The Next Big Thing

By Frank Coles
Originally appeared in Business Traveller Middle East

Entering Oman’s capital through tree-lined suburbs, immaculate hedgerows and unexpected flower sculptures to discover a remarkably relaxed and hospitable city is a pleasant jolt to the senses when compared to arrival at other more frantic Middle Eastern capitals. Although the city is almost 50km in length, due its location wedged between mountains and sea, it feels more like a series of small fishing towns than a bustling metropolis.

Muscat has been a lure for romantics, seafarers and entrepreneurs from all over the world since the 16th century. The city’s distinctive Arabian low-rise architecture and the physical characteristics of its people reflect this dynamic heritage. In fact, the face looking back at you is so welcoming that it is little wonder that this prosperous capital inspires the same reverence in Omanis as Paris does for the French or New York for Americans.

Mix in the Sultanate’s natural beauty and the diverse wildlife found within its 1700km of shoreline, empty deserts, canyons, rugged mountains and living history and it is easy to see why investors, journalists and tour operators from the Middle East, Europe and the US now believe Muscat could be tourism’s next big thing.

The sheer number of travel and media professionals that recently made the trip to Muscat for the soft opening of Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa reveals an ever-increasing interest in this refreshingly unpretentious and inviting country.

Tracie Simpson, Director of Oman Experiences Ltd a UK-based tour operator set up to promote and sell travel packages to the country explains why, “After many years of relative isolation from mainstream tourism, Oman is fast emerging as one of the most sought after destinations in the Arabian Gulf. It is now becoming increasingly recognised for its friendly people and its dramatic landscapes peppered with historic forts and stunning desert scenery.”

As editors and entrepreneurs continued supping with the great and the good in one hotel, a few kilometres down the road at the Al Bustan Palace, in yet another beautiful and secluded bay, the Oman International Conference on Eco-Tourism was also taking place.

In attendance were Oman’s political movers and shakers, their international peers, and many whose goal is simply to make that little prefix ‘eco’ a less unpalatable concept in the Middle East, as nations scramble to implement pre-emptive tourism strategies to bolster dwindling oil revenues.

The Omanis, with good reason, are a receptive audience. The country’s heritage is deeply connected to the land and the abundant waters of the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Muscat itself is a sea-borne city whose name means ‘anchorage’. It lies on a rocky shore that tapers down from the sweeping shoreline of Batinah and the protected marine area of the Dimaniyyat Islands Nature Reserve.

Striking underwater landscapes and sea life thrive in the seas around Muscat, with rainbow fish proudly displaying their colours and sharks prowling the plentiful coral reefs, while whales and dolphins gambol in deeper waters. There isn’t a hotel in the capital that won’t seize the chance to show off Oman’s natural bounty by arranging a local trip to capture a dawn or sunset with dolphins that, like an actor with impeccable timing, always seem to know where and when to make an appearance. An easy trick when the Arabian long-beaked dolphins can school in their thousands.

South of the city as many as 50 individual sperm whales live among the Halaaniyat Islands while 30,000 female turtles nest on the rocky coastline of Ash-Sharqiyah, making the country a paradise for divers and snorkellers, with a total of 21 types of whale, dolphin and turtle flourishing along its shores.

It is unsurprising then that Oman has an enviable record of environmental protection. Few countries can boast of a ruler who has won awards for his ecological understanding and Oman’s exemplary record of conservation and environmental control is often cited as an example to others. It was the first Arab country to set up a ministry whose sole responsibility was the environment and since 1991 the Sultan Qaboos Prize for Environmental Conservation has established itself as a prestigious international award for ecological high achievers, with winners selected every two years by UNESCO.

Professor Christopher Davidson of the UAE’s Zayed University, a specialist in Middle East business intelligence says, “Of the GCC states Oman has a big advantage in that it has natural beauty, and it is really the only part of the GCC that has it.” With so much latent potential it is no surprise that developers are flocking to the region to help Oman develop its fledgling tourism industry.

The Barr Al Jissah is the first of many new developments expected over the next few years and if its opening months are anything to go by it will raise the bar for future entrants to the market. Composed of three hotels: The five star Al Waha, ‘The Oasis’, is Oman’s first dedicated family hotel; while the five star deluxe Al Bandar, ‘The Town’, is aimed at couples and business travellers. Since the first two hotels opened the demand for rooms has totally outstripped supply.

The third and most luxurious hotel of the resort, Al Husn sits atop a jutting headland with spectacular views on either side, its name and design inspired by the traditional architecture of Omani forts. Hidden within the natural Bandar Jissah bay the hotel isn’t the only feature under development; a 74 berth marina, CHI spa village, 12 private villas, a heritage centre, extensive conference facilities including an amphitheatre that hopes to attract MICE organisers, as well as enticing international performers already playing in Dubai to add the resort to their Middle East itineraries.

The 680 rooms at this one resort have, says marketing manager Russell Loughland, “doubled not just Muscat’s five star hotel capacity but the whole of the country’s by 60%.”

The Barr Al Jissah appears to represent the beginning of a new type of development in Oman, one that will hopefully provide enough inward investment to grow the economy without sacrificing what has already been nurtured in a dash for short term gains.

A number of projects already in development may achieve this. To the north of Muscat the $1 billion Wave project will provide luxury homes on six kilometres of natural beaches. This includes an 18-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman, four luxury hotels, parks, and the usual retail opportunities. Demand is already so high that earlier in 2006 the Wave’s first release of property onto the market was oversubscribed by 20 times.

Dr Habib El-Habr, Director and Regional Representative of the UN Environment Programme for West Asia emphasises that one of the first things that needs to be undertaken when developing tourism infrastructure is “the implementation of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to the start of any projects.” This he explains alleviates some of the major concerns in the region due to the rapid development of coastal areas. “Such development has been seen to have an impact on the environment, in particular threatening the marine environment and the coastal biodiversity.”

An EIA was used in the planning stages of the Wave project. The project’s promotional material states, “Parks, tree-lined streets, waterways, landscaped gardens, have all been woven into the development to enhance the environment.” By incorporating a natural beach in the design they have tried to limit the need for extensive reclamation or building into the ocean as is common in many similar projects. It even includes a nature reserve to help protect the local environment.

To anyone jaded by the hyperbole surrounding most Middle East developments it almost sounds too good to be true. An investment opportunity with all the perks of other projects but with none of the downsides, investors may even choose to live there once construction is complete.

Oman’s tourism strategy for Muscat goes further than just one project, by establishing a dedicated Ministry of Tourism the country has made it a goal to increase this sector’s contribution from 1% to 3% of GDP by 2010, primarily through a series of resort developments and foreign property ownership deals.

By the second quarter of 2006 the Muscat Golf and Country Club will be offering completed luxury two bedroom apartments, penthouses and three, four and five bedroom villas.

Also this year the $1.9 billion first phase of the ambitious Blue City project was given the go-ahead. The creation of this seaside city between Muscat and Barka, complete with all the amenities a new city needs, from hotels to health centres, is estimated to cost a cool $20 billion over 15 years and will be completed in ten phases. The city will eventually cover 34 square kilometres, house 250,000, and cater for an additional two million tourists per year.

As these projects gain momentum it is inevitable that more hotels and developments will eventually be announced. To cater for the expected increase in traffic Seeb International Airport, Muscat’s main entry point, will also be undergoing a face-lift over the next 18 months, as $150+ million is spent on a new terminal with a potential five million passenger annual capacity.

Travelling through downtown Muscat it is hard to tell that these developments are already underway. Mainly because most of the new tourism projects are being built in secluded areas away from the main populace.

“The question is who are the adverts in Oman aimed at?” asks Professor Davidson. “The way it’s being managed is that these property developments are being targeted at westerners, almost like compounds.” He believes that it has to do with a large population where authority cannot be maintained by “distributing wealth” as it is in neighbouring countries, so it must come from something else. In this case ensuring money flows in while keeping non-traditional cultural influences at arm’s length. “They have to be kept separate,” he says, “otherwise it’s like playing with dynamite in Oman.”

Preserving the country’s cultural and social environment is of course as important as the natural one and Oman for all its beauty would be nothing without the Omani people and their genuine hospitality. I was offered a perfect example of this when I found myself lost in Muscat’s old town. Without a map and late for my appointment, I gave in and asked an on-duty soldier, using a pidgin of Gulf dialects, how to get to the Barr Al Jissah resort. He wasn’t sure but the two Omani teenagers he then asked did, and rather than simply giving me directions they graciously guided me all the way there.

It would seem that if any one can pull off such a feat of financial development and social engineering then surely it must be environment friendly Oman. The green and pleasant idyll described by the Wave project already sounds so much like present day Muscat that is hard to believe they don’t have the will to make it happen.

To drive the point home Simpson highlights what is felt by many tour operators in the Middle East, “We just know the time is right, Dubai has opened up the gulf as a desirable tourist destination, Oman just offers even more.”

Breakout#1:

Emerging Giant

Oil & Gas Far from being dependent on tourism Oman is also diversifying its industrial sector with gas based industries coming to the fore. Projects in development or on the drawing board include a $1.25 billion refinery in Sohar and further multi-billion processing facilities for methanol, polypropylene and fertilisers. The Oman LNG facility alone is expected to generate $20 billion revenue during its lifetime.

Power A new 450-550MW power project in Sohar will produce 33 million gallons of desalinated water a day and will form part of the GCC’s integrated power grid with the UAE.

Roads A national road system linking the south, north and the interior is planned for the next 20 years, opening up the eastern coast to tourism by a coastal road and eventually linking Dubai and Muscat.

Breakout#2:

Nature’s Finest

Superb diving can be found near the capital in Cemetery Bay, Fahal Island and Dimaniyyat Islands. Despite sometimes poor visibility expect to see an amazing variety of sea life, the wreck Al-Munassir and plenty of coral. Night diving is always popular with a remarkable amount of phosphorescence in the water.

Whale and Dolphin watching takes place all year round although whales are easier to spot during the cooler months of October to May. Speed boat, snorkel or kayaks are available but always make sure you choose a reputable guide.

Endangered Species

Oman is global player when it comes to ensuring the continued existence of certain species and eco-tourism is highly encouraged in the Sultanate.

The islands of Ras Al Hadd and Ras Al Jinz contain five endangered species of turtle protected by royal decree and have become a major eco-tourism attraction. The iconic Arabian Oryx was hunted almost to extinction; one of the last remaining herds is now protected on a UNESCO World Heritage Sight at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.

Gazelles, rare plants inhabit Saleel Park. The Arabian Tahr mountain goat is found at Wadi As Sarin, while the Arabian Leopard can still be spotted at Jebel Samhanin in Dhofar which was declared a Nature Reserve in 1996.

Adventure

Adventure tourism is key to encouraging the right kind of tourists in Oman. The natural cave system connected to Wadi Hota near Nizwa is 3km long and houses long, deep cavities with a giant stalactites and stalagmites aplenty while Majlis Al-Jinn is the second largest underground chamber in the world.

Climbing is still relatively unexplored, although the 300m towers of Jebel Ghul and the 150m to 850m alpine style routes of Jebel Mishfa and Jebel Misht are well-liked climbs.

Hiking and trekking is encouraged across Oman’s diverse mountain landscape, one of the most popular is the Jebel Shams rim walk, on Oman’s highest peak, around the sheer drop of breath taking Wadi Ghul, the Arabian Grand Canyon.

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