While racing camels, horses and dhows number among Oman’s traditional sports, recent years have seen the sultanate engage in a range of more internationally popular activities. Golf, sailing, football and even cricket tournaments are all part of putting the country on the global sports tourism map, raising its profile as an international leisure destination. This engagement dovetails with the sultanate’s plans to develop the health and living standards of its population, with a major drive to build up sports infrastructure.

Mixing The Two

Integration of sports with tourism is perhaps no more evident than in the Integrated Tourism Complexes (ITCs) policy. These development zones are gated communities where high-end residential properties are made available to foreigners for purchase. The properties are developed alongside hotels, shopping and entertainment centres. Frequently, they often include marinas as well as major golf courses.

One of the largest ICTs, The Wave, has the 18-hole, ocean-side Almouj Golf Course, designed by Greg Norman, while the Muscat Hills ITC also has an 18-hole course in the rugged mountains next to the capital. Down south, the upcoming Salalah Beach ITC has two such courses. All the above-mentioned courses are designed to Professional Golf Association standards.

Putting Greens

Outside ITCs, Oman also has Al Maha Golf Club, Oman Automobile Club Golf Course, the Crowne Plaza Salalah Golf Course and Ghala Golf Club. These courses aim to secure for Oman a share of what the International Association of Golfing Tour Operators (IAGTA) estimates is a $20bn global golf tourism industry. The IAGTA further states that some 56m people play golf worldwide, with 5-10% of these travelling each year with the specific purpose of playing golf at their destination. Golf tour operators’ sales grew some 9.3% in 2012, according to IAGTA figures, with headline numbers suggesting 11.1% growth in 2013. Sales for January 2014 were also up 14.5% on January 2013.

In the Middle East and North Africa region, the current leading golf destination is Morocco, with the UAE catching up fast with courses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Oman Golf Committee (OGC), the sultanate’s golf governing body, has been trying to raise awareness of its advantages by backing a number of international tournaments in recent years. The National Bank of Oman Golf Classic is now a late-autumn fixture of the second part of the European Challenge Tour, after teeing off for the first time in 2013. Meanwhile, the OGC, along with Oman’s golf clubs, is trying to boost domestic take-up of the sport, with programmes to encourage junior and senior participation.

Onto The Seas

Another area of sports development tied in with tourism is sailing. Oman has a long history of involvement with the sea, with dhow racing a traditional sport dating back centuries. Capitalising on this tradition, in 2008 the organisation Oman Sail was launched under the guidance of the Ministry of Tourism. This venture saw Oman come fourth in its first international sailing race, the iShares Cup. The following year, Oman Sail was behind the first recorded, nonstop, single-handed round-the-world voyage by an Arab, Mohsin Al Busaidi. Since then, the Oman Sail team has continued to race in competitions around the world and raise Oman’s profile as a sailing competitor.

At the same time, there has been some major expansion in the sultanate’s marinas. The ITCs have helped here as well. The Wave is currently expanding its marina to a 400-berth affair, capable of handling luxury super yachts. The Barr Al Jissah ITC, which wraps around three luxury Shangri-La hotels, is also developing a small marina, while the Jebel Sifah ITC has already completed a new 94-berth marina – with space for 100 more in dry storage – capable of handling boats up to 60 metres long. Salalah Beach is also on track to draw high-end sailing to its Marina Town. This will have a 200-berth facility upon completion, alongside its five five-star hotels and residential areas.

The sultanate’s waters also offer a major tourism draw in terms of diving. Many of ITC marinas play host to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI)-qualified diving tour outfits, with many easily accessible from Muscat and Salalah. There are several independent dive clubs and tour operators in the field.

Dotting Islands

The country has more than 2000 km of coastline, with this stretching from the sea-flooded wadis of the Musandam exclave in the north, to the coral reefs of the Daymaniyat Islands off Muscat and beyond. Close to the capital are the coves and bays of Bander Khayran and the island of Fahal, also known as Shark Island. Further south, the khelp forests of Salalah’s southern waters, which are dominated by the seasonal Indian monsoon, provide a different marine environment, allowing diving with whales and dolphins. An abundance and great variety of marine life, along with some challenging dives, is the result of this variety of ecologies, with year-round diving possible.

Adventure sports are thus already established offshore, but they are also available onshore. Hiking trails in the northern region around Muscat and the Western Hajar are extensive, with these often challenging, given the climate as well as the terrain. Canyoning, caving, abseiling, rock climbing, mountain biking and kayaking are also available for tourists with an adventurous streak. The land is also the venue for one of the more long established tournaments in the country, the Tour of Oman cycling race. Held annually since 2010 in the cooler winter months, this is part of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Asia tour, with riders from many Western countries taking part. Meanwhile, with a large, expat population from the sub-continent, as well as from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, cricket has long been a popular sport, with Oman Cricket the governing body.

Going Abroad

Recently, Oman has begun sending its national teams to international events. Omani football has also been growing, led by the Oman Football Association. The national team takes part in the Asian Football Confederation, while 14 teams currently play in the sultanate’s own Division 1.

Green Sports

Another initiative has been under way to promote “green sports”, backed by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Affairs and Bank Muscat, as well as sports club officials and sector agencies. The initiative has helped clubs lay turf for sports fields while integrating its care of new pitches with environmentally sustainable practices. Already, most of the sultanate’s golf courses practice major water recycling programmes, while also creating some unique ecospheres. The Wave’s golf course, for example, has become a major sanctuary for birds. The facilities and the infrastructure are therefore either in place now or coming rapidly on stream. Promoting this availability is perhaps the more pressing task.

Another challenge facing the tourism sector as a whole is destination management. Booking tours in advance is still the main route for taking advantage of the sports tourism opportunities available, while integrated structures to cover tourist arrivals from airport to the destination and back are often underdeveloped.