x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Oman's great tourism dilemma

With GCC countries racing to finish tourism developments, Oman's challenge is preserving the country's heritage.

The Old Town of Muscat. To avoid overdevelopment and minimise harm to the environment, the Ministry of Tourism in Oman has set a number of rules for developers to follow.
The Old Town of Muscat. To avoid overdevelopment and minimise harm to the environment, the Ministry of Tourism in Oman has set a number of rules for developers to follow.

With GCC countries racing to finish their major tourism development projects, Oman's challenge is how to avoid the kind of overdevelopment that could put the country's natural, heritage and cultural sites at risk, industry analysts said yesterday. Rob O'Hanlon, the tourism, hospitality and leisure partner for Deloitte Middle East, said that Oman's main tourism appeal came in the Sultanate's unique offering of natural and heritage sites.

"Oman is pitching itself as an upper market tourism destination and the tourists who come here are looking for the genuine cultural experience," he said. "So there has to be balance between developing and preserving the natural environments." The latest figures, complied by Deloitte Middle East, show Oman has a capacity of 9,000 hotel rooms - 4,000 of them four- and five-star. "The plan is to build 18,000 more rooms in the coming seven years, which will range between three stars to five stars and will absorb some of the excess tourist demand in the market," said Mr O'Hanlon.

To avoid overdevelopment and minimise harm to the environment, the Ministry of Tourism in Oman has set a number of rules for developers to follow. "This basically means the development of low-rise hotels that fit into the natural landscape of the country, and that's what guests enjoy the most," said a spokesman from the ministry. New laws that prohibited the building of high-rise hotels on beach stretches were drawn up after tropical cyclone Gonu hit Oman last year, said a source from Oman's Tourism Development Company (OTDC), the developing arm of the government. "Only four-storey buildings are allowed now," said the source.

Oman's fledgling yet vibrant tourism sector appears to be defying regional and global trends including inflation, an economic slowdown and soaring food prices. Revenues generated per room per night increased by 35 per cent from last year to reach $233, Deloitte reported. "The occupancy rates until the end of May are also up by two per cent this year, with an average of 80.5 per cent," said Mr O'Hanlon.

Yet on the development front, the source from OTDC said that a number of private hotel projects had been "revised" as the cost of building materials continued to rise. "I cannot mention any names, but there are a number of resort and hotel projects which have been downsized to the increase in prices," he said. "In terms of our projects, our biggest challenge is finding contractors, which is a problem the entire region is suffering from."

Another challenge facing Oman's tourism sector is training nationals to take on jobs in the tourism sector. "One of the major attractions to Oman is being surrounded by the hospitable nationals, because unlike other Gulf countries where the majority of hotel staff are expats, in Oman the nationals work, so it's important to train them," said Mr O'Hanlon. @Email:abakr@thenational.ae