If Oman is the best country in the Middle East, as many believe it is, then we shouldn’t be shy about showing it off. Team Y reports on the Sultanate’s drive to build an economy that will be bolstered, and possibly driven, by tourism.
Forts straight out of tales of the ‘Arabian Nights’, crystal-blue waters that define the word ‘azure’, mountains that shatter the clouds to peak ever-so-lightly into the heavens, fjords that spread all around them, and to top it all off, citizens that welcome one and all with smiles and arms wide open: Oman must really be ‘Heaven on earth’.
Once known to be a hidden gem on the eastern coast of the Middle East – an area put on the world map by Dubai – Oman has risen as a tourist destination, with scores of travellers landing on its shores for a taste of authentic Arabia.
However, they ain’t seen nothing yet. The Sultanate may already have become a tourist destination – with 3.3m people visiting Oman in 2017 alone (a record for the country) but the nation’s ultimate goal is an ambitious one; to switch from oil wealth to a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) that relies heavily on tourism.
But, is this feasible – and if so, how will it affect the oil industry and the underlying budget deficit that etches Oman’s economy?
These are questions aplenty and the answers vague. Nonetheless, our country and its people have some firm answers to all our queries.
While a shift from oil to tourism wouldn’t be practical or conceivable over a short period of time, it would be possible says a former civil servant.
In the eyes of 62-year-old travel and tourism analyst and former Ministry of Tourism employee Mohammed al Ghafri, Oman would need to draw nearly five million tourists and generate nearly RO2bn annually, and then increase the numbers by up to seven per cent.
He says: “The current figures are a far cry from what the country has been trying to achieve, even if Oman is currently posting the best figures it has ever had since it opened its doors to tourists in the late 1990s.”
Even so, that’s remarkable growth, the former tourism expert says, while stressing that Oman’s framework for tourism is less than a decade old.
“It all began in 1998 at the 28thNational Day speech that His Majesty gave us all. We all sat there attentively to comprehend the changes that we were going to see during the year – and then the words streamed out of him.
“His Majesty had just focused on tourism as a potential for diversifying Oman’s economy. It was like gold to our ears – and we knew we had to begin working towards his dream. His dream to make this a hub for tourists.”
Mohammed is right, too. Before 1998, not many efforts were put into the tourism sector of Oman, with only western tourists exploring its handful of caves.
Come 2018, the scenes are different. Today, nearly 8,500 tourists visit Oman daily – even if most prefer to visit Salalah and regions of Dhofar well-known for their subtropical climates and lush greenery.
Between the months of June and September alone, a staggering 826,376 visitors had visited Salalah – marking a 28.1 per cent increase over the numbers from 2017, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI). This amounted to nearly 25 per cent of the nation’s tourism, this year.
While many of the tourists came from neighbouring GCC countries, Asians comprised 48,907 tourists, while those from Arab countries amounted to 22,306 and Europeans 4,293.
Mohammed then tells us: “Salalah, believe it or not, is key to the growth of Oman. And now that we’re focusing much more on tourism, its strategic location and its subtropical climates can turn out to be star attractions for the hundreds of thousands that visit the region every year.”
As trivial as that sounds, Salalah, says Mohammed, has been playing a key part in envisaging Oman’s ‘Vision 2040’ plan and the ‘National 2040 Tourism Strategy’ that has been boosted by the efforts of government-based think tank Tanfeedh.
According to the plan, the tourism sector alone, which will be led by tourists in Salalah, is expected to contribute up to six per cent of the nation’s overall GDP over the next 22 years thanks to an annual influx of nearly 12m tourists
In short, not only is the tourism industry going to take over as a leading source of the nation’s income, it will also provide up to 500,000 jobs and attract investment from private and foreign investors.
The signs are all positive and the results should start flowing in over the coming two decades – but the greater question now lies: how is the tourism industry currently affecting Oman’s economy?
“It barely grazes the surface,” says economist Andrew Powell, from one of the top universities in Oman. “There’s enough paperwork and statistics to suggest that Oman is definitely headed towards greater times but today it requires quite a lot of work to get it at par with some of its neighbours.
“It’s not a negative point that we must dwell on. Instead, we need to accept the fact that tourism was only given preference in the Sultanate recently. Up until then, we were relying on oil, trade, and property industries as the greatest source of the nation’s income.
“In fact, based on reports published by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the direct contribution of Oman’s tourism industry to the national GDP registered less than RO849.5m in 2017 – which is less than 3.2 per cent of the total GDP.
“However, the forecasts are good. From the results we’ve received so far this year, we could be seeing a rise of the number to nearly six per cent contributions to the overall GDP.”
Alas, as per the WTTC, the Sultanate still ranks 130th among countries, the tourism industries of which contribute most to GDP. It is even placed behind countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and even Algeria (!)
None of that is pouring cold water on our efforts, though. It is said that in 2017, the country amassed RO272.9mn of direct investment in the sector. This, as per the WTTC report, is expected to increment by 3 per cent per annum for the next decade.
But, Andrew then warns: “Yes, the investments are expected to be driven up considerably further. But, we need to keep in mind that the funds are still driven in by oil exports.
“Even if the oil prices are stabilised when compared with the early 2015 and 2016 days, there are certain limitations that arise from such late investments. For instance, there was a budget deficit that was created during the great fall of oil prices back in 2015.
“This deficit is still only being plugged, with every year adding to the country’s strain. So, in some ways, it’s not wrong to state that the investments are coming in hard and fast – albeit, at the wrong time.”
In great news for residents in the Sultanate, however, it was recently reported that the nation’s deficit dropped by 36.1 per cent to RO1.91bn in the first three quarters of this year, when compared with the deficit from 2017.
Developing the tourism industry is expected to take place in clusters, beginning with areas around Muscat and Seeb, before heading up to the Al Hajar Mountains, the Frankincense trail in Salalah, and the dunes of Baushar and Al Sharqiyah. With the new Muscat Airport complete, Oman’s next milestone would be in the setting up of the new road that would join Muscat with Salalah.
“It’s impressive how much Oman has bounced back over the past two years. But, the cutback in the deficit alone won’t create much of a safe space for industries to grow – and much of it has to do with economics.
“When Oman creates its annual budget, it looks at the revenues and expenses. And because we don’t have a primary taxation system, it derives its income from revenues. In the case of tourism, though, there’s a taxation system that supplements the revenues – but that alone won’t even cap the expenditure and investment planned for the tourism sector.
“Moreover, it also takes time for investments to turn into returns. So, take for instance Oman’s new airport – the Muscat International Airport. Created over eight years, it’s going to take time to cover the US$1.85bn (RO712m) that was invested in the initial building of the airport. Much is the same for areas that are developed around Oman – time will play a major factor in determining the success of these areas.
That said, other sources tell us that Oman’s greatest challenges lie in maintaining its existing resources, setting up better basic facilities at tourist hubs, and above all, maintaining the cleanliness at high traffic areas.
Laila*, a spokesperson from the Muscat Municipality says that as the number of tourists increases, so does the work that is required to keep tourist spots ready for the next batch of visitors.
She says: “In the winter months, we experience a great flow of tourists from the GCC as well as Asia who are looking to experience the chilly winters in the mountains. There’s something mystical about the areas around Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar around this time of the year.
“While Jebel Akhdar is predominantly taken up by luxury properties, Jebel Shams suffers from a lack of basic facilities. So, at the peak, visitors are forced to make use of the facilities of a nearby resort for ablutions and other purposes.
“Moreover, there are no groceries or petrol stations nearby. These are all areas wherein we can improve over the coming years.
“Please don’t take this as an admission of guilt – Jebel Shams deserves to remain an area where purists can go for trekking and camping. It’s not built for everyone. There’s a certain level of expertise that’s required by those planning on spending a night there.
“Development doesn’t necessarily mean changing the face of a location. Take areas such as Wadi Shab and the Quriyat Dam for instance: we’ve created a relatively safe space for people to conduct themselves and with the facilities that you’d least expect to receive when travelling in a group.
“We know what our limitations are currently. And Oman being such a big country that’s only slowly moving towards tourism, we too are slowly adopting new practices to make this up to the same standards as you would expect to see from a country in Europe.
“But, the beginning of that process will require education of the masses to understand that a general well-being can be achieved in these areas by simply adopting factors such as cleanliness and generally taking care of yourself and the waste you create while you’re out in the locations. So, we could say that a lot of our challenges now are local.
“That’s what we aim to achieve in the coming years in more places. Bigger targets exist – and that’ll always drive our nation forwards. But as the municipality, we will continue to serve everyone equally all around this wonderful nation.”
But equality is deemed a mixed bag in another vital aspect: procuring visas to enter the Sultanate.
As it stands today, visitors to Oman must obtain a visa before their travel unless they’re citizens of a GCC country.
Still, while nationals of 71 other countries can apply for visas online, only citizens of 67 countries can now take a non-sponsored e-visa – a move that was facilitated in October 2017. What this means is that those from countries such as India, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Albania, Uzbekistan, Iran, Panama, Bhutan, Bosnia, Peru, Belarus, Turkmenistan, the Maldives, Georgia, Honduras, Salvador, Tajikistan, Guatemala, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Costa Rica, Laos, Mexico, and Nicaragua can now enter the nation on an e-visa without any sponsorship.
In an interview with Y, a Royal Oman Police (ROP) immigration official tells us: “Oman’s immigration department adopted the online e-visa in 2017 to get all the processes under check, and at the same time, also make it easier for tourists to procure visas.
“But, citizens from countries such as Japan, the USA, all European Union countries, and several others can procure visas on arrival although it’s best to apply for an e-visa online as we’re making it the norm here in the Sultanate.
“So, anyone interested to opt for a visa can visit www.evisa.rop.gov.omand apply for an e-tourist visa there. While you can choose a 30-day visa for yourself, if you’re eligible, you can also apply for a 10-day visa.
“This intends to reduce bias, but at the same time the procedures will be unified to make the processes much easier and also stop queuing at the visa counters at the airports.”
Whether the shortfalls are streamlined and facilitated over the coming years has yet to be seen – but Mohammed believes firmly that Oman is on the right track when it comes to tourism. He says: “Is Oman perfect (?) Probably not. But, I’ll tell you this: it’s very nearly the best country here in the Middle East right now.
“Our motto is that no tourist – or resident for that matter – should go back without a smile on their face. It’s something I was taught by my elders and it’s something I tell the youth today.”
Mohammed makes a strong case for his country. Only a few years ago, the nation’s taxi system was in a chaotic state, with drivers charging whatever they liked. This meant Oman’s taxi system was the most expensive in the Middle East.
Today, however, Oman boasts a young transportation system, headed by Mwasalat – Oman’s national transport company, and it is complemented by smaller taxi services such as O-Taxi, Marhaba, and others. Moreover, many of the taxis are now dictated by meters, which regulate how much the commuter pays for their journey.
Even the hotel industry has grown substantially over the past five years, with several new properties opening doors to customers. Hotels like Kempinski Hotel Muscat, Crowne Plaza OCEC, Mysk Al Mouj Hotel, are some of the players in the capital.
But it doesn’t stop there. Oman is set to build 22 new hotels in the span of the next two years – bringing the total number of properties under construction to 72. Among them are two Radisson Hotel Group projects.
Mohammed tells: “Hotels, parks, malls, and natural beauty to rule over it all. Oman is taking a stance that no other GCC country has taken: putting nature as the forefront of its tourism. And that is definitely taking the right path towards success. As an Omani we have to embrace the moves that the government makes, not only because we’re a part of this country but also because we believe in this move.
“It’s time to move on from oil. And tourism is the next best thing. So, I’d like to say: come here and experience Oman.”
Al-Dimaniyat Islands Nature Reserve
Located just off the coast of Seeb, some 18km away from the Wilayat of Barka, the Al-Dimaniyat Islands Nature Reserve captures the hearts of tourists looking to become one with the aquatic life. There is a total of nine islands to explore but really, it’s best to experience the coral reefs hidden just a few metres away in the confines of the azure sea waters. Bear in mind that there are 22 diving spots within the 100-acre islands – it’s a goldmine for divers.
Coordinates: 23°51’23.4″N; 58°05’17.8″E
Al Hoota Caves
Think of the caves of Al Hoota to be Mother Nature’s gifts to mankind. From the stalagmite formations that date back two million years to the blind fish that have adapted to the dark surroundings, there’s much to see in this 4.5km-long cave that nestles into the foothills of Jebel Shams. A simple two-hour-long drive from Muscat should take you to the cave – and while entry is chargeable, there’s more than three hours’ of exploring to be done. If you’re lucky enough, you could also take Oman’s only electric train although by doing so, you’ll reduce your time inside the cave. There’s something eerily satisfying about touching a two million-year-old cave wall.
Coordinates: 23°04’53.1″N; 57°21’02.4″E
A truly humbling experience, the Jebel Shams is the GCC’s tallest peak with an elevation of 3,009metres. The climb can be a daunting one that must only be undertaken by experts but those willing to experience the chilly weathers – some of whose winter nights can be peppered with snowfall – can drive up to the peak of the mountain. The beaten down path can be crossed using even a sedan. Make sure you slow down to soak in the scenery that the mountains throw your way. Near the peak, there’s a viewing area that’s cordoned off by fences – make sure you take a few selfies (safely) there. Proceed onwards for a few kilometres and you’ll be greeted by the peak before which you can park your car safely in the Jebel Shams Resort.
Coordinates: 23°14′13″N; 57°15′50″E
Muttrah Souk and the National Museum
Oman’s two jewels, the Muttrah Souk and the National Museum deserve two separate spots on this list, but are clubbed together due to their proximity. On the face of it, the two help propagate Oman’s rich history and deep cultures with its articles – except you’re not allowed to touch the million-year-old relics in the national Museum (unless stated otherwise). Despite this, you can buy one of Oman’s prized silverware or a packet of frankincense on your trip to the Muttrah Souk. The Muttrah Souk has been featured prominently in International magazine and is a must-visit spot for tourists. But, it’s the National Museum that now steals the show. Some 5,466 objects – some as old as Oman itself – has been placed in the museum for your viewing pleasure.
Coordinates to Muttrah: 23°37’03.5″N; 58°33’29.2″E
Al Sharqiyah Sands
No true Arabian experience is complete without a tour of the dusky dunes of Oman. The sands of Al Sharqiyah may be crowded with tourists all year around, but there’s 10,000sq. km of land for you to choose from. Of course, it’s best not to delve into the sands of Oman without an experienced off-road driver but there are tour packages that will take you to the far corners of the desert and offer you a true Bedouin experience. This means staying in a tent, indulging in authentic Arabic food and learning about traditional music and folklore with the locals. If you’re confident enough, you could simply avoid the middlemen, rent an SUV and head straight into the desert on your own. The dunes are a force to be reckoned with – but make it back safe and you’ll have your own Lawrence of Arabia-like tales to tell.
Coordinates: 22°24’57.8″N 58°43’04.1″E