WRITER: Danae Mercer
To lower its reliance on oil, Oman is betting on tourism. Billions are being invested into a burgeoning hospitality industry that’s actively shunning glitter and artifice for a more solid foundation of world-class service in spectacular settings.
If you take a two-hour drive from the glitz and glamour of Dubai, moving first through Sharjah, then Fujairah, then cross a border into Oman, the road will turn from tarmac to rocks and dirt. The scenery will shift, with looming metallic buildings sinking into the sand and untouched mountains rising up. If still you continue, on through the northern Musandam Peninsula, where a fishing village waits and goats sometimes roam the beach, you’ll find the Six Senses Zighy Bay.
The Sultan Camel Race Cup is an annual festival in Oman that celebrates a traditional Arab sport.
There, as it has since 2008, the property waits like an oasis. Eighty-two luxury villas equipped with dusty bicycles outside and all the high-end comforts you can dream of hidden inside. A private butler can escort you on, if you wish to venture over to the spa or gym. As the sun sets, you can sit in a restaurant 293 metres above sea level with endless views, nibbling on sweet dates. And if you stare long enough, you might see a guest paraglide in – one of the resort’s several creative arrival options. The property is paradise as Oman does it best: natural, decadent, secluded and real.
Six Senses Zighy Bay has long been a favourite of luxury travellers in the know. The resort, along with several others – namely the minimalist Chedi in Muscat, the rustic Alila Jabal Akhdar high up in the Hajar Mountains, and the Ritz-Carlton’s Al Bustan Palace in Muscat – have been luring refined guests for years. Yet this ‘old guard’ of Omani luxury may soon face increased competition. As it pushes towards the future, the country is changing.
The gorgeous blue dome and a blue minaret of Muscat’s Mosque of the Great Prophet, which dates back to the 15th century.
“The ministry of tourism is investing up to 35 billion USD over the next 25 years into our 2040 tourism strategy,” says Salim Al Mamari, Director General of Tourism Promotion for the Ministry of Tourism in Oman. “We hope to increase the number of hotel rooms by 40 per cent by adding 10,000 rooms by 2018.” The rooms will range from six-star luxury to three-star ‘budget’ hotels. “We are also converting a number of self-contained apartments and farm houses to accommodate tourists, giving them the experience of actually living the Omani way.” This explains the slew of hotels set to open in the coming few years, including the Saraya Bandar Jissah, W Muscat, Kempinski The Wave, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, and Anantara Al Baleed.
It’s not only hotel rooms the government’s investing in. In 2015, the new Salalah International Airport opened with the specified goal of helping to boost tourism. Upcoming projects include a 1,200 square metre space for the National Museum in Muscat (“to help showcase some of the oldest and richest Omani heritage,” said Al Mamari) and a push towards business tourism. By 2017, the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre is set to open, sized to host everything from global congress events to regional meetings. It will be joined by 1,000 new hotel rooms in its vicinity, as well as a shopping mall and business park.
The award-winning Six Senses Zighy Bay beach resort isn’t just remote, it’s like nowhere you’ve seen before: surrounded by craggy mountains and facing the endless blue waters of Musandam’s fjords.
Why all the focus on growing tourism? To understand this, one should look at the region’s economic environment, says Dr. Calvin H. Allen Jr., the Dean Emeritus of the College of Arts and Sciences with Shenandoah University and a published specialist on Oman. “The country’s economy remains dependent on oil and gas, and has witnessed the boom/bust cycle associated with petroleum-based economies.” Recently, the price of oil dropped from around 105 USD per barrel to around 30 USD at the end of 2015. It continued to fluctuate in 2016, creating pressure on the government to make a change, Allen adds. Factor in tensions surrounding the Arab Spring and difficulties with under-employment, and overall economic diversification has become a pressing goal.
“Strategies for the next 15 years are focusing on tourism and establishing the country as a logistics centre,” Allen said. “The Ministry of Heritage and Culture has restored dozens of forts and built several nice museums, plus there are a couple of very good private museums in the capital area.” Cruise traffic is increasingly being drawn to Muscat and, to a lesser extent, Salalah.
The Retreat is one of Zighy Bay’s most exclusive villas.
Al Mamari sees a positive future ahead. “The economic climate in Oman is recovering,” he notes. “The growth and development of the tourism industry is a vital part of the country’s long-term economic strategy. With our new tourism vision for 2040, we expect a target of five million visitors, with the tourism sector contributing to six per cent of the country’s GDP.” Already, Salalah has experienced a boom. This year, during its annual rainy season, when the surrounding area becomes a lush green landscape, roughly 580,000 mostly GCC tourists visited – a 22.6 per cent increase on 2015’s figures. Meanwhile the ministry of tourism hired a British PR firm to raise Oman’s profile among wealthy European travellers.
Simon Cameron, founder and managing director of Lightfoot Travel, a luxury travel company that has witnessed increased demand for Oman trips, isn’t surprised. “Oman isn’t your typical holiday destination. It feels a bit more off-the-beaten track in terms of mass tourism. So many of our family clients have done the Sri Lankan villas, Phuket beach resorts and European ski chalets. They are looking for something new.” Road tripping through Oman, driving down along the coast from Six Senses Zighy Bay to Muscat and beyond, that’s a new experience.
Nestled in the Al Hajar mountain range, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Muscat is the Alila Jabal Akhdar. Remarkably, it’s the first property for this brand outside its home base in tropical Southeast Asia but considering it’s also the first luxury resort to be developed on the ‘Grand Canyon of Oman’, you can understand their logic. There are 86 rooms in all, made from local stone to echo traditional Omani architecture and blend seamlessly with the surroundings.The area is increasingly a tourist draw and a new Anantara will join the Alila later this year.
“You can explore the sand dunes on the back of a camel or riding a quad bike. In the Jabal Akhdar mountains, there are fantastic trekking opportunities with amazing views. Or you can experience culture in the city with beautiful mosques and bustling markets, then head along the coast to stunning beaches for dolphin watching and turtle hatching,” he adds.
With such natural beauty, the strong push from the Oman tourism board and the whole host of properties set to open over the next year, it’s easy to see how travellers will increasingly flock to this rustic retreat. For Oman and its visitors, the future is brimming with possibilities.
When October 2016
Where The Ruwi business district in Muscat
Why The 14-storey Sheraton Tower has dominated the skyline in Ruwi’s business district ever since it opened in 1985. Yet, it has remained closed for the best part of a decade now. But, following a major refurbishment, it is set to open its doors to guests once again. The hotel, which is gearing itself more towards business travel and events, now features 230 rooms, including 27 suites, two restaurants, an indoor pool and an outdoor one, a new spa, nine meeting rooms, a club lounge, two boardrooms and a 1,200-square-metre ballroom that can accommodate 1,000 people.
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort
When October 2016
Where Jabal Akhdar
Why Set in the rocky contours of the Saiq Plateau on Oman’s ‘Green Mountain’, this property is nestled in the curving rim of a great canyon – making it the highest five-star resort in the Middle East. Expect 115 luxury guest rooms, six restaurants and lounges, private infinity pools and more.
Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara
When October 2016
Where The southern province of Dhofar
Why This luxury hotel is only a few minutes drive from Salalah’s airport, yet it’s situated between a scenic beach and freshwater lagoon. Picture lush tropical gardens and towering palms surrounding 136 guest rooms and villas.
Kempinski Hotel Muscat
Why Set along a six-kilometre stretch of Muscat’s coastline, this luxury hotel will be part of The Wave, a mixed-use community. The Wave will also be home to Almouj Marina, Oman’s largest private yachting club, a golf course and numerous shops.
Saraya Bandar Jissah
Why This isn’t just one five-star hotel, it’s two positioned alongside three residential areas. The whole beach-facing property will span 2.2 million square metres and features, among other things, a protected historic fort.