As it works to diversify Oman’s tourism industry, the government has identified cruise tourism as potentially lucrative and capable of sustained growth. The sultanate’s 3000-km coastline, strategically located ports and visually striking geography render it well poised to capture this growing market. Port Qaboos in Muscat is already benefitting from a cruise ship terminal and plans to build more, while port developments at Salalah, Khasab and elsewhere should boost cruise ship calls. Passenger numbers have risen more than 70-fold in 10 years, and tour operators, retailers and restaurateurs are reaping the harvest of a fast-growing industry.
A cruise destination since the early 1990s, Oman is looking to augment the number of calls and time spent at three key ports: Port Sultan Qaboos in Muscat, the Port of Salalah in the south, and the Port of Khasab on the Musandam peninsula. Each ship carries 300-3000 passengers, bringing a huge captive market to local vendors, restaurants and tour operators, especially during peak season from December to April. According to the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), 256,721 cruise passengers visited Oman in 2012, up from just 3500 in 2003.
Muscat’s Port Sultan Qaboos sees the most cruise ships. Calls rose from 24 vessels and 7687 passengers in 2005 to 111 and 183,449 in 2012, and are likely to pass 300,000 by 2015, according to the MoT. It logged 85 calls from January to September 2013, more than Khasab (45) and Salalah (30) did the entire year, combined. With views of the Muttrah Corniche fort and watch-towers, is has become a favourite for cruise ships since the government unveiled a new $7m terminal there, complete with a visitor information centre and duty-free shopping, in January 2010.
“In 2003 we had 3500 cruise ship passengers. We’ve managed to increase that to over 250,000, owing largely to the government’s investments in ports and tourist facilities,” Khalid Al Zadjali, director of tourism events at the MoT, told OBG. As of May 2012, Muscat’s cruise ship terminal received regular calls from Royal Caribbean, MSC, Costa, and AIDA. Mein Schiff, of the German cruise line TUI, also recently began calling there, with 13 stops between January and September 2013.
With such strong initial results, the MoT in 2012 drew up plans to increase Muscat’s appeal as a cruise destination, and began meeting with international lines like Royal Caribbean, Aida and Costa in hopes of drawing more calls. The government moved all commercial shipping in Muscat to Sohar, and in May 2013 revealed plans for more development at Port Sultan Qaboos, including new cruise ship terminals with dock space for three vessels at once, passenger terminals with a capacity of 11,000 each and more shops. In 2011 the government began offering free 48-hour visas to cruise ship passengers regardless of nationality. “We’ve designed the immigration process at the terminal to be as smooth and painless as possible. You won’t see tourists waiting in long queues to get into the country. We are proud to have created such a welcoming environment, and these service standards are reflected in our growing visitor numbers,” said Al Zadjali.
The Port of Khasab has less traffic, but more impressive growth. According to Al Zadjali, cruise ship calls numbered only 12 in 2010, but this figure spiked to 45 during the 2012-13 season, partly because MSC, the world’s fourth-largest operator, put the city on its schedule in 2011. The number of cruise ship tourists rose by 2699% in one year, from 2391 in 2011 to 66,926 in 2012, according to the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Dubbed the “Norway of Arabia” for its fjords, or khors, Khasab offers daytrips on traditional dhow ships, striking scenery, water sports such as scuba diving, and mountain safaris.
In January 2013, the Ministry of Transport and Communications signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the sultanate’s Port Services Corporation (PSC) to operate the Port of Khasab. The PSC had been doing so on a temporary basis since 2012, while it ran a feasibility study on managing the port long-term. Under this agreement, the PSC, which also runs Port Sultan Qaboos, will manage the Port of Khasab for a trial period of one year. Ongoing harbour development, with plans for ferry terminals and expanded berths for cruise ships, should turn Khasab into a commercial and tourist hub and see sustained long-term growth.
The Port of Salalah has also seen strong growth, and is undergoing major construction and expansion, including plans for a dedicated cruise ship terminal. Cruise numbers have risen from 18 calls and 7181 passengers in 2005, to 33 calls and 28,159 passengers in 2012. Numbers peaked in 2010 at 35 ships and 31,283 passengers, but as construction starts on a OR100m ($259m) breakwater project, the port should see numbers climb once again. In April 2013 APM Terminals, which holds a 30% share in the Port of Salalah, announced that the port would initiate the government tender process for a permanent cruise terminal.
“It’s about protection of operations. The tourists are already there, but the cruise ship terminal will make operations more efficient,” Ahmed Akaak, acting CEO at the Port of Salalah, told OBG. “It’s also good for the community to have somewhere to go with restaurants and attractions. It will benefit the city as a whole.” Apart from Muscat, Salalah and Khasab, the government has eyed potential cruise ship opportunities at the Port of Duqm, midway between Muscat and Salalah, and in Sur, the heart of Oman’s historic maritime trade and the easternmost city on the Arabian Peninsula.
Sur, one of the oldest ports in the region, remains a cultural stronghold. Its dhow-building industry, which for centuries furnished ships for trade to the Far East, still exists. Ancient monuments such as the Bilad Sur and As Sinaysilah castles, an abundance of scenic wadis (valleys), and a turtle sanctuary at Ras Al Jinz all render Sur a ripe cruise ship destination. Although Sur has no dedicated terminal for cruise ships, Seabourn, an international cruise operator, sends some ships there – four tours stopped in late 2013.
In 2010, the government and Consortium Antwerp Port created a joint venture, Port of Duqm Company, to operate the Duqm port and industrial zone. Besides industrial development, they plan a number of other offerings. These could one day include cruise ships; Peter Broers, CEO of the Port of Duqm Company, has spoken of the perks a designated cruise ship terminal could bring to the region. Tourism will play an important role, and the city has already attracted marine visitors. The port’s rapid development also includes ship repair services for small vessels and cruise ships alike.
Oman’s tourism industry stands to benefit from regional growth, as the number of cruise ship passengers rises in the GCC. In May 2012 Maitha Al Mahrouqi, undersecretary at the MoT, called for a regional strategy to secure a bigger global market share. Oman, Abu Dhabi and Dubai all have major port projects for cruise ships under way. Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed plans a cruise ship terminal to take 600,000 passengers by 2030; expansions at Dubai Cruise Terminal project furnished berths for up to seven cruise ships and 625,000 passengers as early as 2015. Since most regional cruises stop in Oman, the country has much to gain from expanding its operations and attracting new ships.
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