Oman has high hopes for its tourism industry, with the government aiming to attract 12 million visitors annually by 2020 – a significant increase on the approximate 2.5 million visitors last year.
Increasing the sector’s share of GDP and creating thousands of employment opportunities are targets that both the state and the private sector believe are achievable. This opinion is shared by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) which released a report in late July identifying Oman as one of the fastest movers up the global tourism ladder. The WTTC estimates that the sector’s contribution to GDP will rise from 7.6 percent or $4.36 billion this year, to 9.2 percent by 2020, bringing in earnings of $7.6 billion or more, while real growth is expected to average 5.6 percent for the next 10 years.
The WTTC also predicted that the sector will also meet the government’s goal of creating considerable job opportunities. The report predicts that tourism will employ some 134,000 people, or 9 percent of the country’s workforce by 2020, up from the current 87,000 or 7.8 percent.
Oman is not alone in seeing tourism as a future pillar of the economy.
Across the GCC region there is a surge of investment in transport infrastructure, attractions, resorts and hotels to move, entertain and accommodate a predicted rise in foreign and regional visitors.
Indeed, there are more than 450 hotel projects in the development pipeline across the Middle East and North Africa, representing some 126,000 rooms, according to tourism research firm STR Global, with some 25 percent of these being built in Dubai. Oman currently has just under 4000 rooms either under construction or on the drawing board, though this may increase in coming years.
However, Oman is not seeking large scale tourism; indeed, it is looking to a wholly more niche approach, maximizing the benefits of its unique geography and beauty. These natural assets mean it does not have to invest in creating its tourist offering in the same way as others in the region.
The Sultanate has both space and variety for tourists to enjoy. Along with the popular sea -sun-and-sand combination, the more adventurous can skip the sea and just go for the sand, with desert safaris a growing draw.
Additionally, wilderness areas, mountain ranges and coral reefs offer holiday options often unavailable elsewhere in the region.
Under the government’s latest five-year plan – due to come into force in January – there is to be increased emphasis on promoting Oman as a holiday destination with something different to offer. Support will be given to establishing environmentally friendly resorts and developing caving tourism, as well as to yachting and mountain climbing.
Briefing the Majlis Ash’shura, Oman’s consultative council, on the eighth five-year plan in mid-September, Minister of Tourism Dr Rajha bint Abdulamir Ali said the government wanted to decentralize tourism to provide more employment opportunities for Omani citizens.
To aid these goals, the state has stepped up its program of developing airport and road links to more remote areas of the country. It is providing financial incentives in the form of tax holidays for investors in the sector and cheap land for locals in rural regions to use for tourism purposes.
By offering an alternative to much of what is available elsewhere in the region, Oman is looking to develop a sustainable tourism sector with its own distinct flavor and an array of socio-economic benefits.