Oman promises 'true' Arabia as it looks to boost tourism

Vivian Nereim
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Tourists stand in front of the Royal Opera on December 23, 2014 in the Omani capital Muscat

Tourists stand in front of the Royal Opera on December 23, 2014 in the Omani capital Muscat (AFP Photo/Mohammed Mahjoub)

Muscat (AFP) - From desert camping to luxury hotels, turtle-watching, and even the Arabian Peninsula's first Italian-style opera house, Oman is hoping to carve out a place on the global tourist track.

Heavily reliant on energy exports, the tiny Gulf sultanate is keen to diversify its economy, especially as the drop in global oil prices begins to bite.

But despite its natural beauty and rich culture, Oman's tourism industry has a long way to go.

"Oman reflects the true Arabian history and culture," said Amina al-Balushi, an assistant director with the tourism ministry.

"We really need to capitalise on this," she said, adding that the ministry is preparing a 25-year tourism strategy to be unveiled next year.

Western tourists like 46-year-old Marc Jost, who has made five trips to Oman, need no convincing.

"I can't get enough," the Swiss visitor told AFP as he strolled in the Mutrah Souk, a historic covered market in the capital Muscat. "The weather is always good. People are very nice."

Bordering Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and violence-wracked Yemen, Oman has been an island of stability under Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled since overthrowing his father in a bloodless coup in 1970.

Qaboos, now 74, has won praise at home and abroad for transforming a former backwater into a modern state.

In 2011, Oman was caught up in the Arab Spring protest movement which touched much of the region.

Several civilians died in demonstrations that shook the government, leading Qaboos to implement a series of reforms and to arrest scores of activists.

- Oil price pressure -

One of the biggest challenges facing the country now is its reliance on oil -- which accounts for 75 percent of state revenues -- after the price of crude nearly halved since June.

The drop has put pressure on the government, which needs a higher oil price than most other Gulf states to balance its budget. Oman does not have financial reserves as vast as its neighbours.

"The government of course is aiming to diversify the economy through developing tourism as an important sector," Balushi said.

Oman attracted roughly 2.1 million visitors in 2013, up about 50 percent over the previous two years, according to the tourism ministry.

More than 37 percent of visitors last year came from Gulf countries, although Oman is also attracting a growing number of tourists from Britain, Germany, the United States and other Western nations, tourism ministry data show.

The country also invested more than $660 million (540 million euros) last year in new hotels and other tourism assets, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, an industry body.

Still, tourism's direct contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) reached only three percent, or about $2.5 billion, last year.

This "looks like beans," said Fabio Scacciavillani, chief economist at the Oman Investment Fund, the country's sovereign wealth vehicle.

"These figures do not portray a thriving situation," Scacciavillani told a tourism conference in Muscat.

"That's strange, because Oman can probably live off tourism. If Oman didn't have oil, it would most likely be an economy based on tourism."

- 'Ancient soul' -

Tourism guidebooks have lauded the country, with Lonely Planet praising its "abundance of natural beauty" and "ancient soul".

But Oman has suffered from a lack of tourism infrastructure and the belief among many tourists that the entire Middle East is off-limits because of unrest.

Officials are hoping to change that, both with continued investments and efforts to put forward the country's stability.

"We are trying to promote... that Oman is separate, Oman is safe," said Haitham al-Ghassani of the tourism ministry's promotion department.

For years, Oman said that by 2020 it aimed to attract 12 million tourists annually -- more than double the number that visited Jordan last year.

But Balushi said when the ministry releases its 25-year strategy next year it will probably set an easier goal.

"We are not looking for mass tourism," Ghassani said. "We are more selective."

He admitted the country's lack of infrastructure was a problem, making hotel room rates in Oman "very expensive" because of the lack of supply.

Oman has already won over tourists like Markus Roloff, who hopes the government steers development carefully.

The 47-year-old German made the first of his seven trips to Oman in 1990.

"It's just a beautiful country and I'm impressed by what the sultan did after 1970, how the country developed," he said.

Over the past two decades, Roloff has watched the tourist scene transform from a smattering of visitors to crowds pouring off cruise ships.

He worries that if too many discover Oman, its quiet charms may be lost.

"I think that tourism will change the country," Roloff said.