Having welcomed record numbers of tourists in 2015, Oman’s government looked to build on this positive momentum a year later by unveiling plans to double international arrivals by 2040 and develop strategic tourism clusters across the country. The sultanate is eager to shed its reputation as a luxury destination and boost the performance of other segments in the coming years. The Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre (OCEC) is one development that can help broaden the sector’s reach by firmly establishing the country as a major meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) destination.
Meanwhile, ecotourism and adventure travel are other subsectors seen as ripe for development and promotion by the government. With a significant increase in the number of hotel rooms in recent years and flagship development projects under construction across the country, Oman may soon emerge as a major destination, not just for regional tourists, but also for travellers from further afield.
The number of inbound tourists to Oman more than doubled between 2005 and 2015, from 1.1m to 2.6m per year, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI). Inbound tourism expenditure reached OR288.2m ($748.5m) in 2015, up 10% from OR250.9m ($651.6m) the previous year, with average visitor expenditure decreasing slightly from OR112.70 ($293) in 2014 to OR110.10 ($286) in 2015. When visits recorded by the NCSI included at least one overnight stay, tourist numbers increased from 891,000 in 2005 to 1.9m in 2015.
The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) forecasts 1.8m inbound overnight visitors in 2016, with this rising to 3.3m by 2026. According to the WTTC’s “Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2016” report, the direct contribution of the sector to Oman’s GDP was OR696.9m ($1.8bn), or 2.6% of the total, in 2015. However, when indirect contributions were taken into account, the figure rose to OR1.6bn ($4.1bn), or 5.9% of GDP. In real terms, both these figures have shown steady growth since 2010, and the WTTC predicted that tourism’s direct contribution would grow by 6.6% in 2016, while its total contribution would increase by 6%. These growth rates compare favourably with the Middle East as a whole, where both direct and total contributions to GDP are expected to rise by 4.5%, and worldwide forecasts of 3.3% and 3.5% growth, respectively. Despite projections of rapid growth, the WTTC’s report places Oman 89th out of 184 economies in terms of tourism’s total economic contribution, and seventh of the 10 Middle Eastern countries featured in the survey.
The sultanate relies heavily on domestic and regional tourists. In 2014, 45.8% of foreign visitors to Oman came from other GCC member states, with visitors from Asian countries accounting for 22.6% of arrivals and Europeans for 19.2%. Recent statistics for peak tourism activity show that this composition has remained steady.
Every summer, the tail end of the Indian monsoon brings rains know locally as the khareef. Transforming the mountains around Salalah into a verdant landscape, the khareef is a significant draw for travellers. The total number of visitors over the period, which in 2016 took place between June 21 and September 9, reached around 653,000. Those from the UAE were the largest group of foreign tourists during the khareef, numbering 60,370, followed by India (34,484), Saudi Arabia (31,581) and Pakistan (11,368). While these figures represented a 27% increase on the 515,000 arrivals recorded in 2015, visitor demographics during the season were virtually unchanged, suggesting there is plenty of opportunity for the sultanate to attract other nationalities over the period.
Some cities are positioning themselves to capitalise on the interest shown in the khareef. “Tourism has significant growth potential in Duqm, and we are currently seeing a lot of investment in tourism infrastructure in the area, including numerous hotels,” Yahya bin Said Al Jabri, chairman of the Special Economic Zone Authority Duqm, told OBG. “Especially during khareef season in the south, we see Duqm as a natural stopover point for Omanis and GCC nationals on their drive down to Salalah.”
According to figures published by the NCSI, domestic tourist numbers tripled between 2005 and 2014. This has made authorities well aware of the importance of local tourism and the need to ensure that Omanis continue to explore their own country. “Domestic tourism is of great importance and has been the fastest-growing segment in recent years,” Maitha Al Mahrouqi, undersecretary of the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), told OBG. “With higher per capita net income, improved air and ground connectivity, the expansion of airports, and the creation of new tourist attractions and activities, domestic tourism will undoubtedly continue to be a significant driver of visitor growth to the numerous and ever-increasing attractions Oman has to offer,” she said.
In early 2016 Oman unveiled its National Tourism Strategy (NTS), which includes an aim to double the number of international tourist arrivals to the country by 2020 (see analysis). If the goal is successfully reached, the sector’s contribution to annual GDP is expected to grow to more than 6%, up from the 2.6% reported in 2015.
The initiative also calls for the development of 14 tourism clusters, which are hoped to attract more tourists and encourage longer visits. Sites that have been earmarked for development include areas of natural interest in the country’s mountains and deserts, as well as existing tourist spots, such as the Musandam Peninsula in the north; the Frankincense Trail in Salalah; and old cultural areas throughout the capital, Muscat (see analysis). Master plans for developing each of these destinations and the infrastructure upgrades required will be formulated and implemented in the coming years.
Speaking at an event organised by the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry in July 2016, Al Mahrouqi described the timetable of NTS implementation as being divided into three distinct phases. The first stage will run from 2016 to 2020, during which time the aim is to add 5620 new hotel rooms and generate 76,384 direct jobs. The second phase, between 2021 and 2030, will bring the total number of hotel rooms to 15,419 and create 126,900 more direct jobs; while the third will see hotel room supply rise to 29,596 and direct employment for another 242,900 people created between 2031 and 2040. It is estimated that the NTS plan will cost around $35bn, with the government aiming to attract 88% of this investment from the private sector (see analysis).
With 20% of the Omani population under the age of 25, creating employment opportunities for the burgeoning youth population is a key area of focus under the country’s ninth five-year plan for the 2016-20 period. The NTS aims to increase the number of people working in the tourism sector to around 500,000 by 2040 and targets filling 75% of these roles with Omani nationals, in line with the country’s Omanisation policy.
The WTTC estimates that the sector directly supported 53,000 jobs in 2015, representing 2.7% of national employment. This is forecast to rise to 56,000 and 2.8% of total employment in 2016. When indirect employment estimates were factored in, the number of labourers rose to 111,500 in 2015, or 4.4% of the total, which is expected to rise to 116,500, or 5.9%, in 2016. The WTTC projects that by 2026 the tourism sector will account for approximately 81,000 direct jobs and 164,000 indirect jobs.
Specialised training centres for the hospitality industry in Oman will play a role in spurring this growth, and there is recognition from stakeholders of the importance of ensuring that domestic workers take up employment in the sector. “There is Oman Tourism College, the National Hospitality Institute – which is more vocational and trains chefs and wait staff — and at Sultan Qaboos University they have a tourism department,” Trevor McCartney, general manager of the OCEC, told OBG. “As an international operator, part of our job is to train young Omanis to take over. In our senior team, two out of every six members of staff are Omani, and some middle managers are also Omani. Our remit is to attempt to train Omanis for all positions.”
However, making the sector more appealing to aspiring young nationals who may have traditionally chosen different industries remains a challenge. “There is still a shortage of local talent in the hospitality industry,” Mark Kirk, general manager of Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, told OBG. “Traditionally, people in Oman are used to having weekends off and are very family oriented. In the hotel industry, where most people work unsociable hours, one of the main challenges is attracting talent. Oman needs to promote success stories more,” he added, suggesting that positive media campaigns could be used to highlight favourable stories about successful Omani staff who have climbed up the ranks to senior positions in the industry.
Most international visitors to Oman arrive by air, flying into Muscat International Airport (MIA), which is located 32 km from the old city centre. A new international terminal for MIA is scheduled for completion in 2017. Once the terminal comes into service, the airport will be capable of serving 12m passengers a year, with the potential to accommodate up to four times that number after a series of phased expansions. The existing runway at MIA was extended to 4 km in 2014, and a new 4-km runway under construction means MIA will eventually have two runways capable of handling the largest passenger jets currently in operation.
The upgraded airport will also have 118 check-in counters to serve all international and domestic flights – as well as 82 immigration counters – with the new terminal adding around 18,000 sq metres of commercial space, 40 gates for both departing and arriving flights, and 29 waiting lounges.
The country’s second-largest airport, Salalah International Airport (SIA), located in the Dhofar Governorate, began operations in June 2015 following an investment of approximately OR300m ($779.1m). Spanning an area of around 65,000 sq metres, SIA, which replaced the old 500,000-capacity airport, can serve some 2m passengers per year, with future expansions aiming to bring this figure to 6m. Both MIA and SIA are managed and operated by the government-owned Oman Airports Management Company.
Other major entry points to Oman include the land border with the UAE, which links Muscat with major cities like Dubai in less than five hours; and the country’s various seaports, which saw 144,000 cruise ship visitors through October 2016.
During the first five months of 2016 passengers travelling through MIA grew by 18.9% year-on-year (y-o-y) to 4.8m passengers, up from 4.04m in the same period of 2015. International passengers composed 4.43m of the total, representing a 19.7% y-o-y increase, with domestic travellers numbering 375,000, a rise of 9.9%. These increases came after international passenger numbers rose by 19.2% to 9.7m in 2015, while domestic travellers increased by 11.1% to 930,873. In 2015 international flights at MIA increased by 16.5% to 84,097, while domestic flights also rose by 9.2% to 10,823.
Between January and May 2016 international passenger numbers at SIA reached 419,150, up 16% y-o-y from 361,273. This followed a surge in arrivals when the new airport opened in 2015, with 334,370 travellers recorded – an increase of 43% on the 233,403 registered in 2014. Domestic passenger numbers grew by a more modest 12.9%, from 608,567 in 2014 to 686,798 in 2015. In terms of flights, international arrivals and departures at SIA rose from 2768 in 2014 t o 3774 in 2015 – an increase of 36.3% – while domestic flights decreased by 36.2%, from 9905 in 2014 to 6321 the following year.
Oman Air, the national flag carrier which was established in 1993, has been expanding its operations, adding new routes to Singapore, Goa in India and Dhaka in Bangladesh in 2015. According to the airline’s figures for that year, it carried 6.3m passengers, up from 5.1m in 2014, posting an average seat occupancy rate of 71.4%.
Though the airline recorded a net loss of OR86m ($223.3m) in 2015, this was a 21% improvement on the previous year’s financials. The multiple year losses are largely due to the ongoing expansion of the carrier’s fleet, which is expected to grow from 40 planes in 2015 to 70 aircraft by 2020 as outstanding orders are met. The carrier aims to break even at an operational level before the end of 2017.
In 2016 Oman Air acquired additional slots at London’s Heathrow Airport, opening up the possibility of a second daily flight between London and Muscat. In May 2016 it was announced that Eurowings, the low-cost German airline, would begin operating two chartered flights each week to SIA in late 2016. Qatar Airways and flydubai, meanwhile, both increased the frequency of flights to SIA from Doha and Dubai during the khareef season, when visitor numbers to Salalah increase three-fold.
In early 2016 it was announced that the country’s first budget airline will fly under the name Salam Air. The company, which will launch its first flights in January and February 2017, will link Oman to a number of destinations in the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Oman’s aviation regulator, the Public Authority for Civil Aviation, began testing market interest for a low-cost carrier in May 2015, w ith positive results. Local media reports suggest that Salam Air could set up its base at SIA to boost the profile of the country’s newest airport and raise the city of Salalah to a major tourist destination.
In order to travel into and around the sultanate, visitors can also make use of the country’s port and road infrastructure, with the Oman National Railway possibly emerging as another travel option over the next decade.
However, the latter has encountered setbacks, and in May 2016 the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) issued a statement announcing a pause in development, blaming delays in the construction of other GCC railway networks that the Oman National Railway will connect with at the UAE border. While the MoTC has insisted it is not abandoning plans for the national rail network, the project is unlikely to be completed by 2018 as previously scheduled. When finished, the railway would allow passengers and freight to travel 2177 km from Kuwait’s border with Iraq through Saudi Arabia – with connections to Bahrain and Qatar – and across the UAE to ultimately arrive to Oman’s ports at Sohar and Duqm.
In terms of sea transport, the government-owned National Ferries Company (NFC) offers fast ferry connections between the coastal destinations of Muscat and Khasab, Khasab and Ras Lima, Shinas and Khasab, and, since August 2014, Shannah and Masirah, and Shinas and Dibba. In 2015 the company registered 205,000 passengers, a 121% increase on 92,724 passengers the year before. NFC data also shows that the number of vehicles transported in 2015 stood at 52,771, compared to 21,048 vehicles in 2014. The NFC also added its first international ferry route between the Port of Khasab in Oman and Qeshm in Iran during July 2016, with several hundred passengers aboard the maiden voyage.
Meanwhile, Oman’s road network continues to grow, with the addition of new roads and the widening of existing highways (see Construction chapter). These moves will help facilitate connections between the tourism clusters the government has mooted and encourage more extensive travel itineraries. “Major infrastructure is already there to support the government’s growth plans,” Kirk told OBG. “The road system is second to none, and they are also investing heavily in the bus network.”
As of July 2016, Oman increased the length of its multiple-entry tourist visas for certain foreign nationals in a bid to boost visitor numbers. Citizens of 38 countries now have the option of purchasing multiple-entry visas that are valid for three months, up from the previous allowance of 21 days. Meanwhile, visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines can apply for an extended tourist visa if they have an Omani sponsor. The hope is that this relaxation of visa requirements will encourage longer stays, and visits to multiple regions and attractions.
Nonetheless, some observers think that more still needs to be done. “I think the process of obtaining a tourist visa is still a big challenge for many,” Deepak Nair, founder of travel website DestinationOman, told OBG. “So it should be made easier than it is now. The authorities should facilitate online tourist visa applications and make it easier for all countries with diplomatic relations with the sultanate to obtain a visa with minimal formalities.” Mehmed Zingal, the general manager of Turkish Airlines, also highlighted the potential benefits of further loosening regulations. “The government says it wants to grow the tourism sector, but the severe limitations on visas for many countries makes it more difficult than necessary for many to come to Oman. The government should seriously consider liberalising the visa rules to facilitate more tourist arrivals,” he stated.
Oman has traditionally been viewed as a niche, luxury travel destination with 12 five-star hotels and 51.6% of all hotel revenue stemming from these accommodations in 2014. However, as part of the NTS, the authorities are focusing on boosting the number of visitors by promoting new destinations and enticing travellers who are looking for other types of experiences.
The ultimate goal is to transform Oman from a seasonal, high-end destination to one that appeals to a variety of travellers throughout the year. “It is crucial that we move into a year-round tourism model going forward, otherwise development in the sector is not sustainable. There are both natural and man-made tourism assets that will help support this strategy,” Al Mahrouqi told OBG.
One new venue that is set to draw visitors is the country’s first waterpark, the OR40m ($103.9m) Majarat Oman, which was designed by Australia’s Sanderson Group and is located about 45 minutes outside of Muscat. The park is set to open in 2017 with the capacity to accommodate 1200 visitors per day, and will feature entertainment facilities, retail space, restaurants and amusement rides. The MoT has also approved the construction of another waterpark in Muscat, as well as two in Salalah. “Over the last 10 years there have been great improvements in tourist attractions,” Kirk told OBG. “Muscat has now become a golfing destination that can compete with any country in the world, and hosting the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series 2016 has put Muscat firmly on the world’s sailing map. Meanwhile, the opening of the Royal Opera House Muscat in 2011 makes the capital a real draw for opera lovers,” he said.
Private sector players also see plenty of other opportunities to attract tourists with new development projects. “We need more events and entertainment options to bring in tourists throughout the year, such as global sports competitions, festivals, conferences and theme parks,” Nair told OBG. “Theme parks in particular would mean that instead of flying to the West or East Asia, more people would come to Oman.”
Some industry stakeholders believe that Oman would also benefit from targeting markets that are not traditional sources of tourists, such as East Asia. “Oman has until now focused on the West for its tourism feedstock, but relying solely on Western tourists is not a good idea,” Nair added. “Oman needs to look at attracting tourists from developing markets in the East, as well as India and China, whose economies have created a burgeoning middle class with disposable incomes and a passion for travel. Oman must tap this potential.”
One area that authorities are hoping to promote more actively, and which could have a sizeable impact on Oman’s economy, is the MICE segment. While neighbouring locations such as Dubai have established themselves as MICE players in recent years, Oman has until now been unable to offer a range of venues that can accommodate larger conferences and exhibitions.
In the past, the sultanate had to rely solely on the Oman International Exhibition Centre, which has been in operation since 1985 and was the country’s only government-owned exhibition centre. This is set to change with the opening of the OCEC, which is a 10-minute drive from MIA and, when fully complete in December 2017, will offer 22,000 sq metres of column-free exhibition space; an auditorium with seating for up to 3200 people; and two ballrooms, capable of seating 540 and 1200 guests, respectively. This is in addition to 14 meeting rooms, each with capacity for between 70 and 360 delegates, a VIP pavilion, a food court and a parking area for 4000 vehicles. The complex will also include around 1000 hotel rooms spread across the categories of three-, four- and five-star hotels, as well as serviced apartments. The project has been divided into seven packages to accelerate the construction process, and work is now complete on package two, which includes the car park, energy centre and exhibition centre. In October 2016 the centre hosted its first event, Infra Oman – an infrastructure exhibition.“There are many events that attract between 800 and 1500 people and until now Oman hasn’t been able to accommodate them, because there hasn’t been a suitable venue, McCartney told OBG. “Hotels including the Muscat InterContinental have been successfully staging events for some time, but so far we have not had a venue that could attract large international, or even regional events of over 1000 delegates.”
The sultanate is well placed geographically for the MICE industry and lies within a seven-hour flight of 50% of the world’s population. India, for example, is just three hours away and is served by around a dozen flights to Muscat per day. While many international organisations are still based in the West, this is slowly changing, and the GCC is viewed as a growth area with its own needs. In April 2015 Bloomberg estimated the value of the GCC MICE market at $1.3bn, and Oman is seeking to expand its presence in the segment.
Since 2011 the OCEC business development team has been promoting the OCEC both regionally and internationally with a focus on markets such as India, the UK, France, Switzerland and Germany. “Regionally, Oman is already highly regarded as a visitor destination, but I think it’s fair to say that internationally there’s still a lack of awareness about Oman and how it differs from other Gulf countries. Awareness doesn’t happen overnight, but I think that we’re already starting to have a breakthrough and we’ve signed up several major events,” McCartney told OBG.
In conjunction with the OCEC’s efforts, in March 2016 the MoT established the Oman Convention Bureau, which has been tasked with managing services and products related to the MICE industry. The bureau – headed by Khalid Al Zidjali, the former events director for the MoT — is responsible for guiding the sector and promoting its activities. “The MoT is fully committed [to] enhancing the MICE sector in Oman to help the sultanate achieve its potential to be a first-class destination for this sector,” Salim Al Mamari, director-general of tourism promotion for the MoT said at the Arabian Travel Market trade show in April 2016. “Our tourism strategy for 2040 has MICE as a major pillar for the future to help us grow and enhance the industry.”
In addition to the OCEC, Oman is leading the redevelopment of Muscat’s traditional port and harbour area into a waterfront tourism, leisure and commercial centre called Mina Sultan Qaboos. The project is being developed at an estimated cost of OR500m ($1.3bn), and once the 64-ha site is complete, it will comprise a leisure boat marina, a fisherman’s wharf, a fish souq, a five-star hotel, a four-star family hotel and apartments, as well as cafes, boutiques, offices and waterfront restaurants. This redevelopment will be deployed in four phases, with the first phase of construction set for completion by 2019 and the final phase by 2027.
“The waterfront project is one of the flagship projects Oman is working on,” Salah Salem Al Ghazali, chief information officer at Omran told OBG. “We will see the transformation of Mina Sultan Qaboos from a commercial port area into a new tourism and economic gateway to the sultanate. It is a traditional Omani heritage area, but will have a modern vibe.” Al Ghazali estimates that the redeveloped waterfront will create 12,000 direct and 7000 indirect jobs in the area across hotels, the food and beverage industry, maintenance and retail management. “There are significant opportunities for joint ventures. There is a five-star hotel, two four-star hotels, three three-star hotels, a shopping centre and commercial building, and they are all part of the first phase of construction. It will bring back to prominence that old area of the city and the old souq,” he went on to say.
Promoting Oman’s tourism offering to new international markets and altering the perception of the country as a seasonal and not a year-round destination are challenges that will take time to overcome. However, recent growth figures suggest the sector is on an upward trajectory. Major infrastructure upgrades and projects set to come on-line in both the near and medium term are ample evidence that the government is accumulating the tools needed to fulfil the goals of the NTS and boost tourism’s contribution to national income and employment.