotel rooms are expected to open their doors in the Sultanate by 2020, as the country hopes to achieve a target of five million visitors a year by 2040.
Which is all well and good but some argue that there’s no point bringing more tourists if the amenities are not there and the issue of littering remains a problem.
“Recently, I headed to the Jebel Shams for a camping weekend with my friends. We were loaded with food, water and safety equipment.
“However, it was when we reached there, that we realised there are no public toilets,” says Hunain Farooq.
“There are two resorts in the vicinity, but they had closed their gates in the night for obvious safety reasons. The only way to access a toilet was if we drove to the foothill [a 45-minute drive back].
“So we headed back home early morning, cutting out our plans for the weekend.
“We experienced the same situation at the Qurum Beach. There were no public toilets around, and we had to rely on the Starbucks nearby to get changed.
“We were also aghast that there were no lifeguards on the beach. One can only wonder how the authorities would respond if there were a case of drowning.”
Hunain also recollects witnessing a load of trash scattered across the beach, “almost like there was a beach party the night before”.
“I am not sure how the authorities can claim they’re ready to accept foreign tourists in huge numbers, when they don’t even have the basic facilities in the most sought-after tourist spots.”
When asked about the issue by Y, Fatma Ahmed Alsaleh, a tourism promotion specialist with the Directorate General of Tourism Promotion at the Ministry of Tourism, agrees that it’s a work in progress.
“That is a bit of a challenge but we are working closely with the municipalities. Some people don’t realise that these responsibilities don’t lie within the Ministry of Tourism; our job is mainly to develop tourism and get the people here but we do develop tourist sites.
“So, for instance, cafes, if it serves a tourism purpose, then we will take care of it. We get asked a lot about restaurants but that really is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism. But we do work really closely with the municipalities in order to develop each area according to our plan.”
But Hunain Farooq also believes that promotional campaigns for the Sultanate are not strong enough, a view shared by others we spoke to. “Countries like Malaysia, the UAE and Australia have amazing campaigns that garner the attention of viewers around the world.
“We have no such campaigns running on a global scale; we’re literally non-existent in the social media scene.”
There is no doubt that the Ministry of Tourism is working hard to position itself on the world tourism map and doing its best to address the issues mentioned here.
“Honestly speaking, tourism, holistically, is still quite new to Oman and there’s no shame in saying that we have done things, we’ve tried things and we went wrong and there are still lots of learning to do,” says HH Sayyid Faisal.
“The other side of things as well is that Omanis need to accept what tourism entails and embracing what it comes with. There is good, there is bad, so it’s about how we minimise the bad and maximise the good.”
His Highness also calls littering a big concern.
“On one hand, we promote Oman as pristine beaches and a beautiful country, on the other hand, littering is the biggest concern that we have as well.
“I think that more campaigns are needed. On a volunatry side, there have been a lot of campaigns where schools are involved.
“I think going back to education is primarily important. We are talking about the generations to come. If you look at it, that there’s always going to be an expat who is going to clean up after me, there is a problem. Once that person decides no more cleaning, it’s your responsibility.”
The world-renowned tagline the Ministry of Tourism uses to sell Oman around the world is “Beauty has an address”.
Let’s hope that this still holds true in a few years’ time.
Up 7% when compared to previous year.
Up 17.7% when compared to 2014.
In 2015, the sector accounted for 2.2% of Oman’s GDP, as per NCSI figures, with inbound tourism generating RO250.9m last year – nearly double the amount earned in 2005.
The industry’s contribution to GDP is expected to increase by an average of 6.1% per year through to 2025, to reach 3.3% of GDP.
Source: Ministry of Tourism
Source: Ministry of Tourism