Adventure, sport and cultural offerings leveraged to increase tourist arrivals to Oman

 

Niche tourism is a key feature of the National Tourism Strategy 2040 (NTS) created by the Ministry of Tourism (MoT) and the National Programme for Economic Diversification (Tanfeedh), the two initiatives that have guided the sector since 2016. Examples of niche segments include sports – sailing, fishing and adventure sports – as well as ecotourism, wildlife tourism and heritage tourism. “Of all the sectors targeted under Tanfeedh, tourism is in the best position to reduce economic dependency on hydrocarbons,” Khalid Ansari, CEO of Al Anwar Holdings, told OBG. “Oman’s infrastructure, scenery and recreational sites have the potential to make a tangible difference to the economy, boost employment of Omani nationals and increase foreign currency inflows.”

Phased Approach

The NTS is divided into four phases, each with a regional and segment focus: 2016-20, 2021-25, 2026-30 and 2031-40. The first phase focuses on coastal Musandam Governorate on the Strait of Hormuz, the mountain villages and canyons of Nizwa and Jabal Shams, the high-end cultural heritage in Muscat, the nature around Salalah, and the eastern coast wadis and Ras Al Jinz. The second phase will develop Al Rustaq, Nakhal, Al Hazm, the Sharquiya Sands and Masirah Island, while the third will develop Sohar, Duqm and the archaeological sites of Bat, Al Khutm and Al Ayn. Lastly, the fourth phase will build tourism infrastructure in the oasis town of Buraimi, Rub Al Khali and Dhofar’s west. The NTS recognises that the sultanate’s competitive advantage lies in its potential for experiential tourism, and as such the strategy focuses on investing in enhancing natural and cultural resources, rehabilitating villages and preserving traditions.

Benchmarks

Tanfeedh similarly highlights the opportunities for tourism in culture, heritage and natural resources, alongside regional events such as Dubai’s Expo 2020 and Oman’s reputation for safety and political stability. The programme introduced specific key performance indicators (KPIs) including the privatisation of the management of nature sites, protected areas and heritage sites; the development of a meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), and a tourism calendar for the country; the creation of cultural food and beverage precincts; the easing of regulatory barriers; and an increase in the number of Omanis employed in the sector. “There needs to be more space for the private sector to contribute,” Peter Walichnowski, CEO of the Oman Tourism Development Company (Omran), told OBG. “Several changes could facilitate this, such as encouraging university graduates to establish their own tourism-related businesses rather than working for the government, the privatisation of the country’s hotel portfolio and the establishment of more unique offerings such as bed and breakfasts. These would not only broaden the private sector’s role, but also provide income to the local economy.”

The KPIs will be assessed by the Implementation Support and Follow-up Unit (ISFU), the government arm responsible for evaluating Tanfeedh. While still in its infancy, government support for niche tourism has delivered, particularly in adventure activities, sporting and other events, and cultural heritage.

Adventure

The IFSU’s 2018 annual report outlined four pilot adventure tourism projects: Oman X, hot-air ballooning, Musandam Adventure and Majlis Al Jinn. Oman X will be established by the Muscat National Development and Investment Company (ASAAS) to manage the promotion of extreme sports within the sultanate. As of the end of 2019 the project received initial approval from the MoT after a feasibility study had been carried out.

ASAAS is also responsible for the hot-air ballooning initiative centred around Al Sharqiyah, where flights will be operated by the UK’s Virgin Balloon Flights. While necessary pre-approvals had been received as of May 2019, ASAAS was also pushing for the publication of regulations specific to hot-air ballooning by the Public Authority for Civil Aviation.

Musandam, meanwhile, was identified by Omran as a new focal point for adventure travel in the Middle East. In April 2018 Omran signed an agreement with the MoT to invest in developing a variety of activities in the northern exclave, located on the Straits of Hormuz. Proposed activities include via ferrata climbing routes, ziplines, hiking paths and mountain-biking trails. In July 2018 Omran took a step forward, partnering with Omani scuba diving and watersports group Freestyle Divers to launch a dive centre at Omran’s Atana Musandam Hotel. As of May 2019 the design work for the hiking trails and via ferrata was complete, with implementation due to occur before year’s end. Omran is also understood to be requesting additional lands from the Ministry of Housing for use in the project.

Majlis Al Jinn, a cave 162 km from Muscat in a remote part of Quriyat, is the second-largest cave chamber in the world by surface area. Following a concept development plan submitted by Omran in 2018, the site is set to be developed in three phases that will see to the creation of new waymarked trails in the cave and the drafting of guidelines for use.

Events & Sports

Tanfeedh aims to leverage a variety of sporting, MICE, cultural and other events to attract a broad swath of visitors with different interests. The group signed an agreement with the MoT and government-owned Oman Sail to manage the events, and the partnership delivered 14 events over the course of 2018, all but three of which were sporting events. These included the Muscat Marathon, numerous equestrian events, the Oman Desert Marathon, a youth football cup and regional cultural events held on national holidays. The events had a combined economic impact of OR7.7m ($20m) and attracted over 4500 international visitors. While this fell short of the KPI of 12 sporting and 17 non-sporting events, it was an impressive start.

Outside organisations are joining in the efforts as well. In November 2018 the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a trail running organisation launched in 2003 that has since become one of the most successful in the world, held its inaugural Oman race. The first event held in Oman attracted 450 participants to a 137-km mountain course through wadis (valleys), ridges, villages and desert landscapes. The second edition, held in November 2019, was significantly larger, attracting around 1800 runners from 68 countries. As a Tanfeedh initiative delivered by Oman Sail, the events also have strong focus on Omanisation and in-country value, with the suppliers and staff all coming from the region.

UTMB Oman built on the reputation established by ultra-marathon event Oman Desert Marathon, which has been held in the sultanate since 2013. The Oman Desert Marathon features a challenging 165-km run through desert landscapes in the Al Sharqiyah North Governorate. Over 130 runners participated in the 2019 edition of the event. Additionally, the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon was first organised in 2012 and was rebranded in 2017, acquiring the organisational support of Oman Sail and the sponsorship of the Al Mouj integrated tourism complex. The eighth edition of the race was held in early 2019 and attracted over 8000 participants from 103 nationalities.

Developing a strong portfolio of participatory sporting events is a cost-effective way to grow and promote the sultanate’s tourism industry. “While large spectator sports require significant investment in planning and infrastructure, participatory events tend to be have low up-front costs and become economically efficient rather quickly,” David Graham, CEO of Oman Sail, told OBG. The effects of these events last beyond the event, as runners or other participants tell their peers about their positive experiences. “After a few years you will have a number of profitable events that will act as free promotional tools around the world for tourism in Oman. This undoubtedly supports the government’s mission to increase sporting activities at home.”

Cultural Heritage

Central to tourism-related initiatives is increasing the number of international guests who visit Oman’s cultural heritage locales such as villages, forts and archaeological sites. As outlined in Tanfeedh, authorities have identified privatisation of the management of the sites as an important step towards making this a reality. Harat Al Bilad, a 900-year-old archaeological site in Al Dhakhliya, was chosen as the pilot for this objective due to its location in relation to other tourist sites. The town is 180 km from Muscat, 25 km from Nizwa Fort, 50 km from the Al Hoota Cave and 80 km from Jabal Akhdar. In 2018 management of the site was transferred from the Ministry of Heritage and Culture to Omran, and in November of that year Omran signed an agreement with local operator Traditional Architecture Reconstruction to develop and operate the site. Harat al Bilad will be followed by Harat Al Yamin and Harat Al Sibani, two villages chosen for their multicultural histories and because they are the oldest settlements in the governorate.

Other heritage sites in Omran’s portfolio are Nizwa Fort and Al Hoota Cave, the latter of which receives 60,000 visitors a year and is Oman’s most popular natural attraction. Al Hoota was among the five sites in which management was transferred from the MoT to Omran in 2018 as part of a move to separate the executive and legislative elements of the government’s tourism operations. The cave, located at the foot of Jebal Shams, underwent extensive refurbishments in 2016. Highlighting the potential for growth in this segment, Oman has five entries on the UNESCO World Heritage site list, namely the Bahla Fort; the archaeological sites of Bat, Al Khutm and Al Ayn; the Land of Frankincense; the Aflaj irrigation system; and the ancient city of Qalhat.

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