Oman: Top-end travel

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Oman’s tourism industry is set to maintain its steady rate of growth over the coming decades as public and private investment in the sector helps broaden the range of facilities and improve services, though the Sultanate will have to contend with increased competition in the region as other Gulf states also seek to attract overseas visitors.

The most recent study conducted by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) on the global tourism industry projects annual growth for the sector of 5.5% between now and 2021. Tourism’s total contribution to GDP in 2011 is expected to be $4.4bn or 6.8%, rising to $7.5bn or 7.7% in 10 years. Just as importantly, the sector will provide direct employment to 35,000 people this year, with this figure more than doubling to 74,000 when indirect job creation is considered.

While Oman’s Ministry of Tourism is somewhat more conservative in its employment and GDP forecasts, estimating that the number of jobs created by the sector would top 20,000 by 2015, and that the direct contribution to the economy would be around 3% this year, it is likely these figures are understated and, as ministry officials acknowledged, do not include indirect contributions.

One of the biggest obstacles to Oman’s tourism industry becoming a regional leader is the stiff competition it faces from many of its Gulf neighbours. The Sultanate is not alone in having ambitions of boosting tourism’s contribution to GDP, with a number of other GCC member states investing in developing their respective sectors.

Oman’s tourism industry received a vote of confidence in early October when the Arab Tourism Ministers Council chose Muscat as the Arab Tourism Capital for 2012. According to the minister of tourism, Sheikh Abdulmalik bin Abdullah Al Khalili, the decision by his fellow ministers was proof of Muscat’s status on the Arab tourism map and of the well-developed nature of the Sultanate’s hospitality industry. Oman has every intention of maximising the benefits that this designation could bring, he said.

“We will strive to make 2012 a distinguished year with a number of activities that highlight the various tourism potentials in the Sultanate, such as a rich natural environment and an ancient heritage, besides a number of tourism resorts that distinguish the Sultanate from the rest countries of the region,” Sheikh Al Khalili told local media.

Oman’s diversity is a major selling point in its efforts to compete with its neighbours. Unlike most of its regional rivals, the Sultanate has a deep hinterland, rather than just a narrow coastal strip. With a range of geographical regions, Oman can offer mountain climbing, desert treks, ecological safaris and diving options on top of the more standard sun, sand and shopping holidays of places nearby.

Oman is also hoping that quality as well as diversity will appeal to foreign visitors, with the Sultanate trying to develop a brand name associated both with adventure holidays but also with high-standards of service.

To assist in this drive, the tourism ministry has established the company Omran to serve as its investment arm. Quite apart from being involved in the development of a number of tourism facilities, such as the $1bn Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre and a range of top-end hotels, Omran is also looking to provide the fundamental building blocks for the sector. In late August, Wael bin Ahmed Al Lawati, Omran’s CEO, announced the company would be establishing two hospitality schools.

These schools will help deepen the pool of trained Omanis in the industry, a pool that is already supplied by the flow of graduates from the Oman Tourism College, set up in 2001. Al Lawati said the schools, which would be developed in coordination with the Ministry of Education, were part of Omran’s remit to provide and support tourism services across the country and to increase the numbers of locals employed in the industry.

Though Oman is working diligently to compete with other countries in the region, what the country can also do, and is actively working towards, is to offer a truly multi-dimensional alternative to its peers.

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