It is a country where exquisite natural beauty, rich heritage and culture meet – a land where craggy mountains, golden desserts and azure sea mingle to form a true Arabian fantasy.
The Sultanate of Oman is all of this co-existing with all modern amenities one can ask for, hence offering the best of several worlds. It is no surprise then that the government in the recent past has started to introduce a spate of projects that are sure to change the tourist landscape of the country.
In an exclusive interview with TTN, Salim Bin Adey Al-Mamari, director general of Tourism Promotion, Ministry of Tourism, talks of the current and future plans to stimulate domestic and international tourism.
“We have a representative in the UK, Germany, France, Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) and Australia. The next step, starting from next year, will be to reach out to Scandinavia, Italy, Far East, China, Malaysia, Singapore and Korea,” he says. However, he goes on to explain that tourism sector today is very competitive and penetrating a new market is not easy. For that reason, the government has appointed PR agencies and MBR (marketing-based representatives) in various countries.
“Europe is the first region we targeted as it is the number one is tourism and Oman’s links to these countries date back. Apart from our own research, we go along with the annual report of the World Tourism Organisation,” he adds.
The USP of Oman, he states is that the country is rich in history, culture and natural beauty combined with hospitality, cleanliness and safety. “Whether you are looking for cultural richness, leisure or adventure tourism, we have a variety no other country can boast of. In adventure tourism alone, we offer diving, sailing, game fishing, caving, trekking, wadi bashing… something for everyone.
“However, tourism is not just having a beautiful product to promote but has to be combined with service. There are qualified companies in Oman to design top class hotels, shopping malls and specialised Omani guides to promote it all. But the challenge is to offer all this, yet preserve our identity,” he says.
In April last year, the ministry initiated a Tourism Awareness Programme. The focus in the first year was orientation. This year it will be put into action. “We will spread the awareness to schools (tourism will be a topic introduced in the curriculum), communities and wilayats. We will explain the importance of tourism, how to deal with it and its benefits.”
The strategy over the next five years is:
•To mMake the tourism sector one of the most important sectors of the country that will contribute between three and five per cent to the GDP of the country by 2020, up from its current one per cent
• To encourage an increase in private-sector participation
• To bring more foreign investment into the country
• To train young Omanis and encourage them to actively participate in this sector
• To penetrate new markets
Specifically for this year, a tender will be issued by the last quarter to setup a new marketing strategy for 2006-2010. This will help evaluate the past strategy and programme of activities and set the new strategy in place.
Oman has been declared the ‘Arab Culture Capital 2006’. It boasts of over a thousand forts (Ql’at) and castles (Husn) that proudly stand guard as bastions of days gone by. The Ministry of Tourism currently operates some of the major forts and castles that have been renovated throughout the country and will develop these as tourist attractions. By the end of this year, Hasab fort at Musandam will be converted into a museum with a theme of sea life and maritime. Nizwa Fort, Al Hazm Fort in Rustaq and Jibreen Castle in Dakhliya region are the other forts the Ministry is working on. “These forts will have state-of-the-art light effects with computerised tour guides in different languages,” says Salim Al-Mamari.
Currenly, a number of programmes are held annually at the Al Felaij Castle Theatre. Built towards the end of the 18th century, the Castle was converted in a theatre in 1999 with cooperation of the UNESCO. Today, it is a landmark for cultural tourism with special creative and artistic shows from October to March every year.
In an effort to open up Oman’s magnificent cave heritage to tourists and adventure-seekers, the government is investing in developing the 3-km long underground Al Hoti Cave in Al Hamra Wilayat near Nizwa. “By May/June this year, the train service inside the cave will start. The main building has a restaurant and an information centre from where you can board the train that will take you to the inner chamber of the cave. It is sure to attract a large number of domestic as well as regional visitors,” says Al-Mamari.
A number of sporting activities are held in Oman every year. Some popular ones that attract many international participants are the annual Oman Adventure Cycling Race, the dune bashing Bidya Race, the Desert Express Race and the Oman International Rally.
In terms of international activities, Oman participates in not less than 17 exhibitions each year, including the ITB, ATM and Arab German Chamber of Commerce Exhibition in Berlin. This year, Oman was a sponsor at one of the events at ITB.
Other than activities in and around the capital, Muscat, tourist destinations are spread all over the governates, regions and wilayats. The ministry has also embarked on a strong campaign to promote Salalah, the capital of the Southern region of Dhofar that gets transformed in a lush tropical paradise during the ‘khareef’ (monsoon) from early June to mid-September. Every year it attracts a lot of visitors and is the venue for the Khareef Festival in July and August. For the cooler months, the Ministry of Tourism has tied up to get in chartered flights from Sweden from September to April for 2006 and 2007. Not less than 11,000 visitors are expected to visit Salalah under this programme.
“In the next two years, a number of projects will be introduced in Salalah that will cover hotels, golf courses, theme parks and commercial centres.A number of hotels will also be built in Ras al Had, Musandam and other areas of Oman. In Muscat, integrated projects like The Wave and Blue City will see development in a big way,” asserts Al-Mamari.
Oman is also being promoted as a destination to film Hollywood and Indian movies for which the Ministry is looking at offering special packages. The picturesque backdrop of Oman has already been featured in a number of Indian movies and is sure to attract many more film makers.
“I want Oman to be on the top of the tourism map. Along with modernity, I want to see it preserve its identity, its culture and heritage, not only for the next 10 years but for the next 100 years,” he says.