As part of its aim to make Oman a year-round tourist destination with a host of offerings, Oman’s Ministry of Tourism (MoT) identified 14 locations to be developed as clusters. These cultural, natural and urban sites are expected to help shape the success of the government’s National Tourism Strategy (NTS), which was unveiled in early 2016, and help the sultanate compete with its regional neighbours.
Starting from around 2.6m visitors in 2015, the NTS aims to attract 5m visitors per year by 2020 and 11.7m by 2040. The selection and promotion of key destinations around the country is crucial to ensure these targets are met.
During the Arabian Travel Market conference in Dubai in April 2016, the MoT revealed its intention to make these locations destinations in their own right. Capitalising on changing trends in the industry, the idea is that some of these destinations will cater to growing segments like adventure travel and ecotourism, as well as improve the international visibility of Oman as a tourist destination.
The complete list of sites is not set in stone, and development of the clusters will not be launched simultaneously, as the MoT views some sites as more ripe for development and critical to the success of the NTS than others.
“The NTS has clearly identified areas of tourism interest, which have been broken down into five-year plans by order of readiness for development,” Maitha Al Mahrouqi, undersecretary of the MoT, told OBG. “We will start with the low-hanging fruit, which, for the first five years, includes the old cultural areas in Muscat, the Frankincense Trail around Salalah in Dhofar, the coastal areas of Musandam, the forts and mountainous villages in Al Dakhiliyah, and the coast of Al Sharqiyah South,” she added.
The second phase of development has been slated to run from 2026 to 2031 and will comprise Bedouin areas in the Al Sharqiyah North Governorate, parts of Al Batinah South and Masirah Island. Three additional clusters in the Al Dhahirah, Al Wusta and Al Batinah North Governorates are also targeted for further development starting from 2026. From 2031 the MoT plans to invest in the dunes near Oman’s border with the UAE, as well in the western areas of the Dhofar Governorate and other desert areas.
Much of the work related to projects towards the end of the timescale will depend on the successful launch of the earlier clusters, including how well the infrastructure and amenities in and around them develop. The performance of the initial sites will also be evaluated to understand if they are fostering the visitor growth that the government is seeking. The MoT’s ability to promote these initial clusters domestically and abroad will play a critical role in creating interest from investors and tourists alike, and it is hoped that these 14 areas – which range from Bronze and Iron Age ruins to castles, mountains, wadis (valleys) and bedouin areas – will each highlight unique attributes of the country and showcase the extensiveness of its offerings.
Those closely involved in the sector believe that many of the chosen sites possess significant tourism potential. “Salalah in the Dhofar region, dotted with many historical sites, is a place that has the potential to be developed further. Right now it gets the bulk of its tourists during the three months of the khareef season, though this is only between June and August,” Deepak Nair, founder of the tourism website DestinationOman, told OBG. Nair noted that Oman’s wealth of natural sites, including its caves and extensive mountain ranges, are currently underdeveloped as tourist destinations.
“The mountain ranges of Jebel Akhdar and Jebel Shams in the Al Dakhiliyah Governorate are ideal for trekking. They also have a lot of vegetation, good roads and are not far from Muscat or the historical town of Nizwa,” he said. “Cave tourism centred around famous caves like Majlis Al Jinn, Al Hoota and Muqal would also be a boon to the sector, particularly with the right infrastructure development such as accommodation and entertainment options.”
There is also significant potential for the authorities to attract tourists for longer stays. In 2015 the number of Omani and foreign guests at the country’s hotels totalled 2.7m, with an average stay of 1.08 nights per guest, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI). Asian guests recorded the longest stays, at 1.5 days on average, followed by Europeans at 1.3 and GCC residents at 1.1. Encouraging trips of one or two extra days would give revenue yields a big boost, and the hope is that this can be achieved by promoting and developing a wider array of tourist spots.
With the authorities seeking stronger private sector involvement in the NTS – citing an investment expectation of approximately $30.8bn by 2040 – there are likely to be plenty of opportunities for collaboration between the private and public sector. Some areas selected as clusters for the latter stages of the NTS have not served as traditional tourist destinations, and the existing transport infrastructure in and around those areas is significantly lacking.
Upgrades to these areas would certainly benefit from public-private partnerships, and the construction of hotels, restaurants and entertainment facilities – as well as the training of employees – will create opportunities for new partnerships and other types of private sector involvement.
Furthermore, the 25-year timescale of the tourism strategy means there will be plenty of opportunity for more players to get involved, particularly if the initial cluster developments are a success.
Reshaping The Map
Ultimately, the sites chosen for development will help reshape and strengthen the sultanate’s tourism offerings for both citizens and non-citizens alike. They will also guide the sector in its efforts to significantly expand its contribution to GDP, from 2.6% to the 6% target in just 25 years.
As more hotel rooms of various budget classes come on-line, it is estimated that Muscat’s share of the sultanate’s total accommodation options will decrease from 53% to approximately 31% by 2040. Additionally, the region of Dhofar, which welcomes thousands of visitors each year for the khareef season, is expected to see its share of accommodation options increase from 12.6% to 23.8%.
Other locations around the country are similarly expected to benefit from this growth, such as the port town of Duqm in central-eastern Oman. By pushing for the development of these scattered and diverse locations, and creating the infrastructure to allow visitors to sufficiently access them all, the government is clearly positioning the country to usher in a new period of growth for the tourism sector.