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OMAN was not well known in the past as a tourist destination but the Sultanate has recently put in a lot of effort to develop its tourism sector and is optimistic that it will become a key contributor to gross domestic product.
At the heart of these efforts has been the undersecretary at the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), Maitha Al Mahrouqi. Highlighting some recent developments in the Oman tourism industry, she noted that MoT has commissioned the development of a long-term vision for tourism, covering the next 25 years.
This strategy focuses on short, medium and long-term strategic initiatives and is based on four major pillars, she said. These include tourism competitiveness, marketing and product development, governance, education and socio-economic development.
The project was assigned to Spanish specialist consultant THR, reputed for worldwide experience with destination management. THR has conducted numerous field visits across the Sultanate, interviewed many stakeholders in both the public and private sectors, as well as run a series of workshops.
Another element of the tourism strategy is to encourage local and foreign investors to set up tourism projects both in Oman's capital of Muscat and beyond. In relation to this, among the issues it addresses is the updating of land development agreements, the system of ownership of properties by non-Omanis in integrated tourism complexes (ITC) and the options available to the ministry to deal with investors involved in current ITC and other projects.
Oman offers a wide array of historical attractions as a result of its heritage. MoT is making combined efforts with other government departments to fully showcase these, Ms Maitha said. "In our endeavour to utilise the rich Omani heritage for tourism purposes, we work in close coordination and cooperation with the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, which is the specialised government ministry," she said.
Ms Maitha pointed out that all the development, renovations and exhibits in some of the key forts and castles identified as tourist destinations have been carried out jointly by the two ministries. "These coordinated developments have yielded good results in the promotion of quite a number of historic sites into very high cultural attractions visited by an increasing number of both domestic and international tourists," she said.
Another big attraction of Oman, Ms Maitha points out is that the Sultanate has always enjoyed political and economic stability. "This is a very important factor for tourists to think of when visiting any destination," she noted.
"Moreover, Omanis are known for their hospitality to their visitors and tourists and these elements provide the tourists with security and safety," Ms Maitha added.
Meanwhile, another important aspect of Omani tourism is that it follows the principles of sustainable tourism, in order to maintain and preserve the local traditions and heritage.
Other efforts to boost tourism include trying to perk up the traditional low season during the middle of the year. "Summer is a lean period for hotels in the Sultanate, resulting in offers for special rates," said Ms Maitha.
This year, MoT has stepped in to improve things with an innovative idea of taking these special packages and rates which were previously individual promotions undertaken by service providers and getting a select group of hotels to showcase their facilities and promote their offers at a strategic venue provided by the ministry.
"The objective was to inspire tourists to explore the rich tourist potential of Oman during summer which is generally a low season for tourism due to the weather," said Ms Maitha.
Meanwhile, efforts are also being made to position Oman better on the international tourism market. "The creation of awareness and visibility for Oman in the international market is a key component of the new Oman Tourism Strategy," said Ms Maitha.
"This calls for a simultaneous acceleration of infrastructure development in and around the tourism attractions, and the active promotion of Oman in the world of tourism," she added.
MoT has also recently appointed creative and communications agencies to support the ministry in the promotion of the Sultanate's tourism products and this is being done in collaboration with campaigns across various media and communications channels.
Ms Maitha noted that the ministry is also determined to focus the promotion of Oman, specifically to attract the target segment of world travellers who are responsible and distinctive tourists.
And finally, Oman is also working on new target segments such as sports tourism and the MICE industry. "Hopes are high in Oman to boost the country's emerging sports tourism industry. Oman's investment in sports and activities has been substantial," said Ms Maitha.
For example, Omran, the government's tourism development and investment arm, built Musannah Sports City outside Muscat to host major sports activities. The site includes an athletes village to accommodate more than 5,000 people, a four-star hotel, a 400-berth marina with restaurants and shops, and competition grounds with stands for between 4,000 and 5,000 spectators.
"These events position Oman as a progressive, outward-looking and uniquely hospitable part of Asia, and defines Oman as a host for future international events," she said.
In addition, Oman Sail is active in promoting sailing in Oman, and has also established sailing schools to motivate young Omanis in rekindling their past maritime heritage, Ms Maitha concluded.