‘I fully understand the challenges ahead’

Oman’s tourism minister Rajiha Abdul Ameer Ali speaks to ALEXANDER M ARRACKAL about her plans to turn the country into a world-class destination
‘ The Sultanate is endowed with tourism resources that are unparalleled in the region’

RAJIHA Abdul Ameer Ali, Oman’s first tourism minister, is both excited and optimistic about her new job.

With her work cut for her, she talks to TTN on her priorities and how she plans to turn Oman into a world-class tourist destination, set to attract 1.5 million tourists by 2006. Excerpts from an interview:

What prompted the creation of the newly-established ministry of tourism?
The establishment of a new ministry of tourism at this point in time is intended to accelerate the pace of development of tourism. A full-fledged ministry is considered by the leadership of the country as a major step in setting up a strong foundation for the ministry and to meet the aspirations of the government. Also, it will contribute in no small measure in making the tourism sector a major contributor to the country’s GDP and provide more job opportunities to Omanis.

What was your initial reaction on becoming the country’s first minister for tourism?
I feel honoured by this appointment, it is an honour bestowed on all Omani women by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Also, it is a clear manifestation of His Majesty’s wisdom in creating opportunities for women in all fields of public work and a recognition of the important role women can play in the socio-economic development of Oman. However, at the same time, I fully understand the challenges that lie ahead.

What scope does the country have to further boost tourism?
As far as the potential of the country is concerned, it is should suffice to say that the Sultanate is endowed with tourism resources that are unparalleled in the region. Its diversified topography, its long coastal line and the Khareef in the southern region are few examples of these potentials. The government officials and the general public are aware of the importance of tourism sector to the national economy and are lending a helping hand in their areas of concern.
The contribution of the tourism sector to the GDP currently stands at 0.7 per cent but the government plans to increase that to 5 per cent of the GDP by the year 2020.

Over time, what policy decisions do you plan to take?
The policies adopted by the Sixth Five Year Development Plan (2001-2005) will continue to be the basis for the activities of the Ministry of Tourism. The policies are reviewed and evaluated annually and, if the need arises, these policies can be amended, augmented or even changed with proper coordination with the ministry of national economy.

What is the total outlay for tourism in the country’s budget?
The total public investment programme for tourism in the current five-year plan (2001-2005) stands at about RO58 million. This is an increase of more than 260 per cent over the allocation for the sector in the previous development plan.  In addition to these amounts the development budget includes around RO200 million allocated to infrastructure projects in the budgetd of a number of ministries which serve the tourism sector.

What are the top priorities before you?
Among others, to set up an efficient and effective organisational structure for the ministry and staff it with quality personnel, intensify our market campaigns to cover both domestic and foreign markets, coordinate with government ministries responsible for the provision of infrastructure to include existing and new tourist attractions in their immediate plans, to identify new tourism projects and encourage the private sector to investment in them and to make full use of advanced information technology to disseminate detailed information about our many tourist attractions.
Do you expect a dramatic increase in tourist arrivals in the near future?
Even though competition in the tourism sector is tough,  we expect an increase in the inflow of tourist by a relatively high percentage as compared to the previous two years. The tourist inflow is expected to touch 1.4 million in 2005 and 1.5 million in 2006.  We are confident that with a number of tourist facilities and projects that are in the pipeline and intensive marketing campaigns, we will woo more tourists.

Will you also work to create more job opportunities for Omanis in the tourism industry?
The tourism sector is known for its ability to provide and create jobs opportunities. And we, in the Sultanate, expect to make available a good number of job opportunities for Omanis.

Are you planning to seek assistance from other GCC countries to improve the country’s tourism potential?
Cooperations and tie-ups with reputed and renowned firms in the field of tourism will always be advantageous. We are going to pursue this course whenever we think it is needed. And, I feel, the time to do so has now come.

Are there notable travel- and tourism-related projects in the pipeline?
We have a host of new projects in the pipeline, notable among them are the Bander Al Jissah projects, Al Hooti Cave, which will be equipped with a train and synchronised light and sound effects, Ras Al Jinz, an eco-tourism project, the Wave project which includes spa hotels, marina, residential area and conference facilities and the Muscat Golf and Country Club.