Tapping Oman's potential

A rich history ... Oman boasts about 500 forts.

Oman is targeting a major boost in inbound tourism following efforts by the government and private sector to strengthen tourist infrastructure and ease entry rules to the Sultanate.

The government has over the past year taken several steps to attract investment in hotels and related tourist infrastructure as part of its efforts to tap the cultural and heritage tourism potential of the Sultanate.

Tourism has been given special status in the government's sixth five-year development plan and besides incentives for investors, the government has eased visa rules for tourists and concluded a visa arrangement with Dubai to encourage visitors to the emirate to also visit the Sultanate.

The country's two main international airports - Seeb in Muscat and Salalah - have been handed over to an international consortium in the Gulf's first airport privatisation while several new private sector led hotel projects are taking shape.

The government has also stepped up its tourism promotions in Europe, through the appointment of a Swiss agency.

It is vigorously promoting the ambitious Al Sawadi tourist village project, north of Muscat, following a feasibility study. The village to be spread over an area of 34 sq km in the Barka area, will feature five hotels with a total of 1,080 rooms, 300 villas, an 'Arabian village,' a hotel and tourism academy, a staff village, a convention and banquet centre, a marina and a golf course.

A boost to tourism in southern Oman was the recent recognition of five heritage sites in Dhofar which formed links in the ancient frankincense route, by Unesco.

At Mirbat near Salalah, the Dhofar Tourism Company is building the first phase of a $150 million tourist village including two hotels, a recreation centre, a park and a diving centre, aimed at taking up demand during the Khareef (monsoon) season.

The Zubair Corporation, one of Oman's leading business houses, is promoting the multi-million dollar Barr Al Jissah resort project east of Muscat.

The resort to be operated by Asian luxury group Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts will comprise of three separate hotels along with spa, apartments and cultural areas and will be completely self-sufficient with its own power substation, desalination plant, waste treatment facility and laundry.

According to one survey, Oman has been registering an impressive growth in the number of hotels, but with a few notable exceptions, most of the new hotels have been small to medium scale unbranded properties.

Although Oman is arguably one of the most appealing Gulf countries in terms of its natural beauty and cultural offerings, it has lagged behind in attracting tourists due to a lack of effective marketing.