In early 2016 Oman launched its National Tourism Strategy (NTS), with the primary aim to increase international arrivals to 11.7m visitors per year by 2040, up from 2.6m arrivals in 2015. The initiative also seeks to boost tourism’s contribution to GDP to more than 6%, from 2.6% today. To achieve these goals, the new plan has been designed in phases: preparation, growth and stability. “The announcement of the 2040 tourism strategy for Oman provides us with a clearly defined and structured roadmap for future growth, ensuring tourism becomes one of the most important economic pillars for the country’s future,” Salim Al Mamari, director-general of tourism promotion at the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), told attendees at the Arabian Travel Market conference in April 2016.
In addition to increasing hotel stock and employment, the government plans to develop and promote a series of destinations – or clusters – across the sultanate, offering visitors a broader variety of experiences, with the goal of encouraging extended visits and greater engagement with the country’s culture and natural sites. While the government wants to maintain and grow its already strong domestic tourism market, the new strategy places a heavy emphasis on promoting Oman as a destination for international visitors, who in the past might have overlooked the country for other destinations in the region or further afield.
Mark Kirk, general manager of Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, believes making the tourism sector and the country more attractive to investors is a priority, as their fiscal support will be decisive in the successful development of the new tourism infrastructure. “The government needs to make concessions on Omanisation targets, incentivise airlines to land in Oman and undertake visa liberalisation,” he said.
The creation of unique tourism clusters that utilise the natural and cultural resources available to them will be key to the implementation of the NTS. The MoT has picked 14 such locations across the country, which it aims to promote internationally and grow into key attractions for tourists. Some of these sites are already well known, while others have not yet developed an international reputation. Examples include the coastal areas of the Musandam Governorate and the Frankincense Trail in Dhofar, which will be developed over the next decade and a half, becoming destinations in their own right or potentially forming part of a broader itinerary of travel across the sultanate.
The development plans for each destination are to be formulated over the coming years, with each cluster likely to be targeted for a specific type of visitor or experience. This approach can significantly broaden the types of visitors Oman receives.
Beyond the headline visitor numbers and contribution to GDP figures, the new tourism strategy aims to add more than 500,000 direct jobs to the sector by 2040, with the target of filling 75% of those positions with Omani nationals. Maitha Al Mahrouqi, undersecretary of the MoT, says this requires a step-by-step approach. In order to succeed, the ministry needs to work with existing tourism colleges and training institutes, as well as industry players already in the market, to build up the human resource capacity necessary to grow the sector. It will also require a greater awareness of the opportunities available to those who might consider starting a career in the sector, which will demand a strong, government-led campaign.
“To start with, there is a need for a nationwide awareness campaign regarding the importance of tourism to the future of the economy, coupled with clear communication on the variety of jobs available in the sector, as well as the related career prospects,” Al Mahrouqi told OBG. “The Oman tourism strategy has a detailed plan on the training and educational process that needs to take place to prepare the workforce in the tourism industry. This includes formal training programmes both in Oman and in specialised institutes abroad, as well as on-the-job training within the sultanate,” she said.
As well as a capable workforce, securing the financing to upgrade Oman’s transport and urban infrastructure will be vital. These are needed if the sultanate is to welcome the higher visitor numbers that have been projected under its tourism strategy, particularly in and around the clusters being developed in more remote areas of the country. Estimates have placed the cost of the new government strategy in the region of $35bn, and the government is seeking considerable support from the private sector to make this possible. The MoT is expecting to attract more than 88% of the investment needed from the private sector.
This push for greater private sector involvement in the strategic growth of the tourism sector – whether via public-private partnerships, strategic investments or 100% private projects – will be an engine for job creation and innovation, and could encourage a similar approach in other areas of the economy. Such a drive is also a marked change from previous years. “We did not invite private sector involvement in tourism in the past; however, since 2015 we have been engaging the private sector and we recognise its importance,” Salah Salem Al Ghazali, chief information officer at Omran, the government’s tourism development arm, told OBG. “We have invited private sector investment in our hotels. For example, in 2016 we sold 20% of the Crowne Plaza being constructed at the new Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre to local pension funds,” he said. The MoT must continue to seek more agreements like this to achieve the goals it has set in the NTS. According to Kirk, the sultanate’s tourism authorities are also putting together a tourism advisory board to receive feedback and advice from industry leaders. “They are going to bring in hotels, tour operators and consultants and will then look at the various obstacles to attracting more investment into the country,” he said.
The successful engagement of private sector players in these early stages signifies the high level of interest in Oman’s tourism industry. However, specific details concerning how the government will raise the remaining 12%, or $4.2bn, of funds required for the plan’s implementation have yet to be announced.
While ambitious, sector stakeholders see the new tourism strategy targets as achievable, and believe the plan could succeed in making Oman a regional hotspot for visitors. “The growth figures for tourism are not that high if one considers the vastness of the country, and even if those numbers are achieved, the sultanate will not be oversaturated,” Kirk told OBG. One of the main targets for the first five years of the strategy is to establish plans for the development of five of the 14 tourism clusters and to begin work on implementing them. The effective rollout of this first phase will be critical in helping the overarching strategy gather momentum, while monitoring key performance metrics – such as the sector’s contribution to direct employment and GDP as well as tourist numbers – will assist with the ongoing management of the NTS.