A climate for growth: Cool summer temperatures draw regional and local visitors to Dhofar

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Summers in Dhofar are unique for the Gulf region. In mid-summer, the south-east monsoon, known as the khareef, flows in from the east on seasonal winds coming off of the Indian Ocean. A moist white haze settles across the city of Salalah and the surrounding area, tempering the summer heat. For about two months, the haze remains. The moisture from the khareef fills the normally-dry wadis ( valleys), nurturing a lush ecosystem unique to a region known for sandy deserts. In ancient times, these winds helped catapult Salalah into regional importance as both a trade and an agricultural centre. A number of projects in recent years are working to utilise this region’s unique micro-climate to attract more visitors. The idea is to continue building up the tourism sector, which could spur more economic diversification.

Summer Chill

Sitting directly south of the largest sand desert in the world, Dhofar stands out as a place to escape the summer heat. While temperatures in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula can climb as high as 50°C, those in Dhofar rarely climb over 27°C thanks to the cooler, wetter weather brought on by the khareef. Accompanying the monsoon is the annual Salalah Tourism Festival, which runs during July and August. In recent years, visitor numbers have been on the up. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of visitors for the entire monsoon season grew 16% from 293,043 to 339,579, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism. More than three-quarters of visitors were either Omani or Emirati nationals, with the remainder largely from other Arab countries or Asia. As the overall number of visitors has increased, their national make-up has changed over the past three years. Between 2009 and 2011, growth in Omani visitors as a proportion of the total was strong, increasing from 56.1% to 67.2%. The share of Asian tourists grew slightly as well, from 7.5% to 8.1%. The shares of other nationalities, meanwhile, declined in comparison. In 2012, tourism data followed similar trends. Between June 21, 2012 and July 4, 2012, the number of visitors climbed 10% compared to the previous year, from 28,331 to 31,335, according to government statistics. Visitor numbers in 2012 likely benefitted from the fortuitous timing of Ramadan and the subsequent Eid Al Fitr holiday. Since the holiday coincided with the khareef, the pool of potential visitors grew. Almost 95,000 visitors came to Dhofar during the holiday period.

Infrastructure

Although the spike in visitors during the 2012 Khareef Festival was a welcome boost to the local tourism sector, crowds stretched some infrastructure to its limits. The roads saw increased traffic as many visitors opted to make the 1000-km drive from Muscat rather than flying. More cars, combined with the wet and foggy weather, increased the chances of congestion and accidents for the year, according to the Royal Oman Police. To accommodate growth, authorities are working to upgrade roads in Dhofar. A 37-km road from Tarqah to Mirbat is under construction, while the design phase of the 124-km Mirbat-Hasik road came to a close in September 2012.

Another project, the expansion of Salalah Airport, could also ease traffic on inter-regional highways. The city has seen steadily growing air traffic in the past decade. Passenger numbers climbed from 182,823 to 513,278 between 2000 and 2011, according to data from Oman Airports Management Company. Accordingly, civil aircraft movements more than doubled during the same period. The new Salalah Airport, set to become operational by 2014, should have a passenger capacity of 2m. COWI and Larsen Architects, both Denmark-based companies, are the principal consultants on the project, working with a team of 30 sub-consultancies. The project’s design, which includes a 4000-metre runway capable of handling larger, long-haul passenger jets, is aimed toward attracting more travellers from abroad directly, rather than via Muscat or Dubai. With the jump in passenger movements, the authorities expect cargo demand to rise as well, in line with business activity. To accommodate this, the airport will also see its cargo-handling capacity grow.

By Sea

Salalah’s seaport has also been expanding rapidly in recent years, thanks to its competitive location as a distribution centre for companies doing business in East Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. With its cargo terminal among the fastest-growing in the region, the port’s capacity as a cruise terminal is also set to improve. The port already has cruise liners calling on it regularly, and plans are under way to construct a separate cruise terminal like the dedicated passenger terminal at Port Qaboos in Muscat.

Growth in Dhofar has also necessitated expansion of the region’s power and potable water supplies. To ensure adequate amounts of both, the state-owned Oman Power and Water Procurement Company (OPWP) is working on an independent water and power project (IWPP) in Mirbat, 74 km north of Salalah.

The development includes five natural-gas-powered plants and two steam-powered plants that will be used for desalination. Upon its completion, the IWPP station is set to produce a total of 445 MW of power and around 15m gallons of water per day. Started in 2008, the Mirbant plant is set for full operation by 2012, according to officials at the OPWP.

Accommodation

As infrastructure expands to accommodate growing numbers of visitors, the region’s hotel industry has also expanded. Several major hotel operators have already moved to Dhofar, including Marriott and Crowne Plaza.

The rush during the Eid Al Fitr holiday in August 2012, however, stretched Salalah’s current hotel capacity, with many larger hotels booked up completely ahead of the holiday. “Our booking register showed full even before the declaration of Eid holiday,” Mona Ibrahim, the director of sales at the Crowne Plaza Salalah, told local media in August 2012.

This situation has highlighted the potential for holiday accommodation growth in the region. To build up capacity, stakeholders have been investing in several integrated tourism complexes (ITC), larger developments that contain accommodation, retail and recreational activities. Among the largest under way is Salalah Beach Resort. Located 20 km outside of the city centre, the 15.6m-sq-metre beachfront development is set to include freehold properties, villas, five-star hotels, a 36-hole professional-level golf course, retail, dining and a 200-berth inland marina at its centre. Leading the Salalah Beach’s development is Muscat-based Muriya, which is 30% owned by state-backed tourism developer Omran and 70% owned by Orascom Hotels & Development. Progress has been brisk. In June 2012, one of the five-star hotels, the 65-room Jeweira Boutique hotel, opened its doors to customers.

Meanwhile, Zahrat Al Khareef, another project in Salalah’s central Al Wadi district, opened as scheduled in March 2012. Developed by Muscat-based Iskan Oman Investment, the 29,000-sq-metre complex contains 586 units that can be purchased on a freehold basis by Omanis and GCC nationals. Projects like Salalah Beach and Zahrat Al Khareef, authorities hope, will increase accommodation capacity and attract potential property owners.

Ecotourism Niche

In addition to ITCs and large-scale residential complexes, stakeholders are investing in environmentally based projects, in keeping with the government’s broader niche-tourism segment strategy. The As Sodah, run by French hotel operator Cheval Blanc, is aiming to expand the region’s ecotourism market. The firm, part of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, sees its 32-villa, 11-sq-km development as an “eco-lodge”, with construction designed to avoid disturbing plant and animal species on the island. Another similarly-minded project, the Mirbat Beach development, is also under way. Located in Dhofar’s Mirbat area about 75 km north-west of Salalah, construction is set near the frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The OR1.1bn ($2.87bn), seven-phase project’s first phase was completed in March 2010 with the opening of the Salalah Marriott Resort.

Recent increases in visitor numbers are already spurring both private and public investment in the area, and sectors like retail and transport are likely also enjoying the benefits of a larger customer pool. More broadly, economic diversification in Oman’s second-largest city could help spread the gains of economic growth across the country, further working toward the government’s broader vision of diversifying development.

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