Splendour of tradition


The Sultanate of Oman is gearing up to increase the role of tourism in its economy with eco-tourism as the new watchword. Shilpi Pillai reports.

Drawing heavily on its heritage and natural beauty, Oman is getting ready to handle an influx of tourists, especially those who will appreciate the country's rich culture and achievements.

As the country forges ahead with new plans designed to tap into its historical and eco sites, Oman's tourism authorities have drawn up an ambitious strategy for the introduction of eco-tourism in the Sultanate, focusing on the country's unique heritage of natural, ecological, geological, marine, cultural and historical treasures.

"Eco-tourism has provided with a sound base for the ministry's commitment to sustainable development as outlined in the sixth five-year plan as well as being a unique selling point for the Sultanate when compared with other destinations in the Gulf. In addition, eco tourism was also perceived to provide a solution to one of the Sultanate's most chronic environmental problems, desertification, especially in the Salalah region," said the director general of tourism, Mohammad bin Ali Said.

"Hence, the government has set up an eco-tourism strategy for the Dhofar region wherein we have identified sites, activities and a range of supporting community industries to date. If the plans go ahead, the tourism season in Salalah could easily be extended beyond the Khareef and hence overcome the problem of seasonality that currently characterise the tourism industry in that area. Among the attractions and the activities that could attract eco-tourists are bird watching, dolphin watching, fishing, trekking, camel safari and traditional boat trips" he elaborated.

As the initiatives of eco-tourism cannot go single handedly, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Directorate General for Tourism and the Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment and Water Resources have set up a joint committee to look at the utilisation of the wetlands of the Sultanate for eco-tourism purposes. The wetlands are known for their wide variety of birds both migratory and local, in addition to an amazingly rich flora and fauna.

"We have everything to offer but snow. We are the only country in the GCC to have caves and have more than 3,000 natural caves. In fact, the world's largest cave is located in Salalah and the fourth largest in the Eastern Province, which is capable of accommodating four jumbo jets. We also boast more than 500 forts. Hence we wouldn't be wrong to market these sites, which no other country in the GCC can offer. The caves are currently being renovated and facilities are being put in place to make them more attractive for tourists," said Ali Said.

The government has also accelerated its marketing efforts in its principal markets which include the Gulf region, the UK, Germany, France, Australia and Japan to attract foreign tourists. It has already appointed permanent representatives in France, Japan, Australia, for Benelux in The Netherlands and the UAE. Representatives are also being appointed in the UK, Germany, Austria and the German speaking part of Switzerland.

In fact, the country is holding a major conference on July 7, 2003 to discuss new visa regulations soon to be introduced to boost international tourism in the Sultanate. The conference will focus on issues related to visa on arrival, new countries to be granted visa on arrival in addition to the 43 which are currently granted visa on arrival.

The government has also increased the number of familiarisation (FAM) and educational visits for tour operators, travel agents and the media. In addition, new trade fairs are being attended. The strategy involves close cooperation between the Ministry and the trade both in Oman and abroad. This includes joint advertising, sharing market intelligence, close cooperation on FAM and educational trips. The national airlines, Oman Air and Gulf Air too are working closely with the ministry in all the markets that they serve.

The country currently has a joint visa with Dubai and Qatar and is under discussions with the other GCC countries for a similar visa arrangement.

The Sultanate has also taken initiatives at opening up foreign ownership in tourism and real estate projects. A new marketing strategy and plan addressing the trade and the consumers is also being implemented.

"The government of Oman is considering opening up foreign ownership in tourism and real estate projects in an attempt to encourage foreign investors, revitalize the economy and increase government revenues," Ali Said said.

"The Ministry of Commerce and Industry has already prepared the terms of reference necessary for drafting the law that will entitle foreigners to buy land, units or entire projects. The government is weighing the advantages of long lease (99 years) or freehold ownership. In addition, owners and immediate family members will be offered residency in Oman in addition to having the right to employ up to two domestic workers. The foreign ownership rights will be confined to areas designated by the government as tourism development areas," he concluded.

Among the major projects underway in the Sultanate is the Al Sawadi Resort project, which is designed in an authentic Omani style. It will include various luxury hotels, two 18-hole golf courses with a golf and country club, a family water park, private villas and a multitude of leisure, entertainment and sports facilities on completion.

Designed to be a high profile, top class tourism product in the Gulf region, Al Sawadi will reportedly be the first authentic Omani resort combining modernity and tradition and unmatched in the region with its unique architecture and traditional landscape.

Work on the 1,000-room project is expected to start in 2004. The project is estimated at US$308 million. With the Al-Sawadi Resort, the Sultanate is expected to develop into a strong stand-alone destination for European guests and a must-see attraction for Omanis and residents of neighbouring countries.

Work has already started on the Barr Al Jissah Hotel and Beach Resort Complex, located 12 kilometers south of Muscat City Centre. The resort will feature three hotels - the Castle Hotel, the Town Hotel and the Village Hotel with a total of 672 rooms. Facilities will include a spa and health club, pools and leisure facilities including a water ride, all situated within 200,000 square meter of landscaped grounds.

The Castle Hotel will offer a combination of 171 deluxe rooms and suites, world class dining facilities, 1,500 square meter ballroom and pre-function area, nine meeting rooms, pools, fitness facilities and a private beach. With commanding views of the ocean and surrounding landscape, this five-star plus rated hotel will set the standard for luxury hotels within Oman.

The Town Hotel, situated along the main beach, will be the heart of the resort. This five-star facility will become the embodiment of a seaside town built in an expression of traditional Omani architecture. Accentuated by lush tropical landscaping, a network of pools and sundecks, a poolside amphitheatre and tennis courts, this hotel will become the focal point of resort activity.

In addition to its own facilities, the Town Hotel will be located within close proximity to the 3,000 square meter world-class spa and health club featuring saunas, steam rooms, plunge pools, fitness equipment and private treatment facilities.

Finally, at the eastern edge of the resort, separated from the Town and Castle hotels by steep and narrow jebel, the Village Hotel's secluded setting will be enhanced by an atmosphere of fun and entertainment. Similar to other areas of the resort, the Village is set in a tropical landscape with its own restaurants, children's play areas and a number of pools including the 'Lazy River' water ride. Given its private, family oriented and 'Value for Money' appeal, this four-star hotel will be sure winner for the cost conscience visitor.

The project is due for completion by mid-2005.

Another major project which has been envisaged is the Seeb Seafront Development Project (Al Marsa City). The project will include a resort town, hotels, marina and apartments.

To be setup in the land area between Azaiba and Seeb, the project expects to generate inflow of investment funds within the country through the sale of real estate properties such as apartments, villas and chalets to non-Omani parties and sale of land to foreign developers for holiday home sharing concepts. The estimated project cost is $748 million (OR288 million) over a seven-year period to 2010.

A $5.2 million (OR2 million) four-star hotel project has recently been completed in March 2003. The project, covering an area of 20,000 square meter, is located at Dahar Qainah in Wilayat Khasab in the Musandam Governorate in view of its excellent location. The hotel includes 45 guest houses, three suites, 12 chalets, health club including a gymnasium, sauna and pool and a restaurant.

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry is also about to place a major master-planning contract for the Ras Al Hadd area. Covering an area of 20 kilometres by 11 kilometres, the site is a major UNESCO listed area as one of the principal nesting place of the green turtles from the Indian Ocean.

The master planning contractors will research all the aspects of the site including the natural, archaeological and landscape and will make recommendations for its conservation and development. The Ministry has already begun recruiting a team of world experts on turtles, nature, conservation and presentation to join the master planning team.