Tourism’s new success story

This year, Oman emerged as a big draw on the international tourism radar. Salim Al-Mamari, tells SHALU CHANDRAN how the country is moving ahead

Oman has emerged as this year’s big new Gulf tourism success story, with a massive growth in tourist arrivals numbers and a booming hotel sector.

Salim bin Adey Al-Mamari, director general of tourism promotions from Oman’s Ministry of Tourism, talked to TTN at the World Travel Market last month. Excerpts from an interview:

How significant has tourism become for Oman?
We believe that tourism today is booming. We are now getting good results from our previous efforts in different markets. Today, Oman is one of the more popular destinations for tourists from all over the world. Europe is still our major market but we have started to tap other markets as well. But we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket and so are slowly trying to attract different markets slowly. In terms of construction, Oman will see a major increase in the number of hotels in the country and are hoping by 2012 to double the existing number from 8700 rooms to reach around 15,000.

What kind of tourist numbers have you seen in 2007 to date?
Looking at the growth in arrival numbers into Oman, we have seen an increase of five to seven per cent, which is good from individual markets. Again, Europe still represents the highest in tourist numbers. In 2006, our arrivals exceeded 1.4 million.

What targets have you set for 2008?
We are hoping that the growth will be the same. We have had some difficulties because of the lack of hotel rooms in Oman, and so cannot really tackle more markets and do not conduct very aggressive promotional activities. We didn’t expect to see such a high growth in arrivals in sucha  short period, so we realise that we need to concentrate on infrastructure development at the moment.

How much has regional tourism contributed?
Very much. Regional tourism especially from the GCC alone, last year saw approx 600,000 tourists. This includes Arab families as well as expats living in the GCC.

Is there a lot of demand from the GCC visitors especially residents, especially for weekend breaks?
We receive most of the weekend tourists during summer, particuarly in Salalah which is known for its beautiful weather and monsoon climates which makes it green and with perfect temperature.
Other areas around Salalah also bring in a lot of tourists, especially to our mountains. Our excellent weather and close proximity to other GCC states are the main reasons for the high number of visitors.

What new source markets are you looking at?
Europe is our prime market, but now we are tapping the Chinese, Far East and the Russian and Japanese market. We already have representatives in Australia and the New Zealand. So we hope to see some increase in arrival figures from there too.

Are any mega tourism projects being planned?
Yes. More than seven big projects are under construction now. These are in Muscat, Salalah and east of Oman. Besides that, there are many small hotels under construction. Most of the major projects will be in operation in three to four years. They are integrated tourism project with hotels, marinas, shopping centres, exhibitions, commercial centres, villas, golf courses and so on.

How do you expect these hotels to boost Oman’s tourism?
We are currently seven to 15 per cent below demand and need more rooms as soon as possible. Once we have these hotels ready I am sure we will have different marketing activities.

You also mentioned a tourism vision for Oman 2020?
We have a vision for tourism. Today with the high demand in tourism we have set a target for the GDP of the country to increase three to four per cent by 2020.

With so many large tourism projects planned, are there concerns about maintaining Oman’s natural heritage?
I don’t think so. Our philosophy of development differs from that of other countries. Our projects will be diversified; we will be spread out in different areas without over crowding one area. And talking about the architecture also – it has been taken into consideration not to mix up the new and old Omani architecture.

Here at WTM everyone is talking about responsible tourism, eco-tourism and green tourism, how does Oman play a part in this?
Yes, we are. We are the only country in the region that has had a Ministry of Environment for some time. We do care about the environment and will ensure care is taken in all our projects which are under construction.
We have never been and we are not going to be in a hurry. We are not looking for numbers, we are looking for quality. We are aiming to attract special types of tourists, those we call the responsible tourist - those who respect values, environment and culture and they are now increasing. We have to be ready for it. This is going to be our focus.

Are there a lot of educational programmes?
We initiated a programme in 2004 in coordination with the World Tourism Organization – Tourism Enrich. The purpose of this programme is to make orientation not only for Omanis but also for the expats living in Oman about the importance of tourism, on how we can look after this product, how to use tourism as a way and means of communicating to others, learn how to respect each other’s identity and personality, because for us tourism is our identity. Once you lose your identity you are out of it.

Are you working with partners like Oman Air to boost tourism?
Oman Air is our national carrier. It used to a private company and now 83 per cent is owned by the government. The government is boosting Oman Air to increase routes and soon you will see new flights routes launched to Europe. We are hoping to see more connections to Europe next year, like Berlin, Paris and Milan. This is in the pipeline. We are also thinking of Moscow.
However, before you invite people home you have get the house ready. So that’s what we are doing. Tourism is a very sensitive industry. Once you make a small mistake it will take a long time to revive it back and so we need to be ready.
We have a beautiful product and we still need to tackle issues such as upgrading and educating our taxi drivers, our tour guides as well as the hospitality sector. This is what makes Oman unique from other nations.