Oman: Arabian authenticity

Oman is taking an understated and luxurious route to its development.

Oman is often mentioned as a C&I destination in the same breath as neighbouring Dubai. Yet despite their close proximity and the fact both destinations are investing heavily in tourism, Oman couldn't be more different from the UAE state.

While Dubai's approach is all about huge-scale projects, from the Palms to the world's tallest building, with barely a week passing without another multi-billion pound development being announced, Oman is focusing on a few longer-term key luxury projects.

"One of the differences between Oman and its neighbours is that it's taking a very slow approach to its development and making sure it follows international guidelines on sustainable and responsible tourism," says Alison Cryer, UK and Ireland director for the Oman Tourist Office.

Oman also has a mountainous terrain, meaning a broader range of activities on offer, such as trekking, abseiling, rock climbing and cave exploration, and many argue it offers a more authentic and cultural experience to give visitors a sense of the real Arabia.

"It has 6,000 years of heritage, culture and history, and a real depth to it that Dubai doesn't," says Cryer. "There are more than 300 forts and castles, 24 of which are open to the public and we're looking into getting licences to make these available for the C&I market.

"The people are an absolute asset to the country. There is an 'Omanisation rule', whereby businesses are required to ensure that 60 per cent of their workforce are Omani, so you really have that inter-cultural experience that it's difficult to get elsewhere in the region."

The Omani approach appears to be paying off. In C&IT's 2008 Agency Survey, Oman was ranked joint third with India, ahead of Dubai, in the top ten emerging destinations that agencies were considering pitching this year. Rolls Royce, Glaxosmithkline, Sanofi Aventis, BAE Systems and Ford are among the corporates to have held international events in the country in the past 18 months.

UK agency Competitive Edge is taking a group of 100 top performing retailers and distributors for kitchen and bathroom distributor PJH on a four-night luxury trip to Oman in October. "We chose the destination because it is still relatively new and will really match our brief of 'delivering the dream'," says former Competitive Edge director Mark James.

Visitor upsurge

There are no specific stats for the C&I market in Oman, but since the opening of the UK office in 2003, the number of British visitors increased by 35 per cent from 60,000 to 93,000 in 2004, and a further 20 per cent to more than 115,000 in 2005, making the UK the number one international market. In winter 2006/2007, Muscat's hotels reached 99 per cent occupancy in the peak season from mid-December to mid-April for the first time.

The main hotels in and around Muscat are all reporting an increase in enquiries for C&I groups, particularly from the UK. "Interest levels are really high right now and we're getting a lot of enquiries about what facilities we have to offer," says Asif Raza, associate director of sales at the Grand Hyatt Muscat. "We had 88 per cent occupancy last night, which is incredible for June. Three to four years ago, getting 40 per cent occupancy out of season was considered good."

However, one of the downsides of occupancy being so high is that the hotels are starting to turn business away. "There are not enough rooms in the city to meet demand," says Raza. "We have bookings in the system as far ahead as the end of 2009, and groups really have to book in advance if they want to come to Oman."

Cryer agrees that capacity is an issue at the moment, but maintains that it will only be a problem in the short-term. The 200-room Al Bustan Palace Intercontinental is reopening in November after several years as it completes its multi-million pound refurbishment, which should ease the capacity issue. The 230-room Sheraton Muscat, the capital's tallest building, is also due to reopen this year after being closed for a revamp.

Longer term, there are several developments due to come on-stream from 2010, including The Wave, a beachfront resort which will include properties by Fairmont and Kempinski and an 18-hole golf course designed by Greg Norman, and the Blue City, north of Muscat, due to open in 2012, which will include four major luxury hotels, yet to be announced. Al Nadha Resort and Spa, a five-star wellness retreat by Al Bahja Group is also being developed to the north of Muscat, while the Salam Resort & Spa - Yiti, is currently under construction, and will include a five-star property. On the incentive and activity side, there is an increasing number of DMCs and tour operators specialising in groups and corporate travel. For example, NTT Oman provides a range of half-, full-day and overnight tours, including a tour of Muscat's top sights, taking in the Grand Mosque, museums and the Muttrah Souk. Last year saw the opening of a new company, Hud Hud Travels, which specialises in corporate team-building and leadership events that make the most of the great outdoors. It provides luxury camping experiences in the desert and mountains for corporate clients, which have already included HSBC and BAE Systems.

"The carefully designed tasks and problems, delivered in a fabulous and stimulating environment related directly back to the bank, with results that were quickly evident and continue to be so," says HSBC Oman's chief executive, Ewan Stirling.

Cryer believes being able to offer C&I groups luxury camping experiences will help boost tourism outside the capital. "It allows us to really showcase the desert and the mountains around the country," she says.

FIVE TOP-END MUSCAT HOTELS

- Al Bustan Palace Intercontinental

This impressive property is in the final throes of a complete revamp and now taking bookings from November after being closed for several years. The beachfront hotel is set within 200 acres of lush landscaped gardens, and offers 200 rooms and 50 suites, 16 banqueting and reception spaces for up to 800, four new lagoon pools in addition to the main pool, and a wide range of restaurants including the Al Marjan signature French restaurant. It is also creating a new Palatial Spa due to open at the end of 2009. ichotelsgroup.com

- The Chedi

This boutique luxury property offers something completely different to the grand decor and style on show at many of the main hotels in Muscat. Its lobby and rooms are elegant, chic and contemporary. There are 60 Serai rooms, 52 deluxe rooms, eight deluxe club rooms and 26 Chedi Club Suites, mostly surrounded by a water garden with palm trees and water features. The Restaurant features four open display kitchens serving Middle Eastern, European, Indian and Asian Cuisine, while the new Beach Restaurant specialises in seafood. www.chedimuscat.com

- Grand Hyatt Muscat

The Grand Hyatt Muscat, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, has a grand lobby complete with stained-glass windows, silk-canopied seating areas, Italian marble floors and a revolving life-sized statue of an Arabian falconer on horseback. It has 280 rooms, including 54 suites, and more than 1,000m2 of banquet and conference space that can host 800 delegates theatre-style or 500 for dinner. Its restaurant, Tuscany, has been voted the best Italian eaterie in Oman for several years running. Muscat.grand.hyatt.com

- Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa

This three-hotel resort significantly boosted Oman's room capacity when it opened in February 2006. It comprises the exclusive Al Husn with 180 suites, Al Bandar, with 198 rooms and extensive meeting facilities, and the family-oriented Al Waha with 262 rooms. All 640 rooms and suites overlook the Gulf of Oman. The hotel also features a luxury CHI spa, an open-air ampitheatre that seats 1,000, and six main restaurants. www.shangri-la.com

- Intercontinental Muscat

Located on the beachfront in the government and diplomatic quarter, only 15 minutes from the airport, the Intercontinental offers 258 rooms, including two club floors, with a private check-in service in the Club Lounge. The Jabrin Ballroom holds between 120 and 800 delegates, while a range of smaller meeting rooms are also on offer. Restaurants and bars include the Al Ghazal Pub, a typical British pub with live music and snacks, and Trader Vic's serving up Hawaiian, Tahitian and Polynesian fare. www.ichotelsgroup.com

DIRECTORY OMAN
Oman Tourist Office, UK & Ireland
Contact: Alison Cryer, 020 8877 0554
Email: oman@representationplus.co.uk
Web: www.omantourism.gov.om

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