In addition to planning extra events, the authorities instituted legal changes to make visiting the sultanate simpler. On February 20, 2012, the Ministry of Tourism announced new, less costly visa options for short-term travellers. These options include a 10-day, single-entry and 24-hour, multiple-entry visas, both for OR5 ($13). The new visas could save short-term passengers 75% on fees compared to the OR20 ($52) cost of the original tourism visa, which is typically valid for one month.
The change also comes as Oman’s cruise tourism continues to grow. The sultanate saw cruise passengers increase by 72% to 231,000 between winter 2009/10 and winter 2010/11, according to figures from the Ministry of Tourism.
The industry has expanded rapidly, growing from just over 44,000 arrivals in 2007. The introduction of new visas could build momentum for cruise, short-stay and conference tourism, Sheikh Abdulmalik Al Khalili, then the minister of tourism, said in a statement announcing the changes to the visa regime.
Short-term visas could also encourage regional travellers to visit Oman. The Ministry of Tourism is focusing not only on long-haul European, Australian and North American travellers but also those in neighbouring countries looking for shorter holidays. Numbers seem to indicate the idea has potential. Visitors from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, for example, were up 17% year-on-year in 2011, reaching 60,000, the Ministry of Tourism said in May 2012.
A combination of legal changes, public-private partnerships and ongoing investment have helped build up Oman’s capacity as a tourism destination in recent years. With unique micro-climates and terrain different from those of other GCC destinations, the country has much to set it apart from other areas in the region.
The authorities have been working to build on this potential for years. Recognition from international publications and organisations in 2012 has demonstrated that this effort has so far not been going unnoticed. Upon assuming leadership of Oman in 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said vowed to modernise the country through a series of legal, social and economic reforms. In recent years, economic diversification has been a driving force behind government policy, as leaders act to support Oman’s transformation from an oil exporter to a centre for services and industry.
In this drive, tourism development has been a major priority. A combination of public and private players has worked to develop the industry, which has been transformed in less than a generation. The sector’s value addition to the Omani economy grew from OR430m ($1.12bn) to OR606m ($1.6bn) between 2007 and 2010, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
The year 2012 has been a watershed for the sector, thanks to a flurry of international recognition for the sultanate’s tourism offerings. Australia-based Lonely Planet named Muscat the year’s most desirable tourist destination after Olympics 2012-host London, while the US-based magazine National Geographic listed travel to Oman as one of the “best trips of 2012”. In addition, the ministers of tourism from the Arab League’s member states named Muscat the Arab Tourism Capital of 2012. Selection criteria for the honour included accessibility, the variety of tourism and archaeological sites, infrastructure, tourism services, hotel capacity, events and activities, climate and attractions for Arab tourists.
To build on the momentum of this recognition, the Ministry of Tourism planned a series of events to coincide with Muscat’s year in the spotlight. The authorities aimed to take advantage of this buzz to promote both the capital city and the country as a whole. Tourism authorities created events including a series of contests, festivals and activities for visitors. They also tweaked regulations and worked with the private sector to boost tourism numbers throughout the year. The ministry worked with Oman Air and several hotels to attract more short-term travellers with the “Your Muscat 2012 Invitation” promotional campaign, which also included a night of free lodging at some selected hotels.
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