Whether it is a night deep in the Wahiba Sands in a fully air-conditioned tent, complete with en suite bathroom and minibar, or an ocean-view penthouse overlooking a secluded, private beach, Oman has a wide range of options for the luxury traveller. The sultanate has traditionally focused its tourism efforts on the high-end market, and prices for visiting and staying in Oman have generally been higher than in many neighbouring destinations. As recently as 2011, Oman was ranked the most expensive country in the world for UK visitors in booking agency Hotels.com’s Hotel Price Index. Muscat was the fifth-most-expensive destination in the first half of 2015, with an average daily rate for a hotel room standing at $262. This compared with $229 in Doha and $174 in Abu Dhabi. How the sector’s strategy will evolve moving forward and what direction it will take should become clear with the expected unveiling of the new National Tourism Strategy in fourth quarter 2015.
For now though, the sector continues to see major investments in luxury tourism, from seven-star hotels to apartment complexes aimed specifically at foreign visitors and more permanent residents. At the same time, the sector is responding to changes within the global luxury market itself. Interaction with the local culture and environment is increasingly sought after by high-end travellers and often more important to some travellers than fine dining or exclusive spas. In this new segment, too, Oman has much to offer.
Top Of The Range
According to data from the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI), the number of visitors staying at four- and five-star hotels in the sultanate jumped 26.1% between year-end 2013 and year-end 2014, from 622,805 to 789,097. Revenue growth for these hotels was a healthy 10.4% over the same period, or around OR15m ($38.8m), with occupancy rates up 1.5 percentage points to 59.9% from the previous year. As is the case with Omani tourism generally, the bulk of these guests were European (see overview), with these outstripping Omanis by 270,567 to 230,307. Growth in this segment was remarkable: the number of Europeans staying in four- and five-star hotels went up 33.8% over the period. Equally high growth was evident in regions of visitor origin, such as Asia, up 39.3%; Oceania, up 41.4%; and Africa, up 61.7% – although these last two began from a relatively low base.
To accommodate this growth, a series of high-end hotels are opening for business in late 2015 and early 2016, including international brands such as Westin, St. Regis, W Hotels, the Ritz-Carlton, Kempinski and Louis Vuitton. Luxury resorts are also being rolled out, ranging from Soneva Group’s new resort in the Musandam exclave, due to break ground in 2017 (the group already has the Six Senses Zighy Bay resort on the peninsula), to a range of facilities in new integrated tourism complexes (ITCs). ITCs: The ITCs are specially designated areas within which non-Omani nationals may buy properties. Outside these zones, foreign ownership of property is highly restricted, but in the ITCs, luxury villas and apartments are for sale freehold, with two-year residence permits offered to the buyer and their dependants. The ITCs tend to be in attractive areas, on the coast or in the mountains, with the idea that they will provide vacation homes for many, as well as more permanent homes for well-off expatriates.
In 2014 a new ITC, the $840m Saraya Bandar Jissah Resort began construction, with plans for two five-star hotels, while other ITCs unveiled programmes for expansion or revamping. The ITCs combine residential units with hotels, with Kempinski due to open at Al Mouj Muscat (formerly The Wave) in 2016, along with the 190-room Shaza hotel. Eventually, four luxury hotels will be located at the site.
Meanwhile, Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah ITC already offers three of the brand’s hotels, while its cliff-top villas and revamped town houses offer longer-term accommodation. Other ITCs include Muscat Hills – which is expanding into a new range of downtown apartments, the Links – and Salalah Beach, a Muriya development that will be one of Oman’s largest ITCs. Plans for Salalah Beach include seven high-end hotels, including Club Med and Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts. Two hotels, Zuweira Boutique and the Rotana, are already operational. In November 2015, it was announced that the Omani investment company Golden Group of Companies and its subsidiary, Taameer Investment, were partnering with Rotana for five new hotels in Muscat, Sohar and Salalah in Oman. The properties are expected to contribute 1500 hotel rooms to the sultanate over the coming five years in five-, four- and three-star rated hotels.
A 2011 report on luxury travel trends from Horwath HTL and International Luxury Travel Market highlighted four emerging trends among visitors to high-end destinations. These were: more privacy and less ostentation; an increase in demand for “open-range” excursions, involving travel through spectacular landscapes and unspoilt nature; a growing interest in off-the-beaten-track destinations; and destinations that appeal to environmentally concerned travellers. Nowadays, those four trends could also serve as a fair description of tourism in Oman. The sultanate is home to stunning mountains, beaches, deserts and coasts, most of which remain well off the beaten track, even for locals and long-term residents.
The debate over the sultanate’s tourism profile looks set to continue, with the forthcoming National Tourism Strategy needing to address the key question of whether Oman should continue as a largely high-end destination or try to move towards the mid-range to encourage greater tourist numbers. One clue to this conundrum may be in the development of Oman’s neighbour, Dubai. The sultanate is already a getaway for many of those living and working in the UAE, but in future, the trend might be for the two destinations to complement each other.
Even within the high-end luxury segment, however, challenges exist. One of the main challenges is to provide higher-end visitors with a seamless experience from arrival to departure. Resorts need to be dovetailed with high-quality destination management to provide the kind of added-value services and experiences increasingly being demanded by travellers.
The luxury segment is also seeking to strike a balance between providing a unique experience of Oman, and its people and environment, while ensuring that high standards are maintained. Many stakeholders have concerns that there will not be enough Omanis trained in hospitality to staff the spate of deluxe properties currently in the pipeline. Training and quality management are therefore also important stepping-stones on the way to future success.